Twilight: Photography In The Magic Hour

A review of the exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, 10th Oct – 17th Dec 2006

Pulling together eight contemporary artists whose photography is made at dusk, this exhibition is likely to disappoint or confuse visitors who expect a ‘photographic exhibition’ in the traditional sense. As the blurb says, these works are by artists whose medium is photography and consequently the space in which the show is being held is, at any given moment, half-filled with giggling schoolboys and confused-looking tourists whose overheard take on the proceedings could best be paraphrased as ‘I could do that with an Instamatic.’

In other words, many of the photographs are grainy, blurry, and not at first sight, particularly attractive. And whilst it is a given that anyone who snickers at the Turner shortlist must have an etiolated aesthetic, the staging of the exhibition at times adds to the mild feeling of hysteria. The curators, extending the twilight theme to the entire hanging rather than merely the collection itself, have chosen a moody and very muted blue lighting scheme that ensures the near illegibility of the guide pamphlet which, being printed in pale silver on white, might as well be presented in invisible ink. The result is that the visitor must strain the eyes and crane the neck into any shaft of light if he or she wants to follow the rubric.

In the room devoted to the work of Boris Mikhailov, all the works are hung at a distance of around four feet from the floor. I counted five people during my visit who walked in, stooped in the half light to look at two or three works and then simply gave up and walked out. This is a great pity since the work is fascinating, presenting a reconstruction of the post war hardships of the Ukraine, a period which has left little real photographic record. Tinted blue and with an artful patina of dust and scratches, Mikhailov’s ‘At Dusk’ series was made at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union and offers, in fleeting glimpses, a sense of how the larger forces of history turns humans into incidentals, always being moved on or left behind. This work deserves a better presentation.

The Big Names in the show are Gregory Crewdson and Philip-Lorca DiCorcia. These are the sort of men who share representation with Emin and Whitread and whose limited edition prints crop up in major collections and sell for large sums. They share a devotion to the highest possible production values in their work, with huge prints in which not a speck of grain can be seen and where the exposure is masterful. The thing that separates their work is truth: Cewdson’s shots are intricately stage managed, still shots from a movie the plot of which they infer whereas DiCorcia’s series Hollywood – also known as The Hustlers – takes real male prostitutes and puts them in real locations which reveal something about not only their situation but also about the values of the society they serve. In one shot, a subject is seen through the window of a Diner and inside on the counter, at the same level as his groin, is a hamburger. Meat. In another, a subject is posed on the railings of a cheap motel in a semi-crucified pose. A third image shows a muscular and unshirted black man in a supermarket carpark with the word ‘Market’ visible on the shop sign behind him.

Possibly the most moving shot in the show is DiCorcia’s Marilyn; 28 years old; Las Vegas, Nevada; $30. The title refers to the subject’s name, age, place of birth and the payment he received for posing. Indeed the payment is central. The picture depicts a young hustler in a Marilyn Monroe wig and lipstick, pouting uncertainly from a doorway. Slumped in the de-focussed background is another man (customer, dealer, pimp?) and a background of traffic and lights. And in this beautifully lit Marilyn’s expression is contained a distillation of all that makes this series of photographs stand out: she is beautiful, she is doomed, and she knows both of these things. She is Marylin, and all that history has made of her. I stared at this picture for a very long time. It is rich, vibrant and sad.

The messages in Crewdson’s work are both more constructed and more allegorical. Stage sets from the 1950’s presented in massive, flawless C-type prints, they show a David Lynchean world in which something sinister lies behind the twin sets and pearls. In one shot, an immaculately coiffed mother stands by her car, groceries dropped to the ground, as her scratched and bruised daughter cowers half-naked in the headlights. Her younger sister (Now you just stay in the car, Dear) stares out from the passenger seat, knowing that she now knows things that she is not supposed to know and that what she sees makes her both excited and afraid. In the twilit background, appliances glow warmly through perfect suburban windows. The girl has been raped by suburbia, by America, by the manufacturers of appliances and the distributors of groceries.

Another, far simpler shot shows a misty small town main drag lined with anywhere stores. In the background a supernatural fog billows, fantastically lit. At the centre of the image, stopped at traffic lights, stands a car with a girl in the passenger seat. The driver’s door is open and he is gone, as is everyone else. That’s it. It’s up to you to imagine what has just happened and what might happen next, like a cliffhanger at the end of an episode of a sinister drama series. In effect, Crewdson’s work turns all American life, particularly that of the suburbs, into a place where unexplained events bubble under the surface and where strange things happen in the woods. Whether this is a facile conceit or a deeply allegorical revelation is even less clear.

Works by Bill Henson, Lang Yue, Chrystel Lebas, Robert Adams and Ori Gersht are also presented. Of these, one stands out as being truly exceptional: Henson’s Untitled (most of the works in the show are called this and I personally find it irritating) shows a beautiful woman, her moon-silver face streaked with one enormous tear and her lips just visibly crimson in the gloaming. Her head, neck and décolletage emerge from the blackness and nothing else is shown. It is a masterfully executed and understated work, an oil painting made with a camera, and another one to stare at for a long period of time.

The exhibition ends on the 17th December 2006. It has received high critical acclaim.

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~ by timashley on November 8, 2006.

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