I finally got to attend my first OCA study visit when I joined a group of students on 24 May 2014 in a visit to the 2013 Prix Pictet exhibition held at the Victoria and Albert museum in London. The study visit was hosted by tutor Clive White who was happy as always to impart his knowledge, observations, wit and humour.
The stated aim of the Prix Pictet is ‘to harness the power of photography – all genres of photography – to draw global attention to the issues of sustainability, especially those that concern the environment’ . The exhibition is now in its fifth year and this year’s theme is Consumption. Text at the entrance reminded us that we are all consumers and are guilty at times of sustaining our appetites for consumer goods through the exploitation of the world’s poorest people an around us.
Eleven artists had been shortlisted for the Prix Pictet prize and their works were displayed in one of the exhibition halls (which to be honest I felt was a little small and cramped). Many of them were names that I had come across so it was a treat to be able to see their work first-hand rather than in books or on the internet.
The prize winner was Michael Schmidt with a work entitled Lebensmittel, an interesting display of sixty individual images that represented the food chain from beginning to end. Of all the artists, Schmidt’s work seemed to most reflect the exhibition theme and his images were cleverly laid out in a random order which made you look at them closely to establish where in fact their place was in the food chain. Interestingly, Schmidt mixed both black and white and colour images which is something I understood to be frowned upon but in this instance I think the combination worked well. This was a piece of work where the whole was definitely greater than the sum of its parts; I’m not sure that any of the images would particularly work as a singleton but displayed together the result was impressive.
It was therefore quite a shock to read a few days later that Schmidt had passed away on the very day that we were viewing his work. .
Adam Bartos – Yard Sale
Bartos showed a series of close-up images of items that were being sold at yard sales in America. The tightly composed and very clean images were documentary in nature and focussed on the items themselves; there were no people or other signs of yard-sale life to be seen. I found this idea, the passing on and reusing of unwanted items, an interesting yet relevant take on the exhibition’s theme.
Motoyuki Daifu – Project Family
Daifu’s artist statement read ‘My mother sleeps every day. My dad does chores. My brothers fight. There are trash bags all over the place. Half-eaten dinners, cat poop, mountains of clothes: this is my loveable daily life, and a loveable Japan’. . Daifu photographed the consumables in his home for this series. His images were very cluttered and chaotic and also over-exposed. Was the latter deliberate or did he not care? I am assuming the former as the over-exposed areas could have been addressed in post-processing. Not really my sort of images to be honest, but I can see the point that Daifu was making in showing a large number of consumer possessions in a small space.
Rineke Dijkstra – Almerisa
Over a period of fifteen years or so, Djikstra photographed an immigrant girl from Bosnia, starting when Almerisa first arrived in Holland at the age of five as a refugee, along with her family. Djikstra subsequently took a series of studio portraits of Almerisa, each of them with her sitting in a chair, as she adjusted to her new life in Holland and eventually became a Dutch citizen and also a mother. A simple series of images I felt that Djikstra’s images were well composed and thoughtful although I couldn’t see a link to the topic of consumption.
Hong Hao – My Things
Hao’s exhibit consisted of three very large acrylic prints of collage – scanned and collated images of items that Hao used or consumed in everyday life; a visual diary that he had been working on for twelve years. The thing that I immediately noticed was how clear the images were. The three prints were very different from each other, which added interest to the series but also made me ask the question why (and I’m not sure that I came up with a reasonable answer to this). ‘Book keeping of 2007’ was a very ordered and well-arranged image whilst ‘My Things No 1’ was in the main chaotic, albeit containing areas of organisation. I never did work out why there was a hand in this image … The overall impression of the third print was of a mass of beige shapes, which turned out to be the bottoms of electrical goods and bowls. An interesting exhibit that I spent quite a long time just looking at and considering.
Mishka Henner – Beef & Oil
Henner’s images are aerial images of America’s beef production and oil fields. Like the work that I’ve seen of Edward Burtensky, David Maisel and Daniel Beltra, these were stunning images which start to become disturbing when you realise the photographs in fact show the damage that man is doing to the landscape in his thirst to provide consumables. My particular favourite is Coronado Feeders, Dalhart, Texas, which to me resembles a dissected heart from a distance and has a stunning abstract beauty. Unlike Burtensky, Maisel and Beltra’s images Henner’s exhibit was appropriated; his prints are made from high-resolution Google Earth satellite images. Whilst Henner is known for, and is honest about, his appropriation of images, I can’t help but wish that he would exhibit his own compositions for a change.
