Everything was Moving: Photography from The 60s and 70s
September 13th - January 13, 2013
by Giovanni Aloi
From September through January, curator Kate Bush, (not to be confused with singer Kate Bush) has put together a very interesting photographic exhibition. Making the most of the sprawling gallery spaces provided by Barbican’s Art Gallery in London, the curatorial choice outlines a varied panorama of relevant photographic work produced in the 60s and 70s. Interestingly, the exhibition excludes Europe to favour the rest of the world, from China to the US, Russia to South Africa. The 60s and 70s are equally captured in colour and black and white from a perspective described by the curator as ‘personal landscape’. What this concept exactly entails is not entirely clear but one of the most interesting aspects of the exhibition lies in the intimate connection between some photographers and the places they photograph. Some, like David Goldblatt, William Eggleston, Boris Mikhailov, Shomei Tomatsu, just to name a few, are seen here capturing their own country of origin from within. This is partly what the concept ‘personal landscape’ outlined by Bush may be about. In opposition to the colonialist approach to discovery, wonder, marvel and possession of the nineteenth century, we are presented with local views by locals whom register social changes as well as interpreting cultural shifts through living them first hand.
The exhibition is rich. As usual with Barbican, one expects quantity as well as quality. However, over the years, this condition has been known to occasionally backfire. Split over two seemingly independent levels, the exhibiting space, at times becomes more of a challenge to the curatorial process than an asset. The temptation to display too much, just because the space enables so, can indeed dilute the focus of the exhibition. In this case, the pitfall has presented itself in the form of an unbalanced display presenting far fewer artists on the lower level providing far too many black and white images whilst upstairs, far too many artists have been relegated to smaller rooms. Where one would have loved to see more of the radically different approaches by Mikhailov, Polke and Tomatsu we are instead overwhelmed by seemingly repetitive and bleak black and white imagery. As the catalogue explains, the focus on the local and the political has been pivotal to the selection process involved in the curating. Post-colonialism and the Cold War are outlined as driving forces behind the shaping of events which have characterised these decades. It may therefore not be much of a surprise that in this exhibition, the 60s and 70s appear as somewhat diminished.
Everything Was Moving, this the title of the exhibition, promises a dynamic exuberance we are never, or very rarely conceded. One is indeed under suspicion that the social unrest, most of it defined by race and civil rights issues, are far overrepresented at the cost of completely ignoring much else like flower power, the emergence of queer culture, and the increasing relevance of the rock/psychedelia scene as an identity formation opportunity for a new (lost) youth just to name a few. Bush’s 60s and 70s seem a little too dark, too “text book” and yet conspicuously blighted by omissions. This is however not to take away from the overall value of the exhibition, which is truly enjoyable and features a number of great known and lesser known images. Most of the problem, I guess, lies in the openness of the title itself: Everything Was Moving. The lack of framing suggests a comprehensive overview whilst what we are offered is much narrower, specific and intense. Perhaps the ‘personal landscape’ idea should have been surfaced in the title to anchor the show more effectively.
Due to the overabundance of images by Goldblatt and those by Ernest Cole, Eggleston’s starkly coloured small dye-transfer prints, which paved the way for Wolfgang Tillmans and the “dead pan” photography of more contemporary times, shine brighter than ever. Upstairs the rhythm is steadier with a rather disturbing series by Sigmar Polke of a bear being baited by two dogs from 1974. The images achieve a heightened sense of unease through a botched printing process which enabled dark marks to randomly form over the photographic surface. By diluting the sharpness of details and infringing the unity of the photographic plane, these marks divert the viewer from a documentaristic reading of the work into its intended symbolic domain. Although terrible in its essence for it involves the brutal set up fighting of bears and dogs, the event is also symbolic of Afghanistan’s own recent history. Since the retreat of the British from India in 1947, Afghanistan has been contended by the US and Russia unwillingly providing the foundation of what escalated into the apex of the Cold War, culminating in the late 70s and 80s. The bear is Russia’s symbol, leaving us to liken the relentless attacks of the two dogs to those inferred by the US. More topical than ever before, this series counterbalances the negative press Afghanistan regularly receives by contextualising its history as the result of violent power interests of the polarizing political super-forces of the past millennium.
Of great relevance is also the selection of Mikhailov’s series titled Yesterday’s Sandwich, which proposes a less abrasive and more lyrical aspect of the artist’s work. The title hints at the photographic technique employed by the artist which involved the ‘sandwiching’ of two negatives in the creation of one final image. Mikhailov initially adopted this technique in order to evade the fierce censorship of photography which took place during the Soviet domination of the Ukraine. When nude photographs of his wife he had taken were found in his flat by the KGB, he lost his job as a mechanical engineer. Hiding in the ambiguities provided by the overlapping colours and forms of two unrelated images, Mikhailov developed a personal language of double exposures exploding the time/space dimensions of each photograph into an imaginary, surrealist evanescent realm of imaginative potential.
More rooms like these would have made the exhibition far more interesting. One unsung accomplishment of this exhibition however lies in the careful but seductive questioning of the boundaries between the documentaristic and the artistic which it orchestrates with flare. Perhaps this would have been a more suitable focus for an exhibition with a less high-brow ambition and political-enquiry approach which nonetheless makes curatorial practices seem so cutting edge and appealing to today’s young audiences.
Giovanni Aloi is an art historian in modern and contemporary art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sotheby’s Institute of Art New York and London, and Tate Galleries. He has curated art projects involving photography and the moving image is a BBC radio contributor, and his work has been translated into many languages. Aloi is Editor in Chief of Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture www.antennae.org.uk.view all articles from this author