Whitehot Magazine

November 2009, Parrworld: The Collection of Martin Parr

MARTIN PARR OBJECTS Image copyrighted Chris Boot Ltd  

Parrworld: The Collection of Martin Parr

Jeu de Paume
Place de la Concorde, Paris
30 June 2009 through 27 September, 2009

BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art
Gateshead Quays, South Shore Road
Gateshead NE8 3BA
16 October through 17 January, 2010

When first confronted with the work of British photographer, Martin Parr, there are generally two responses that people take. Either a twisted expression of disgust, in the face of the often grotesque garish imaginary and colors, or laughter. Parr has a knack for finding moments that are both honest and absurd. Armed with a ring-flash, he takes images that appear to be hyper-real as they are recorded in sharp focus and saturated color. Parr’s photographs are his unique vision of the world. Parrworld: The Collection of Martin Parr, which just completed it’s run at Jeu de Paume and is now showing at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, is not about Parr’s work itself, but rather all the ephemera that informs it.

The first thing the viewer is presented with is a small selection of Parr’s collection of objects, which continues throughout the exhibition. Parr finds interest in objects that represent the “now” of the time they were made in. They are relics of the collective psyche of western society. The first objects that the viewer is made witness to are ephemera of the Obama election—“Yes, We Can!” briefs baring Obama’s image, along with sandals, cookies, and “the audacity of soap.” This choice to ground the viewer in contemporary history identifies Parr’s collection of objects as those capable of facilitating time travel.  

Following this brief introduction to Parr’s collection is an entire wall, floor to ceiling, occupied by postcards. The artist’s collection ranges from those made in the 19th century up to the present day. These cards were a quick and cheap way to distribute the photographic medium. This collection speaks to Parr’s interest in the photographic medium and the development of kitsch. These postcards had already been put out into the world by Parr in the form of a book titled Boring Postcards, which was printed in 2004 in two incarnations: one containing British postcards and the other American. When printed, Parr presented this book as a way of mourning the world as it once was, and as an exploration of architecture, social life, and identity in each of these countries. These works also are quite similar to Parr’s own photographs of the town of Boring, Oregon where he documented the most mundane of scenes, each with the town’s name visible within the frame of the picture. The similarities between the artist’s own work and his collection ground the exhibition. This relationship is especially clear in the photographs he has collected over time.

Parr seems to borrow from the artists he has collected and admired. William Eggleston’s interest in the mundane, Graham Smith’s eye for characters, and Mark Neville’s highly saturated images that are simultaneous comedic and tragic scenes all bare similarities to Parr’s photographic sensibilities. Alec Soth’s Davinport Iowa is amazingly similar to Parr’s installation of a living room titled Home Sweet Home—both are commentaries on personal taste and the role of the home. Another work that is especially reminiscent of a photograph of Parr’s is Chris Killip’s True Love, Gateshead Town Center, which depicts the back of a man standing on a sidewalk staring at a wall while as pieces of trash and newspaper fly by. Both subject matter and composition evoke Parr’s photographs of trash strewn vacation spots—tales of garbage and romance.  

Following Parr’s collected photographic works, we are once again subject to his myriad objects. Walking up the stairs to the second floor of galleries the visitor is confronted with what seems to be an endless amount of kitchen trays emblazoned with images of off-colored fruit and cheese, coca cola advertisements, the Beatles, the Queen, and just about every image of kitsch and domesticity one can imagine. Following this dizzying array of visual information is a large room of glass vitrines containing the bulk of Parr’s collection. Each object is displayed in a manner much akin to relics—they are sacred objects of the consumer age. Spice Girls chocolate and cookies, Saddam Hussein watches, Osama Bin Laden toilet paper, and Margaret Thatcher bobble heads all occupy important roles as novelty objects commemorating events past. They are vestiges of fallen heroes and forgotten villains—all are representatives of a day and age that no longer exist and tap into a sense of nostalgia.  

MARTIN PARR OBJECTS Image copyrighted Chris Boot Ltd 

After these objects, Parrworld gives way to the photographer’s own work with his Luxury series created between 1994 and 2008. These images were taken at various locations around the world such as Dubai, Moscow, Paris, and Beijing. Each image, taken at an event associated with the rich such as horse races, fashion shows, and art fairs, seem to speak to the seven deadly sins more than wealth itself. Figures are inebriated, bloated, greasy, sunburned, and surgically altered. They are exemplar of Parr’s ability to present humor and horror in the same image. Perhaps the most poetic thing about the exhibition is Jeu de Paume’s location at the Tuileries Gardens, the location of Paris fashion week and the subject of some of the photographs within this series. Suddenly the audience becomes part of the subject matter, enjoying a touch of upscale culture, staring at art perhaps not completely understood as seen in Abstract Painting with Abstract Shirt taken by Parr in 2007. Perhaps these works may be seen as cautionary tales—don’t fall too deep into a romance with luxury lest you become a caricature of yourself.

The exhibition continues on to display 9/11 ephemera, The Guardian Cities Project, and the Small World series. The Guardian Cities Project is a touching photographic study of ten cities in the UK: Belfast, Brighton, Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle. These images explore the individuals of each city and what makes them unique. The resulting newspaper supplement, which contained both the images and an introduction by Parr, was distributed for free in the featured city and surrounding area.  

Small Worlds explores tourism—another series that references itself by being displayed in Paris, one of the most touristic cities in the world. Many images focus on the documentation of destinations by travelers. Parr takes on the role of nature photographer, documenting human migration patterns.

Parr’s collection might be seen as his grandest oeuvre. The artist collects moments through capturing them with his camera much as he creates altars to them through the objects he selects. It is all about preserving an instant that will be forgotten.

MARTIN PARR OBJECTS Image copyrighted Chris Boot Ltd  

MARTIN PARR OBJECTS Image copyrighted Chris Boot Ltd  


MARTIN PARR OBJECTS Image copyrighted Chris Boot Ltd; Martin Parr, 
 Moscow Fashion Week, 2004. Martin Parr


Martin Parr Dubai The Cartier International Dubai Polo Challenge, 2007. Martin Parr


Martin Parr Abstract painting with abstract shirt, United Arab Emirates. Dubai. DIFC (Dubai International Financial Centre) Gulf Art Fair, 2007. Martin Parr



Justine Ludwig

Justine Ludwig is a Swiss American adventurer and a curator at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, OH

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