Juan Fernando Herrán – Escalas
In his artist’s statement posted on the Prix Pictet website, Herrán writes ‘What happens when there are groups of people that hardly participate in the consumer society? How do you live in the contemporary world when excluded from one of the concepts that underlie it?’ . Herrán chose to show how the city of Medellin in Colombia is expanding into the countryside, and where growing groups of people are falling into the space between urban and rural, through exhibiting a series of images of steps (‘escalas’). The theme running through the series of images is that the steps (or in one case a wooden plank acting as a bridge) lead nowhere, providing a very thought-provoking narrative. Along with Henner’s exhibit, Escalas was my favourite set of images, both aesthetically (simple and beautifully lit) and for their narrative.
Boris Mikailov – Tea, Coffee & Cappuccino
Mikailov exhibited a series of street-style snapshot-sized images taken over a period of ten years in his home town of Kharkow in order to document the changes in the town since the onset of Western capitalism. . The images were presented in pairs in order to show the changes brought about by rampant consumerism, but to be honest I wasn’t that keen on this work (in my view it seemed amateurish which didn’t appeal but I guess this was a deliberate tactic on the part of the photographer) and I found some of changes difficult to see.
Abraham Oghobase – Untitled 2012
Oghobase had chosen to enter a series of six images of street walls in Lagos, all covered in graffiti, handbills, signboards or posters. Shot in a rough and gritty style in black and white the images also show Oghobase interacting with the ‘advertising’ on the wall. Whilst I liked the rough urban style of the images I wasn’t quite sure how Oghobase’s presence added value to them and I was even more unsure of how this work linked to the exhibition theme of consumption.
Allan Sekula – Fish Story
Sekula’s series of images focused on distribution and documented the shipping of container boxes around the world from the last unionised shipyard in Los Angeles. As I work in shipping this set of images was right up my street and Sekula had captured some stunning photographs of large container ships as well as of the shipyard buildings and the people who worked there, some taken in a deadpan manner and others in a more metaphorical style.
Laurie Simmons – The Love Doll
Simmons’ work comprised a series of images of a life-sized ‘Love Doll’ from Japan, documenting her growing photographic relationship with the latex doll through a series of ‘actions’ . This was not my cup of tea at all to be honest and I found Simmons’ artist statement slightly disturbing: ‘The Love Doll is originally produced to be a mute surrogate body … I began to tease out a personality from this commodified subject and allowed her persona to emerge’. . Like some other works in this exhibition I didn’t really see how this series of images linked to the topic of consumption. Maybe as I progress in my studies all will become clear.
I found this an interesting exhibition. Some of the works I really liked and felt drawn to, some I didn’t like at all and there were a few where I couldn’t see how they fitted into the exhibition theme of consumption. It was very helpful having an OCA tutor present and I found it useful to have Clive’s insights both during the exhibition viewing and later over coffee with the student group in the V&A restaurant.
The main take-aways from this exhibition for me were the following:
- Discovering the work of Juan Fernando Herrán. I liked the simple style of his images and the way they were full of unanswered questions.
- Try taking a visually appealing subject and make it into something more compelling through the use of narrative and more context.
- The importance of narrative unless each individual image can support itself
- The realisation (which hit me when looking at Allan Sekula’s work) that metaphorical images really are more interesting and have more to say than deadpan ones.
I also enjoyed meeting up with fellow OCA students, some of whom I already knew as well as some new faces.
 Prix Pictet Secretariat. (2013) Consumption. London: Victoria and Albert Museum
 Hagen, S. (2014) Michael Schmidt obituary (online). The Guardian. Available from http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/may/28/michael-schmidt [accessed 29 May 2014]
 Herrán, J.F. Artists’s Statement [online]. Prix Pictet. Available from http://www.prixpictet.com/portfolios/consumption-shortlist/juan-fernando-herran/statement/ [accessed 23 May 2014]