Given my recent preoccupation with work that transforms the space its shown in, making us focus on the gallery in a new way, it’s really about time I wrote about Observation Point, Zoe Leonard’s exhibition at Camden Arts Centre. Doubtless I would have written about this sooner, but I kept forgetting to go and see it; I love Camden Arts Centre and it’s really easy to get to for me but somehow those two facts seem to conspire to make me miss show after show there. Thankfully, this is one I didn’t miss.
Pretty much the only thing I knew about the exhibition before hand was that Leonard had turned one of the gallery spaces into a camera obscura. I was slightly worried that making my visit during a late night opening might prove to be a mistake but though the space – and the projected image of the road outside – was dim, it was nonetheless fascinating. Despite the work taking its title from the road the gallery is on, the lens points not at Arkwright Road but at the relentlessly busy Finchley Road to the side of the building. The traffic is constant but the skyline is also arresting with a large crane stretching from the wall onto the floor and across the space.
Nancy Burson, Warhead I (55% Reagan, 45% Brezhnev, less than 1% each of Thatcher, Mitterand, and Deng), 1982
The idea of the digital composite that Idris Khan uses to such great effect isn’t a new one by any means. Possibly somewhat surprisingly it goes back several decades, with Nancy Burson – who had been involved with Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT) since leaving college in the late 1960s – making composite portraits digitally in the early 1980s. Composite photographic portraits of course have a much longer history – Francis Galton’s composites of criminal types were made in the late nineteenth century for instance – but the use of digital is something Burson pioneered.
It’s not all about the technology though. Indeed, it’s as art that Burson’s work interests me more. In building her composites, Burson is effectively making layered photomontages and accordingly her work can be seen as the combining of two (or more) elements to reveal a third meaning. In Warhead I, Burson has combined the imagges of world leaders accoring to the percentage of the world’s nuclear arsenal they had at their disposal. This being 1982 that effectively mean merging the faces of Leeonid Brezhnev and Ronald Reagan. Though in a way this makes me think about the significance of nuclear weapons during the Cold War it’s also interesting that it seems to come from a simpler time. How many faces would be in the mix now? And would anyone be able to accurately pinpoint the percentages?
My knowledge of the favelas of Brazil is somewhat limited. I imagine them as shanty towns similar to those in other parts of the world with buildings made from whatever is available and built in a ramshackle way. From Dioinisio Gonzáles’s digitally manipulated photographs that looks to be a good guess. Sort of.