Thursday, 30 May 2013

Photographing Dwarfs

A client thought I would be perfect to photograph Tina, I can understand why and in some ways I was but I struggled to find a subtle way to approach the subject. She was badly scarred and blinded and although the circumstances that led to her deformation are informed by an accompanying text, the image alone offers no nuance. In fact, the injury if anything is a distraction from the delicate responses to the camera that can betray a subject’s humanity.

The brutality meted out on Tina’s face by her boyfriend invoked the memory of a beaten dog I saw in a tabloid newspaper the previous day. Tragically, her visual identity now is more of an expression of her attacker’s personality, rather than any expression of her own. The scarring is a distraction and constant reminder of a single terrible moment infecting her present; an identity of the violence.

Physical disabilities offer a similar complexity in visual representation. Cerebral Palsy is represented by distortions and involuntary movement that unfairly define a person. It offers a visual narrative disconnected from the recognized indicators of emotion that are more easily read in the ‘able bodied’. I have had issues with my portrait of Naked Man Turning with Walking Stick’ for this reason; all my other images are mostly a readable response to the camera so it took sometime to justify its inclusion with the other works.

At a school in the UK for severely disabled young people the students have minimal amount of movement, they require the highest levels of care and their life expectancy is short. Here is a work in series of them playing with me - 'Boys Playing Outside Sheltered Accommodation.' I felt a strong emotional connection with one of the boys and may have embarrassed him a little. Its very hard to see beyond the chair and the physical aberration to reach the person but that is the point.

In the genius book ‘On Photography’, Susan Sontag wrote In photographing dwarfs, you don't get majesty and beauty. You get dwarfs.” I understand the context but I think this is the only clumsy and stupid thing she ever said. We 'choose' to photograph the dwarf.

Boy with Hollyhocks #1, from series 'Boys Playing Outside Sheltered Accommodation' © Richard Ansett
Boy with Hollyhocks #2, from series 'Boys Playing Outside Sheltered Accommodation' © Richard Ansett

Monday, 20 May 2013

Wedding Bells

There are not many better examples of something that achieves so much by doing so little. Whilst validating or elevating works, the gallery space is equally a magnifier of fears and anxieties. It can be a vehicle for intimidation and a mirror for cynicism. It’s an existential playground. (I apologize for using the e word but it is).

If artists choose to enter into this silent contract, there must be a negotiation of the complex and unspoken rules. Some artists choose to engage whilst others opt for an entirely different form of space. Banksy’s work ends up in galleries but they are often strange bulldozed sections of the world, transported from life into a gallery by curators. With genius simplicity Tillmans came close to deconstructing the infection of middle class doctrines that dominate the gallery experience. Other famous examples that spring to my mind are Mark Wallinger’s ‘Sleeper’ and ‘State Britain’ and Martin Creed’s ‘Work no. 227’. An exhibition should not have to be perfectly formed and tied with a pretty bow; I am learning that it can be space purely for the development, experiment and discussion without a final defined resolution.

The only reasonable analogy I can think for the artist - gallery relationship, is the wedding. We can try to make it our own, everyone wants it to be a personal experience, some try to subvert it, to make it unique but in the end, it is a wedding, steeped in an inescapable tradition and an overwhelming weight of historical and cultural precedent. This must be accepted if there is any chance of having a lovely day.

The relationship of work, space and audience was at the forefront of our minds during the development of the show ‘Portraits’ at Tenderpixel. We took the model of the mundane gallery presentation; devoid of smoke and mirrors and (in the case of ‘Untitled, 2013’) then juxtaposed this against the works lacking in narrative explanation. The balance was predominantly gallery; small prints of absence in space. It appeared to be a show about something whilst stripping away the established mechanisms of seeing.

We are not selling a Twix here afterall or making sense of the world in a Salgado-esq photo essay. Content is irrelevant, one desire is to promote an undirected emotional reaction. It felt like a risk, a little dangerous even but not life threatening.

Brian Eno said, “Art is a plane crash you can walk away from.”

The only destructive reaction that attempts to defeat its purpose is cynicsm but even this is a reflection of a viewers state of mind and a mirror of their relationship to the space in that moment too. ‘Portraits’ is not a literal or ironic title of the show, it is an adjective for what the show attempts to achieve. It is a reflection of each unique response and reaction to the work. It is an analysis of the viewer as subject; a portrait of us as we engage.

Any concept of success attributed to this show can be measured for me by the broad variety of adjectives used to describe the experience. This lack of a commonality is a validation and an indication of how we have adjusted to the invisible mechanisms that aid and influence the way we interpret. This applies especially to photography as a powerful medium of the age; we should not assume the same rules of conventional media apply.

