The Visibility Paradigm reviewed - June 2018

The Visibility Paradigm

Group show curated by Allan McDonald with William Bardebes, Emma Smith, Caryline Boreham, Sheryl Campbell, Solomon Mortimer, Yvonne Shaw, Hayley Theyers, Chris Young, Carly van Winkel

Gallery One, Unitec, Carrington Rd, Auckland

25 May – 13 June 2018

Part of the Auckland Festival of Photography’s Control exhibition series

Reviewed by Mary Macpherson

The unbalanced power relationship between photographer and the subject is a bothersome notion that’s been around a while in the art and academic worlds. Allan McDonald has picked up this theme in The Visibility Paradigm group show at Gallery One, Unitec. He cites Michel Foucault’s stark pronouncement, “Visibility is a trap” and Constance Fox Talbot’s description of her husband’s cameras as “mousetraps.” But rather than beating us over the head with ethics, McDonald has put together an engaging group show of photographers and video-artists, all in some way associated with Unitec, who have differing strategies for looking at the ideas of power and control.

In the excerpt from her 2010 State Space series Caryline Boreham uses power of the image to take the viewer into the austere world of official institutions. Her blank pastel-coloured spaces, devoid of human presence, suggest environments with no easy exits, where the security camera is ever vigilant. Photographed to emphasise corners and enclosing walls, these expressive images of prisons and the courts successfully evoke the powerlessness of individuals in official spaces.

Descending Hands 1 - 10 , Solomon Mortimer

Descending Hands 1 - 10, Solomon Mortimer

In the Descending Hands 1 – 10 series made in 2015, Solomon Mortimer uses his power as photographer to portray the trappings of power, except as the curator tells us, he did ask first. Mortimer approached men in Auckland’s CDB whose dress signified power and control and asked to photograph their hands. His choice of black and white prints was a good one. The deep blacks and visceral details of briefcases, rings, tailored jackets and substantial watches reminded me of the mana of old movies – ones featuring hard boiled businessmen, detectives and dames.  And Mortimer has created a typology from the upper rungs of society, a layer that’s not so often portrayed in photo-art.

Most of the works in the show leave the viewer as a spectator, working at decoding intention and meaning, but from comfortably outside the frame. In the video work Breathe Dolly Breathe, 2017 Sheryl Campbell says “The power of the screen makes the viewer a passive participant”.[1]   

Breathe Dolly Breathe , Sheryl Campbell

Breathe Dolly Breathe, Sheryl Campbell

The work references the misogynistic Roast Busters scandal and reports of similar activities by Wellington high school students. Using male actors strutting in underpants behind a screen, one with camera in hand and their collective attention focused on a passive life-size sex doll, Campbell highlights the unconscious female victim, and through that, the appeal of pornography for immature males.  In the darkened room with ‘blue’ images, a throbbing soundtrack and a woman’s mouth open as if for oral sex I felt decidedly uneasy about watching, as if I’d consented to the spectacle. In this way Campbell takes power from the viewer who might otherwise feel they were having a pleasant intellectual afternoon looking at art. Through our discomfort she successfully raises an important issue about the false power of pornography and its harmful consequences.

The second video work Autodemogogia, 2018 by William Bardebes and Emma Smith, is an impressionistic piece where missile shaped objects glide around forbidding industrial-type spaces. The steely surfaces, scale of the objects and sleek production values give the work an implacable feel, like a heightened version of the rooms photographed by Caryline Boreham.

In her series The Residual, 2017, Yvonne Shaw highlights how we make ourselves visible through subterranean interactions. In this series of staged photographs, the unconscious tensions caused by proximity to others or by being photographed, are captured by the camera. [2] The work has simultaneously an over-determined and ambiguous feel alluding to the tense half-glances that passersby give each other, checking out the other creature in the shared space.  In one photograph a young woman walks towards a young man who looks towards her with an expression that’s hard to fathom, while in another a woman has her eyes focused on the man.  The work reminded me of the value we place on reading the expression in another person’s eyes.  The most engaging piece was one where the unmediated photographic value of light played a part, illuminating the camel-coloured coat of a dark haired woman as she seemed about to brush past another woman  – there’s something to be said for uncontrolled poetry in making things visible.

Untitled , Chris Young

Untitled, Chris Young

In Untitled (a work in progress), 2018 Chris Young is after a place where photographs of landscapes intersect with the human mind. [3] For this he needs words, telling us that his photographs of South African landscapes are sites where significant childhood memories were made for himself and his half-sister. He hopes to create a new shared experience and break down pre-existing structures of control. Armed with information the viewer can speculate about the narrative that might sit behind photographs of a mound of cactus and a roadside model pineapple, as if we’ve caught a quick glimpse of the family album.  In one sumptuous large scale view of the Zuurveld (a stretch of semi desert in South Africa) Young writes directly on the print about the history of relationships between the local tribes, burgher families and British settlers in the area. It’s a strategy that feels integrated and satisfying; finally letting us in on what might underpin the image.

The works of Carly van Winkel (I don’t squeeze toothpaste from the bottom of the tube – 2016 -17) and Hayley Theyers (Incoming, 2017) both use hard-hitting text as a centerpiece for groupings of images. Van Winkel gives us the heightened emotions of a shooter, in hand-written poem form, who seems to be swinging between confusion at being wounded and some sort of remorse. Film noir-type photographs are grouped around the text leaving the viewer to make connections between the emotions of the words and the images. As with Hayley Theyers’ series about a death following a customs inspection, the images seemed slightly stranded by the specifics of the text, almost functioning as illustrations rather than expanding the intention of the work. 

Overall, this was a show made interesting by the variety of approaches and some quality work. But perhaps the final word should go to the security camera high in the corner of the gallery connected to green wiring. Was someone watching the watchers?

Below gallery left to right: Caryline Boreham, Prisoner Processing Cell, Yvonne Shaw, from The Residual, William Bardebes and Emma Smith Autodemogogia,  Caryl van Winkel I don't squeeze toothpaste from the bottom of the tube, Hayley Theyers Incoming, Unitech security camera (photo: Peter Black).

1.       “The power of the screen makes the viewer a passive participant. In the darkened room spectators experience a gamut of felt and suppressed emotions. The self is challenged. The viewer is not left off the hook.” Sheryl Campbell, artist’s statement.

2.       “A type of transference can take place in the staging of the photograph. Unconscious tensions that are evoked by proximity with others, and by the presence of the camera, can be communicated through gesture and expression. An attentive photographer can try to catch this moment and preserve it within a still image.” Yvonne Shaw, artist’s statement on website.

3.       “The notion of landscape ‘denotes the external world mediated through subjective human experience in a way that neither region nor area immediately suggest. Landscape is not merely the world we see, it is a construction, a composition of that world. Landscape is a way of seeing the world.’ (Cosgrove 1984, 13) Chris Young artist’s statement.

Mary Macpherson is a Wellington photographer and writer. She is also the Reviews Editor of the PhotoForum website.