I suppose it is inevitable in a show with multiple artists, but Tate Modern’s Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera had plenty of artworks it seemed to easy just to idle past, without them making much of an impression. But, equally, there were enough photographs of stunning quality, chiming with the theme of the exhibition, to ensure this was a memorable visit.
Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s chiaroscuro Heads were arresting images, not least because of their manner of capture. While artists through time have worked in the studio trying to create images that resemble real life, diCorcia has done the opposite, using hidden cameras and lighting to take secretive photographs on streets and pavements, then polishing the final versions until they look like studio portraits. But the images’ real strength is in the ambiguous emotional territory they open up, rendering the American adolescent as strong, yet confused and possibly dangerous.
It is also worth noting the influence of Hopper on DiCorcia, and indeed on a significant number of photographers, often American, in the exhibition. The long raking, wintry sunlight, picking out isolated individuals, lost in their own confused world, features in the work of more than one artist. One of the images in the exhibition created by the Swiss artist Jules Spinatsch, of Yassar Arafat’s chaffeur waiting in a car, is a tremendous example.
The exhibition ringfenced the photographs along related conceptual lines. For me the rooms on ‘Violence’ and ‘Survelliance’ were the most effective.
The section on violence was particularly good, where the moral position of the photographer, as someone witnessing the event but refusing to engage in altering it is magnified. You sense it was this effect that the curators were wanting to flow through the exhibition as a whole.
Letizia Battaglia’s Dead Man Lying on a Garage Ramp was particularly striking. Despite the bloody drama of the scene, there is a formal rigour to the design, the slope, tall walls and the position of the body having a precise geometry. All this serves to give the eye a clear sense of direction.
But it is the photograph’s narrative intrigue that raises more questions (although given that the photograph was taken in Sicilian Mafia heartlands, perhaps these are rhetorical questions). Who has been killed? Who are the murderers? Why is there fresh blood under the man’s head, and yet a stream of dried blood from much further up the incline? What is restricting the figures at the top from walking down the slope? How did the photographer gain access when others appear unable to? Who is the almost invisible figure on the right, shiny shoes upsetting the symmetry of the images?
The quality of the body itself has a grim fascination. The bullet mark appears to be a single shot in the back, yet the blood seems to flow and congeal from the head (and why does it not run down the slope like the other trace of blood?) The recently dead victim is already reduced to solely a corpse, as if the murderers had succeeded in erasing not just the man’s life, but his identity. One might also say that the photographer colludes in this, avoiding recording his face or any distinctive features. His body displays the none of the subjective emotion of death; the legs are lifeless, and arms tucked underneath the body. His posture, which becomes more unrealistic the more you look at it, seems like a dark reflection of an earlier Italian work of art.
The surveillance section continued the juxtaposition of aesthetic appeal with testing subject matter – an approach that, when successful, fuels much good photography. So we see Jonathan Olley’s documents of the grim monolithic fortresses developed by the police and military in Northern Ireland, and Sophie Ristelheuber’s record of the dark but sometimes beautiful scars left on the Kuwaiti landscape after the first gulf war. The pockmarked soil and bright flares of burning oil stand as a realist’s riposte to the ubiquitous environmental pictures by the French photographer, Yann Arthus-Bertrand.
One of the last images in the surveillance section is particularly effective. Shai Kramer’s wide panorama begins as an Arab town in barren scrubland. A colourless, concrete town of compact, featureless apartments blocks, punctuated only by green neon lights on the (somewhat phallic?) mosques.
But closer inspections reveals something different. The buildings are just concrete shells, with no window panes, no decoration, no furniture, indeed no trace of people actually living there. There are no shops, houses, offices, hotels, restaurants. There are no cars parked against walls, no dogs curled up in doorways, no stalls of fruit, trees, no flowers, very few signs, and only the occasional Arab word pasted on a wall.
The only figures seen are troops, sometimes as units milling around, sometimes as individuals.
Obviously, the city is meant as a training ground for military. The title, Urban Warfare Training Centre, Panorama, Tze’elim 2007, tells of its Israeli heritage. Visual context provides some more information – an ugly corrugated fence surrounds the town, in the distance, an airbase.
Given this background, it is easy to see why the city has been built like this, with an emphasis on how a soldier might negotiate stairways, doorways, broken walls (are the holes in the walls six-sided stars?) , dark alleyways, sudden open spaces. Why should a military training ground include details like shops, colour, decoration, citizens? But it’s hard not to see this realist photograph as a larger allegory of how Israel sees Palestine (or perhaps how any military considers its rival) – simply a territory with a faceless population, who do not engage in the everyday activities of sleeping, eating and living and where the only defining architectural feature is the mosque. Within Tze’elim, the whole of Arab culture is signified by the mosque, as if religion were the single point of indentity and difference, to the exclusion of any thing else.
And was it my imagination or had the tiny figures of the troops, massing in nonsensical groups, been airbrushed? Reduced to figures in dark, heavy military gear? Were there identities being protected? Or were indeed they being homogenised just as the ‘Arab town’ around them had been reduced to a cipher of an enemy’s territory? As with all the interesting works of art in Exposed, Shai Kramer’s image raised more questions than it asked.