Richard Ansett 'PORTRAITS' - series 'Untitled, 2013' © Tina Hage/Tenderpixel

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Drunk Men

Drunk Men test, from series Bathers, UKR/IZOLYATSIA, 2011 © Richard Ansett

Drunk Men unused image, from series Bathers, UKR/IZOLYATSIA, 2011 © Richard Ansett

Drunk Men unused image, from series Bathers, UKR/IZOLYATSIA, 2011 © Richard Ansett

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Biting the Hand that Feeds

As children we are defined by the recognition by others, particularly the parent, arguably most importantly the mother figure. This is literally illustrated by our motivation to create art; our early scrawls are only rendered valuable by affirmation. "Look what I've done mummy!" - Grayson Perry (joke). 

As adults we have learned to be more independent but we are inescapably linked to these early memories, we continually seek out and relive the sensation of affirmation and rejection emotionally learned in childhood. Artists are most vulnerable to accusations of this need for affirmation whether we like to admit it or not; why else do we show?  .

In the creation of the series Mother & Child, I attempted to explore the world of the mother and baby and I ended up with the images of the mother detached from the child; present and absent within the domestic environment. This is a deeply personal exploration of my own relationship to my absent biological and social heritage but further it is a discussion of the notion of this subconscious mother figure that we are seeking to please. In this context I am unapologetically ambivalent when I say that this work exists both for me and for an audience. Having achieved an overwhelming sense of personal satisfaction in its creation, I admit to seeking to share this with others, like a form of empathy. It is a strange dichotomy. 

Work of value must be free of the ambition to 'please' certainly in the act of creation. Only through awareness of the subconscious and art historical influences around us can we attempt to detach this need for affirmation from the very fabric of the work itself. We are always working within certain boundaries of conventional understanding but if we seek the approval of an invisible audience too greedily, we are merely following rules that govern conventional aesthetics and mimicking by rote, that which has gone before.
If we accept that there are no natural rules and that they are merely imposed upon us, then equally it is possible to imagine that entire preconceived meanings can be shifted. I am reminded of a relatively contemporary example; blue for boys and pink for girls. It feels impossible to imagine pink being associated with anything else other than female gender identity now but early in the 20th century these colors were interpreted very differently.
"The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl." - Earnshaw's Infants' Department, USA, 1918.

In the creation of authentic works that are a response to our personal needs, we must accept that we may fail to connect with a greater audience, we can never assume a shared empathy, it's ok.

"An artist should always bite the hand that feeds him, but not too hard" - Nam June Paik.

Mother & Child #1, from series Mother & Child, UKR © Richard Ansett 2011

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Queer Bashing

I meet up occasionally with Spencer Rowell from Uncertain States for some very passionate discourse about lens based practice and where we feel we are in our development as people and artists. Rowell asked if I would be interested in contributing to the latest issue #14. Whilst a theme helps to give some direction, the title 'A Queer Gaze' is not actually published. I did not initially consider this title to be referring purely to sexuality and Rowell was careful to reassure me that this was not a 'gay' issue so I offered my new series 'Untitled' as a discussion of an alternative view on reality.

Just before press, the issue became more prominent in my mind and I began a more detailed dialogue with him about his motives for approaching me. The implication that the artists were chosen because of sexuality whether fully consciously or not was an issue. I feel that the political definitions of sexuality was a necessary evil in the fight for equality in the past but this now can feel clumsy and self defeating in a world where many of those battles have been fought. Even the great Peter Tatchell has successfully re-labelled himself a 'human rights campaigner.'

Multi-culturalism is a dirty word it seems and a noble concept has been corrupted and attacked by cynicism. The articulate voices in its defence are not making themselves heard but what multi-culturalism is not is a group of disparate 'communities' living in self imposed ghettoisation. This applies specifically to the groups defined as 'non hetero-normative.'

Whilst Rowell reassured me that Uncertain States #14 was not focussing entirely on sexuality; in Richard Sawdon Smith's essay 'Queering the New Normal' he mentions the editors' specifically approaching him to contribute to 'a showcase for gay lens based artists.'

My contribution to the debate about 'queer' is that I feel the definition of a non hetero-normative sexuality as queer is divisive, dated and unhelpful whether imposed or self-imposed and further that my work maybe interpreted purely within this context.

I am not denying that my work has been influenced by my journey to make some sense of my sexuality; this combined with my adoption and many other factors will inevitably be betrayed in my practice. Everything we do is a form of self portrait and in this issue the artists with one exception candidly explore their own complex circumstances that has led them to create. Richard Sawdon Smith's damaged narcissism and Charan Singh's elequent exploration of his overt self portraiture resonated with me as less easily defined human experiences. Sara Moralo is the only photographer conventionally exploring other people's lives in a nostalgic curated archive contexualising gender identity but it still feels personal  and I would like to understand some of her personal motives for approaching her subjects. James M Barrett's works are somewhat at odds with some of my dogmas but I cannot help but be seduced by the notion in his statement of a kind of beauty that "resonates with uncertainty, doubt and restlessness."

Free copies available from Tenderpixel.

Uncertain States #14. Cover image: © Francisco Gomez de Villaboa

Images #1 & #3 from series Untitled © Richard Ansett 2013