Monday, 19 November 2012

Futureland Now – Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne

Futureland was a 1987 exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne to mark 150 years since the beginning of photography. It featured the photographic work of two visual artists, John Kippen and Chris Wainwright. If the blurb is to be believed it was apparently quite influential – sufficiently so that the gallery felt it was worth a re-run, as Futureland Now. There’s a very good review in the Newcastle Journal which features quite an in-depth interview with the two artists. To accompany the exhibition there was a Symposium to investigate “how recent photographers negotiate the aesthetics and politics of place”. The symposium included a structured conversation between the two artists, and presentations from a half-dozen academics and practising landscapers including Liz Wells and Jem Southam. It was this that had persuaded me, and fellow student Michael to give up our Friday evening and Saturday for our studies.

First up – on Friday evening – was the conversation between the two artists, catalysed/chaired by David Chandler (who like Liz Wells is a Prof at the University of Plymouth). The conversation was quite wide ranging and provided a fascinating insight into the way photography was developing as an art form in the 80’s. There was much talk about the way photo galleries provided a working space between commercial photography and art galleries, and some gnashing of teeth that that ground had been lost as a result of funding cuts – leaving photography largely to art galleries who were equally stretched.

It was clear that both artists saw there work as a response to the political realities of the time, and what they saw as the unravelling of social structures, and this, as it runed out, set the tone for some of the discussions the following day. In particular one of the key themes was the idea that Landscape could be as much a political comment as Social Documentary photography, particularly if you took on board the idea of being able to re-photograph the archive to highlight environmental and social change.

Saturday morning began with a historical overview from Eugenie Shinkle of Westminster University. She set out the development of the predominant aesthetic of the time ‘New Topographics’ and then came to the rather unexpected (for me) conclusion that this exhibition did not fit into that context. Her argument for this was that the UK relationship with landscape was very different from that of the US, where New Topographics had developed, and as a consequence these two artists had developed a very different response to the same questions: What should a documentary photograph do? What stance should the photographer take? and What should the output look like?.

Mike Crang – a geography related Prof from the University of Durham – followed this with a discussion that was billed as a look at the cultural geographies of the NE region, but was actually an attempt to show that such distinctions were becoming hard to make as a result of a growing internationalism and connectedness. He sought to provide some answers to the questions “Where is here?” and “When is now?” His highlighting of the internationalism of trade used two examples- shipbuilding/breaking and clothes recycling.

Noting the irony that the NE now broke ships rather than built them he highlighted the environmental and social impact of ship breaking in Bangladesh, referring to some of Burtynsky’s photographic work in this area. He also highlighted how most clothes recycled in the UK found their way to the far east for re-weaving.

Finally he made the point that because of this degree of entanglement any suggestion of an internal NE identity was a falsehood – he picked out Beamish as an example of this type of faux nostalgia and punctured the popular myth that Newcastle was about ship-building and coal mining. The reality is/was that Newcastle has always been a consumption centre and the largest employment sector in the city has always been mercantile and retail.

This was followed by Liz Wells (another Plymouth Prof) who compared and contrasted Burtinsky’s Oil with Sekula’s Fish Story. She made the case that Burtinsky’s use of the sublime and pictorial approach overwhelmed the message of the images – it was art for the gallery wall, rather than as a social critique. “Stunning and predictable” was one critical quote she used to describe it.

By contrast she found the work of Sekula more interesting and valuable for it’s complexity. The work was not easy – and that was the point, because it dealt with difficult issues. This really was photography as a social practise.

The morning session concluded with a tour of the exhibition and plenty of opportunities to talk to the various speakers and the artists themselves. I have to confess to be ready for the break – my head was full of new and interesting ideas to take on board. As an aside I was also glad of a break from the occasionally trite and always irritating political throw-aways – the digs at supermarkets and energy producers and the ill disguised hatred of corporate culture. I began to wonder at one stage if someone was about to suggest that the role of photographers was to paint “Four legs good, two legs bad” on the wall of the corporate barn.

After lunch Martin Newth from Chelsea College of the Arts took us on a stroll through a range of aesthetic strategies, illustrated by his own work and the work of a number of other artists including Sarah Dobai, Jem Finer and others. The formal proceedings concluded with a talk by Jem Southam (another Plymouth Prof!) who talked about the background to some of his photographic series.  He felt his practise  was essentially about walking through the landscape in a historic sense, capturing the changes that have been wrought by man and nature. He thought this mode of working was the British equivalent of the American road trip.

The day concluded with a discussion which opened with the question – does taking a photo change anything? I’m not sure we got an answer beyond the faintly optimistic “We hope so – or what’s the point?”

Overall this was an excellent day and a bit. I have a raft of new leads to chase down, a couple of new ideas for projects and a growing conviction that there is vastly more to Landscape photography than is hinted at by the course notes. My challenge now is to go and put some of it into action.

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