London Art Fair
Photo50 / ‘Who’s looking at the family, now?’ curated by Tim Clark
16.01.19 – 20.01.19
Business Design Centre / London / England
Photo50 / ‘Who’s looking at the family, now?’ / Reviewed by Daniel Pateman / 20.01.19
Who’s been looking at the family? Back in 1994 it was British curator Val Williams, whose exhibition at the Barbican brought together photographic heavyweights Martin Parr, Bruce Gilden, Tina Barney and Sally Mann, as well as relative newcomers like Richard Billingham. According to writer Tim Hilton, Williams delivered a bleak vision of human relations whose overall impression was that “the family bond represents tyranny, loneliness, mayhem and despair”. It’s hard to disagree with this, given it included crime scene photos of an abusive father killed by his own daughters.
Now twenty-five years later, curator Tim Clark is looking at the family for Photo50, but through a less nihilistic lens. Gathering fourteen artists from across the UK, Europe, Africa and Mexico, the exhibition presents a variety of work on the concept of family and its constructed nature. Intimate and emotive documentation, such as Poulomi Basu’s ISIS Mothers (2016),contrasts with playful conceptual approaches like Trish Morrissey’s Front(2005-2007), with the exhibition emphasising the reappropriation of photographic archives. Rather than a sociological investigation into the concept of family, we are presented with works that challenge photography’s inherited fictions: deconstructing the concept of family or re-writing these narratives to engender new ones.
A number of the photographers here reflect a statement made by Williams that family photographs are “a talisman against the real”: bastions of comfort and stability protecting against life’s uncertainties. Johnny Briggs’ practice explores his “relationship with deception” by disrupting photography’s delineation of categorical boundaries such as self and other. His uncanny works are staged in a disordered fashion at the exhibition’s terminus, where household items extend from black and white portraits and photos fuse with cutlery. The photographic illusion of individual separation from history and the family unit, especially in portraiture, is contested by works that forge connections between images. Attachment (2018) consists of photos of Briggs’ grandmother and father as children, conjoined by a piece of chewing gum, while another shows his mother’s fingers clawing through a photo of her husband as a young man, as if to grasp his past. The significations of family photographs are seen as malleable; not fixed but always available to be repurposed. Lebohang Kganye picks up this theme too in her visually striking film Ke sale teng (2017), where cut-outs from family photos become part of an animated tableau; the silhouettes of relatives existing within scenes reminiscent of a pop-up book.
In conveying the constructed, performative nature of the family photograph, Morrissey’s Front is particularly successful. One of the highlights of the exhibition, the photographer appears in pictures taken on beaches across the UK and in Melbourne, Australia, as a part of random family milieus; borrowing their clothes and assuming the role of relative. These irreverent images suggest our place in an all-encompassing human family, but they are also subtly disconcerting, with Morrissey’s recurring appearance among a diverse range of groups rupturing the integrity of the family photo. Although retaining their naturalism, with Morrissey (almost) unobtrusively integrated, her insertion in other people’s photographs introduces a chaotic element within ostensibly unified tableaux: reminding us of the degree to which ‘Family’ is performed and of the unfamiliar that lurks beneath its surface.
As well as these critical approaches, the exhibition includes its share of conventional documentary projects exploring the family environment. The theme of mental health is addressed in both Léonie Hampton’s In The Shadow of Things (2011), which documents the toll of her mother’s Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and Louis Quail’s Big Brother. The latter is testament to the photographer’s bond with his brother, Justin, who suffers from schizophrenia. Challenging stigma, he chronicles Justin’s multifaceted interests to show the individual beyond the stereotype: depicting him bird watching, meditating in a disused garage, or relaxing with his girlfriend. A selection of Justin’s artworks are also included here adjacent to Louis’ work – reflecting his fertile creativity – but for some reason are crudely squashed on top of one another.
Meanwhile, Basu’s ISIS Mothers is a pained exploration of kinship. Travelling to Vilvoorde in Belgium where around two hundred young men have left to join ISIS, she documents the grief of their mothers, and their vilification as “parents of terrorists”. The photographs presented here tell the story of Saliha, whose son Sabri died in Syria in 2013. They depict items representative of his loss, conveying a world of absence and mourning: pictures of Sabri, empty living rooms, and his thawb, a full-length Arabic garment. Particularly affecting is an intimate portrait of Saliha, whose grief is clearly visible in her dark, sunken eyes and downcast expression. While a sole focus on portraits of these women might have provided greater impact, this is undoubtedly a poignant project. A framed photo memorialising a young Sabri as he smiles and waves suggests the pain caused when those we thought closest to us become strangers.
Given the absence of contextual information in the form of wall text, the impact of the exhibition’s intriguing and multiple themes is often muted. As Erik Kessels stresses – whose film My Sister forms part of the exhibition – “the story behind a series is now as vital as the work itself. Personal narratives about images create depth and meaning, elevating a photograph, making it truly human.” The decision not to include complimentary wall text, especially given the presentation here of often truncated bodies of work, means that important information isn’t conveyed that would heighten the works’ comprehension. A handful of series like Front and ISIS Mothersexpress their effects concisely, without the need for excess narrative. But the diversity of materials and the investigative thrust of Alba Zari’s The Y, for example, require narration to elucidate their relevance.
Who’s Looking at the Family, Now? is an interesting concept offering a rich range of work. It can however be somewhat cluttered. David Moore’s scale models from his Lisa and John project (2017-2018) merge with Briggs’ dispersion of multi-media works, while the exhibition’s bounty of topical material – mental health, the photographic archive, the veracity of the image, photography as speculative tool – doesn’t seem sufficiently tethered to a particular vision, yielding only brief insight into contemporary family life. It does boldly open up a discursive space regarding the creative use of photographic archives, resulting in the most thought-provoking work, while intimate documentary projects like Matt Finn’s Mother keep the exhibition from critical deep-freeze. In the end, Clark ensures the concept of family remains a subject of intrigue. You’ll leave wondering, “Who’ll be looking at the family in twenty-five years’ time?”