Deutsche Börse prize, Ambika P3Blanche magazine
While the Photographer's Gallery in Soho is being completely re-jigged, the 15th annual Deutsche Börseprize found itself in a temporary home in Ambika P3, a cavernous underground space which once housed concrete testing machinery for the University of Westminster. Today it's an art venue which can host vast sculptural constructions which only Tate's Turbine Hall could offer a home to. I expected that with this much space available the show might be more experimental with display, it may show more of the works of each shortlisted artist, it may become a massive 'event' show which helps make photography further embed itself into art. But, disappointingly, the work is installed so as to ignore the space on offer, nervously fitted into corners and not really daring to show itself off or fill the void.
The annual award is made up of a shortlist of four living artists of any nationality who have made the biggest contribution to photography over the previous year. All competitions provoke arguments amongst critics and audience, but the annual row over what constitutes important photographic art following the Deutsche Börse opening is now as predictable as us Brits getting hopelessly over excited at the first glimpse of Spring sun. People complain that this is not a fair representation of photography as its shortlists repeatedly only offer up conceptual artists and artists who use photography as only one of their tools, but as good quality cameras become more and more affordable and everyone calls themselves a 'photographer' it seems natural that the medium should not be happy with purely offering up a 'perfect image' as the best it has to offer.
Photography was once seen as a pursuit outside of art, exhibitions were always advertised as “art and photography” as though anything from a camera could not fall into the 'art' category by default. But, slowly, it's becoming to be accepted by the public and institutions (Tate only recently appointed it's first full time photography curator) as a method of making work which can slip in and out of the modern art world seamlessly. Photographer's work can be shown alongside sculpture, painting and installation and artists who used the other mediums are now picking up cameras to take shots. In theory and within the photographic world the very essence of what a photograph is has always been under scrutiny and tested, it's only when this testing occasionally comes out into the public so visibly as this show do those people who bought an expensive digital camera and now call themselves a photographer get angry that what is being shown isn't what they thought photography was.
Jim Goldberg's eclectic mix of images and film and is the only one of the four shortlisted artists to have an overtly political agenda. His ongoing project Open See consists of countless images comprising test shots, Polaroids, newspaper print and c-types. The unifying quality is the overlaid information scratched, marked and written onto the surface of the image. It's as if he states photography cannot alone convey the horror of the displaced communities, broken lives and tortured souls within the work and so the writing and marks, sometimes by him and sometimes by the protagonist, is where the 'truth' of the work is. It is this personal etching and immediate physical intervention into the image, breaking the flatness, which takes his documenting beyond voyeurism and into a more reaction inducing place. On a pallet is a huge pile of double sided posters with some of the portraits and writings on for visitors to take away, he is trying to make sure the issues imbued in the works are not left at the gallery door when we leave the work and return to our comfortable western lives.
The works of Roe Ethridge and Elad Lassry is unfortunately pushed up against one another in a separate space. There are similarities between the themes and gestures in the pair's work and it would have helped both if the viewer had more space to breath between them. Ethridge deliberately mingles fine art and commercial work leaving one to query what any boundaries between the two are. The image Old Fruit references classical still life, but the furry mould covering the strawberries prevents it being read as a classical image. Or is he turning something awful into a beautiful artwork? He plays with this sense of uncertain terrain and leaves more questions than answers.
Many of Elad Lassry's shots could also be advertising and commercial images. But as we walk around there seems little correlation or narrative building up. Is there even a link between them? The image of a man on a beach sits alongside some lipstick on plinths, nearby are some melons and then there's a zebra. The frames are each painted to match the dominant colour in the image, leaving a tight graphic set of images which seem to cover a vast range of contents. Tight in their frames and with a single object in the image, Lassry brings ideas of the remembered image of something versus the photographed representation. Sometimes the image is deadpan, sometimes more playful.
Thomas Demand's work concerns photographic truth and memory, his photos are typically of painstakingly made card models of seemingly deadpan locations. The viewer has to unpick the hidden meaning from the mundane view through clues in the title or interviews, and he is the only one of the four who attempts to use the vast space in an interesting way. His single image, Heldenorgel, a huge c-type, is fixed to a free-standing wall in the centre of the space. Free to walk around the back and see the supporting framework, the viewer is immediately reminded of the flatness of the photographic image and the mythical depth it projects. It's a shame he chose just to show a single image in the show, but the one he did fits perfectly with the method of displaying, showing the unseen apparatus of Kufstein's huge organ which throws it's sounds out over the town. It proudly shows a rendering of the mechanics hidden away behind the organ's face and sounds.
Ambika P3, London. Then after to Berlin then Eschborn.