Saturday’s visit to ACE in Nelson didn’t start well. Study visits have usually been organised via e-mail, detailing start times and what have you, this time though... Perhaps I just misunderstood - there was indeed an e-mail that said a talk started at 1pm, and had a hyperlink to a Pendle Art Gallery. I assumed that there would be a gathering beforehand to look around the work, then the talk would be given. My mistake, but to be fair this wasn’t necessary due to the size of the show and the way the talk was organised (previously, talks have been away from the art, not in front of it). It very nearly didn’t happen though, as I didn’t find ACE. The weblink was to a different location, not the ACE and I hadn’t realised this when I grabbed the postcode for my GPS. Still, I got there in the end and I’m glad I did as it was a really interesting talk and very relevant to where I see myself going in the coming years.
Jamie Simonds was first up with a series of photographs of American troops.
Apparently taken when he was en route to his honeymoon whilst delayed in Atlanta, these photographs show the soldiers waiting, delayed whilst heading off to serve another tour in either Iraq or Afghanistan. The soldiers looked just as bored as any other traveller stuck in an airport lounge, with very little sign of what they may be heading off towards showing on their faces. What was interesting here is the method of presentation, shown printed to what was probably 6x4, framed in cheap white IKEA frames such as might be found on any mantlepiece. Whilst this uniformity has sometimes been eschewed for an approach that might reflect actual prints on mantlepieces (potential memento mori?), i.e. a completely random one in terms of framing, here it served a few purposes. Firstly, it means that the images appear less kitsch, less gimmicky and would sit well together on a gallery wall (here they were actually displayed on boxes). Secondly, it matches the uniformity of the military dress - yes, I know that some of the soldiers are wearing a different pattern of DPM, but in general terms, I see a connection - uniformity and the military.
Olivia Robinson’s appearance in the exhibition comes by way of a book of photographs depicting levels of domesticity in a war zone. Olivia’s husband is a serving member of the armed forces, and went to the Middle East with a camera and a set of instructions of what to photograph. It could be argued therefore that Olivia is not the artist, that her husband should be credited (and I’m sure he will have been somewhere within the text of the book), however it was Olivia who directed the image making process (perhaps not quite like Gregory Crewdson, but still...), curated the images and, if I’ve understood correctly, responded to the images with some of her own. The result is something that feels extremely domestic and extremely personal whilst not really showing any people (one of the back of a man’s head is all I can recall). Due to the domesticity of the photographs, some are a little harder to place - are they home, or is war really like that now, behind the scenes at least? I didn’t spend enough time looking at the book, and the link I have for her website is dead, so this was quite a superficial reflection, which is a shame.
Another book was on show with Christopher Down’s Visions from Arcadia, a thought provoking collection of images that blended the rural idyll with men in combat gear. The landscape images are not “chocolate box” images of that idyll, but I suppose they might be termed as being quite contemporary; not “beautiful” by layman standards, but definitely pleasing in a certain way. I suppose some of the images are not so dissimilar to some of those I took for A Forest, slightly matter-of-fact and a record of what was there rather than anything overly saccharin and romanticised. Juxtaposing these with soldiers at rest gives them a very different feeling, rather than being a rural idyll, maybe there’s a calm before a storm. Soldiers in woodlands can bring many things to mind, but here they are at rest. Whilst this was presented as a book, it was a limited edition artists book; there is however a possibility that it will be published and if that is indeed the case, it will be one to look out for.
from Christopher Down’s website - ©Christopher Down
Richard Monje was next in the path through the exhibition, facing the work of Les Monaghan in a corridor. Monje’s photographs were of misshaped pieces of metal, what at first I had assumed was shrapnel but it transpired that they were all bullets, fired at something, hitting something that generally resulted in a level of deformation that is quite surprising. Seen as they are, without knowledge of what has happened to produce them, they are presented as quite beautiful objects, reminiscent in some respects of Weston’s Pepper. Why should they be shown in this way? Is it a glorification of their purpose? A romanticisation of their creation and the demise of their target? Or does the juxtaposition/conflict created between the beauty of presentation and the object itself raise rather more difficult questions for the viewer, with the moral objections they might have with admiring weapons of destruction? Personally, they also tempted me towards a forensic approach - one round was still formed, was it armour-piercing, or had it just not met with something hard? Questions...
Les’ work (From the Forest) focusses on the subject of pilot survival training, and in terms of content is perhaps closest to that of Christopher Down, in that they both feature servicemen in forest locations. Les’ work is much darker though, this darkness/bleakness perhaps intending to impart the images with a greater feeling of hardship, especially those on the website of the winter survival, thus echoing the experience of the pilots. It’s also much more within a documentary vein, he has not been allowed to even talk to the subjects, let alone direct or collude with them - doing so would be a fail in their survival training. I found a strange connection with these photographs, they connected in my mind with those I took of the forests for my own project. They’re familiar yet not. A forest is a forest you would think, but speaking as someone who has ventured into a few, there are huge differences. Would these differences mean anything to a pilot trying to survive after an aircraft has come down? Not in Europe, the courses are teaching them how to forage, how to adapt to the landscape. Maybe those operating in different climates have different training, maybe this training will become a thing of the past with the growing use of UAVs?
The final two images were large format black and white prints of fortifications by Matthew Andrew, reminiscent of the type of conflict photography images produced many years ago by Roger Fenton (those from the Crimean in the 1850s). Perhaps these images are the odd ones out though in that they are not of actual conflict or real soldiers, but have been informed by such so that they can be used for the leisure activities spawned by conflict - laser tag and military re-enaction/simulation for enthusiasts from within the general public. Being large format, they’re crammed with detail, but I can’t help but feel that they stood apart, a feeling enhanced by their location at the end of the exhibition.
On the whole, an enjoyable visit, enhanced greatly by having Les on hand to discuss the work, adding snippets of information about the exhibition as a whole.
Exhibiting artists websites, as provided (2 website URLs are unavailable to me, these have been omitted)