It’s not the easiest of times to be a publicly funded gallery. If the Arts Council were ever considered a cash cow, its milk is well and truly skimmed now. Hungry eyes are therefore scrutinising the diminishing list of successful grant recipients. The Photographers’ Gallery, newly refurbished at a cost of £9 million, will receive nearly £1 million per year for the next three years from the public pot.
So as the lucky few drank Pol Roger in celebration of the sleek new galleries on Ramillies Street, the question formed…
is it worth it?
The curatorial choice of Edward Burtynsky as the inaugural exhibition is a cautious one. The cognoscenti take him seriously (they will have been to at least fifty private views at Flowers featuring his vast ‘Oil’ series), and his work, while suitably artistic, is accessible enough to be admired by the Oxford St hordes.
Oil seeps over the two main gallery spaces – floors five and four, neither of which are huge, but what they lack in size, they make up for in elegance, a technique perfected by Le Bal
, the glorious new(ish) photography space in Paris. I found it best to navigate the gallery from the top down, and floor three, known as the Eranda Studio
, left me feeling childishly excited: there’s a camera obscura. Photography’s old magic has a place in the digital age.
Another innovation is a space to feature a single image (Jeff Wall’s ‘The Giant’ is first up) with surrounding seating to encourage debate. This is also the talks floor, with a forthcoming programme that promises much.
The choice of the New Delhi-based Raqs Media Collective to inhabit the second floor was certainly not expected, but neither was it an especially stimulating one. The artists have projected an archival image from early 20th century Calcutta by James Waterhouse. Their 'intervention’ into the – exquisitely coloured - image involves animating small details, like the ceiling fan, thus interrupting the certainty and stillness of the original image. This is all quite interesting, but to pair this work with a colourful Perspex sculpture, ‘36 Planes of Emotion’, which indulges in the post-pub game of coining clever collective nouns, is an artistic strategy too far.
Why the artists attach the idea of ‘a fluster of surprised kisses’ to the Waterhouse image is not clear. It’s possible that their wordplay is toying with the very idea of a response to a photographic installation; offering a playful interpretation of the Foucauldian idea that ‘what we see never resides in what we say’. Like I say, it’s possible. The fact that the sculpture is too big for the table it sits on, causing an awkward overhang, continues to vex me (but I fear this is a very personal obsession).
This feels like work in need of a wider curatorial context; it could feasibly find a home in a group show on post-colonial issues, but on its own, it appears flimsy and random.
Exciting shows, however, are coming. The Deutsche Börse is always worth a look, and I think it will be a close call between the poetic Rinko Kawauchi and the popular and provocative Pieter Hugo.The best news is that Tom Wood, or Photie Man as he is still known on Merseyside, is scheduled to have his first solo show in the second floor gallery.
So … is it worth it? Certainly, the building is a triumph, and will provide an excellent
central London hub for photophiles. It was a stroke of genius to invite Soho stalwarts
Lina Stores to provide refreshments for the cafe. As for the opening shows, well, it’s
important to judge the new TPG on its entire output, not just what it has on its walls.
The Burtynsky show ticks boxes - world class photography, a ready-made exhibition,
in need of a London venue – and boxticking is a necessary evil in publicly-funded spaces.
To create a real ‘must-see’ buzz, something more hand-tailored, a Chris Killip retrospective,
perhaps, or a multi-media Tim Hetherington installation might have been more tantalising.
Photography is always the interloper at the art party, so it may as well stop playing safe.