architecture, critical writing, urban, Wellington

critical writing about photography

December 17, 2015

I have been digging around  the web looking for more contemporary Wellington-based photographers,   other than those I mentioned in an earlier post here and here  on this blog.  In doing so I came across  the work of Mark MarriottHans Weston, Tracey Kearns  —art photographers who have both an online presence and who exhibit regularly. Wellington has a number of  good active photographers and  small artist-run spaces.  The scene appears lively and the work interesting and diverse.

A good example  is Mary Macpherson’s Old New World, a  book of her photographs made over seven years  about change in New Zealand society as seen in the small regional/rural towns throughout the country.   The narrative is one of a shift from a traditional New Zealand, to places of prosperity and development that look very different to the 1960s and 70s. Presumably, the background reference  is to the way that the neo-liberal mode of capitalism has systematically  shaped New Zealand’s economy and society,  so deeply affected aspects of everyday life as the process of  commodification permeates all segments of society including art.  A book is an appropriate form of expression  for this kind of  photographic work about our historical experiences about what is passing away.

In  reworking  of the photographic approaches of  Walker Evans, Steven Shore and Joel  Steinfield Old New World  is against forgetting the past by proposing to remember the poetry of  place in the landscapes and urbanscapes  of the backroads of New Zealand. In doing so the text puts the  past and recent works of New Zealand art photography into a different light,  and opens them to different  meanings inside and outside the art institution.

 Macpherson, who is a poet as well as  a photographer,    says that this body of work is part of trying to understand her world and where she fits in it–ie., a trying to make sense of the changes.  In that sense photography, as meaningful, sensuous, particular works of art  is a form of thinking and self-discovery. What this suggests is that though artworks are indeed objects, the truth-content of art is of the world while also offering critical reflections upon it. This is a stance that is quite different from the contemporary adherents of the Romantic notion that art must establish itself as the antithesis of reason.
tree, Wellington CBD

tree, Wellington CBD

Whilst  reflecting on  Macpherson’s  Old New World  work  I  became curious about the breadth and depth  of the critical writing about photography and the visual arts in Wellington. I wondered if the situation in Wellington was the same as Adelaide. Both are provincial cities with the  mainstream newspapers getting smaller,  the resources devoted to journalism and editorship dropping, and the space for the visual art continuing to shrink.   So where to for critical writing on photography?

Mark Amery, speaking in relation to Wellington,  says that the closure of his fortnightly visual arts column with the Dominion Post newspaper in 2014  leaves Wellington without any visual arts commentary. The story is a familiar one: the mainstream media are increasingly treating the visual arts as irrelevant. The consequence is that Wellington’s visual artists are  left with the  critical writing about their work having a marginal existence in niche online publications, just like Adelaide with the  Adelaide Review.  Emery, who runs  public art programme Letting Space, mentions  the Pantograph PunchThe Lumière Reader,  Eyecontact and The Big Idea  in relation to New Zealand. 

At the moment  we have more curators in Adelaide than  art critics who value the work of artist outside the art market enough to write critically about it. We do have  in this city, that celebrates thinking and talking, a framework for selecting and drawing together strong strands from this wealth to provide a crucible of vital ideas and stories the form of an Artists’ Week and a Biennial of Australian Art in the  Adelaide Festival. In this respect Adelaide is better off than Wellington.  Then it all kinda dies until the next festival  opens people up to new ideas across the various art forms. That implies a lack  of  depth of photographic scholarship in Adelaide.

Te Papa, Wellington

Te Papa, Wellington

Even though some of the  photographic work being produced in Adelaide s good,  the critical writing on this photography is so limited that I have started to do some myself.  Without the critical writing the exhibited photography is consumed rather than interpreted and contextualised in terms of historical and  conceptual concerns. The need for critical writing is that art works, as sensuous artefacts,  speak concretely, addressing themselves to the senses, and its meanings are borne by sensuous particulars.

The truth-content is inseparable from the sensuous particularity of the works, and this  helps to reveal/express  what is incomplete in any form of knowledge that limits itself to concepts alone  (eg., the abstract economic language of  prosperity and development).These conventional concepts suppress those things that are particular and embodied about our engagement with the world. The sensuousness of art strives to assert what rationalized concepts have let slip away from the world.

Whilst  art makes claims as a form of knowing, it presents us with insights that are not reducible to their conceptual equivalents. These insights need to be interpreted by critical writing that is external to art. In this sense art needs critical writing that needs art. Art and critical writing about art are different, but their permanent  relationship is one that is in constant tension.

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1 Comment

  • Reply Old New World and an old problem | Mary Macpherson December 19, 2015 at 12:15 pm

    […] to see this writing about Old New World from South Australian photographer Gary Sauer-Thompson on his Thought Factory […]

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