Philip-Lorca diCorcia is one of those people whose work I may not always like – although I often – but will always make the time to go and see. If I’m honest though, the press release for East of Eden, which I saw at David Zwirner in Mayfair in the summer, didn’t really excite me. DiCorcia was quoted as saying that the series, started in 2008 as the sub-prime mortgage crisis caused the economy to fail, was “provoked by the collapse of everything, which seems to me a loss of innocence. People thought they could have anything. And then it just blew up in their faces. I’m using the Book of Genesis as a start.”
Thinking about presentation is all well and good, but what about the pictures? Dayanita Singh’s work always fascinates and the museums work for me as much for what is hidden as for what is shown with tantalising hints of pictures stashed behind pictures. Of all the museums, the pictures I was most familiar with before the Hayward show were the File Room series which I also saw in the German Pavilion in Venice. The pictures, as far as I’m aware made almost by accident with Singh drawn to photographing the files in the places she visited without initially realising it, show the file rooms of various institutions in India – courts, state archives, local government offices and the like – documenting the extraordinary paper-based bureaucracy that supports a nation with a population in excess of a billion. Over time, of course, digitisation will eliminate the vast accumulation of paper. But in the meanwhile, in archive after archive and office after office, the paper piles up.
Dayanita Singh, Museum Bhavan installed in Go Away Closer
As well as Sarah Lucas at the Whitechapel Gallery, my December exhibition catch-up included a visit to the Hayward Gallery* to see exhibitions by Ana Mendieta (of which more in a later post, I think) and Dayanita Singh. Clearly December was women’s art month in my schedule. As with Lucas at the Whitechapel, there was an overlap with things I’d seen in Venice in the Biennale.**
Dayanita Singh is best known for making books and the books are much in evidence in Go Away Closer, the Hayward Gallery show. As a way of getting art photography to a wide audience this is a strategy with much to recommend it – and it’s certainly one a lot of people are working with right now – but for me it’s no substitute for seeing a great print. And, in the case of Singh’s work, it’s another display strategy that interests me more: her portable museums, displayed here as a group as Museum Bhavan.
There’s a lot to enjoy in the summer exhibition at Tate St Ives, some of which I’ll quite likely write about later, but the work that really made me smile was one of Linder’s collages. I was already enjoying looking at this work and at the way the series of small collages shared a space with sculptures by Barbara Hepworth, but my enjoyment of Joining Valley wasn’t really about the work at all. It was one of those moments when something you haven’t thought about in years is suddenly brought back to mind by a chance encounter with an image on a gallery wall.
However one feels about Margaret Thatcher – and regular readers may by now suspect I’m not a fan – the ceremonial funeral seems like a contentious decision at the very least. Add to that the fact that it’s been discussed in the media as following the model of the funerals of Daina, Princess of Wales and the Queen Mother and it becomes easy to see Thatcher as receiving the royal status she seemed to award her self when she announced “we have become a grandmother.” Which, to my mind at least, makes this a good day to write about Maggie Regina, Peter Kennard’s 1983 depiction of Margaret Thatcher as Queen Victoria.
Times change, that’s a given. There are several 1980s’ photo-books that make that very clear. Most, like Paul Graham’s Beyond Caring, offer a reminder of the nature of the public spaces we inhabited; pictures of home life tell a different, albeit related, story. Nick Waplington’s Living Room, published in 1991, depicts family life on the Nottingham council estate that was also home to his grandparents. Waplington documented the daily lives of two families over a period of several years; the pictures in Living Room are from the late 1980s, roughly a decade in to Margaret Thatcher’s time in office. This is family life in a country where industry has collapsed and society declared non-existent by the Prime Minister.
Martin Parr, Election party aboard the SS Great Britain from The Cost of Living, 1986-9
The Britain of the 1980s wasn’t all about strikes and unemployment of course. There was another side to the story: just as there were the have-nots, so there were the haves. For some, Thatcher’s Britain was a comfortable place. The rich were, after all, getting richer. And with that, for those who belonged, came the social whirl of an entitled class at play. In fairness, it doesn’t look like much fun.
In The Cost of Living, Martin Parr captured the comfortable lives of the well-heeled revealing the degree to which one section of the population was cushioned from the day to day reality of life for the rest and the often grotesque of culture of wealth and upward mobility.
It was hardly the best of times. Thatcher’s Britain, the Britain of the 1980s, was a place where high unemployment met a government that, at best, didn’t care and the result was a sorry existence for the many for whom work was no more than a distant dream. But of course, this is Britain. We have the welfare state to care for us from cradle to grave, or so we thought.
Paul Graham’s Beyond Caring, a series of photographs made in dole office waiting areas in 1984-85 – coincidentally, the time of the miners’ strike – makes for depressing viewing. There is a hopelessness that permeates every aspect of every picture: the spaces are grimly dehumanising; the posture of those who occupy them speaks volumes. There is a sense of resignation, of stalled lives.
As the media marks the death of Margaret Thatcher with blanket television coverage looking back at her time in office some familiar images are brought back to mind. But sometimes it’s hard to disentangle the memories: which of the images am I really recalling from the 1980s? In the case of the images of the 1983/4 miners’ strike, the boundaries between news footage and re-enactment are very blurry in my head. I remember the strike very well; I remember the marches and the benefit gigs, I remember throwing money into collection buckets every day on my way to and from work, probably with a ‘coal not dole’ badge on my coat, and I remember the news reports. At least, I think I do. But there’s a distinct possibility that some of that memory is somewhat second hand. The images of Orgreave that are so clear in my mind come not just from the news reports of the time, shocking though they were, but also from Jeremy Deller’s 2001 re-enactment of the event, filmed by Mike Figgis.
Bob Light and John Houston, Gone With The Wind, 1982
Artists and designers reuse existing images all the time; think collage, think appropriation. And there’s a long tradition of photomontage as a way to make a political point with a powerful visual simplicity that I fully expect to write about further in a later post. IN reworking of the poster for Gone With The Wind for the Socialist Worker, Bob Light and John Houston brought together an iconic film poster (Reagan, after all, had a former career in Hollywood, albeit as very much a B movie actor; he was certainly no Clark Gable) with the politics of the 1980s with both humour and a serious intent.