Yesterday, my trusty wingman William and I visited two exhibitions in London – Gregory Crewdson’s Cathedral of the Pines at the Photographers Gallery and David Campany’s A Handful of Dust at the Whitechapel Gallery.
The Crewdson exhibition, Cathedral of the Pines is currently occupying three of the four exhibition floor at the Photographers Gallery. (The fourth has a fun interactive exhibition on photographing food, where we spent an additional happy 15 minutes.) All the Crewdson images were framed identically at double A1 size and were spread out through the exhibition space to give each one room to breathe. Each was labelled with a blindingly obvious caption, such as Woman at Window, which really did not tell us much at all. Together, all the images form a three stranded story, focusing on 1) a middle aged woman, 2) an older man and young girl, whose relationship remains opaque, and 3) some young people. They are caught in moments of stillness, which Crewdson likens to paintings, and the images themselves have a very painterly texture. Much has been written about the series elsewhere (see references below), so I will concentrate on our own impressions of the work.
There is a very strong sense of place in the series, a connectedness between the different images. One gets the impression of a story only part told – vignettes from a bigger tale that is just outside the viewer’s understanding, but which is somehow chilling. Various props appear and reappear throughout the series, such as boxes, glasses of water, strange holes in the walls and floors, and prescription bottles. There is a strong sense of the male gaze – the women are often unclothed, while the men only occasionally and most of them have their faces turned away from the camera. It seems to be a series about women but by a man, and the effect of the male gaze is to make the women seem very vulnerable. Each person is caught in a moment of utter stillness, as in a freeze frame from a film, and in that stillness there is a sense of foreboding, loneliness and despair which pervades the whole production. We decided that the colour palette and cultural references were very reminiscent of Twin Peaks, which might have influenced this feeling. This stillness also encourages the viewer to form their own ideas about what the series means, rather than directing them.
“It’s a mystery, in the end, and I want it to remain so,” Crewdson adds. “That goes for everything: in life and art.” (Guardian, 2016)
We left feeling a little frustrated, and with the definite impression that we had been participating in a murder mystery play that we hadn’t solved. The pictures were technically very proficient, and the emotions they brought out were disconcerting, but curiously they seemed to lack “heart”.
After lunch, we went over to the Whitechapel Gallery in the pouring rain. I hadn’t visited this gallery before; my usual stomping ground includes the Tate Modern, Beetles & Huxley and the Photographers Gallery. It was much bigger that I had expected with an interesting range of exhibition spaces, and an excellent tearoom and bookshop. Our mission was to see A Handful of Dust, but we also took in ISelf Collection: Portrait as a Billygoat which was wonderfully “modern” in its craziness.
It had been suggested that I see A Handful of Dust by fellow students who have seen my project for the TVG exhibition on Time, and it was definitely worth going to. It is a curated exhibition by David Campany, working out from a single image of some dust on a piece of glass in Marcel Duchamp’s famously filthy studio, although it was later attributed in many different ways.
Campany takes the idea of dust and works out in different directions, using a variety of historical images to make us consider the interplay between the dust under the bed at home right through to interstellar dust, with various diversions through the Hiroshima nuclear bombing, American dust storms, vandalism and fracking, amongst other subjects. It is difficult to pick out specific images that stood out, although I did like Louise Oates’ Notes on Hydraulic Fracking, the Desolate North East, and the film Hiroshima Mon Amour, Directed by Alain Resnais (1959). Campany’s decisions about what to include in the exhibition might seem somewhat random, but there is a clear thread underneath on the meaning of the photograph as document and as a record, but also of how everything is connected at a cosmic level. It was fascinating, so much so that I bought the exhibition catalogue. This turned out to be two books, one of the photographs and the other an extended essay by Campany which contextualises the works. I am looking forward to reading it over the next few days.
The presentation of the work was one area which I was not so enthused. The walls of the space are painted dark green, and text was printed onto it in black type which made it very difficult to read unless one was standing directly in front of it.
Overall, we both preferred A Handful of Dust to Cathedral of the Pines, which was surprising, as I had expected the converse. And for future reference, the lady in the Whitechapel Gallery bookshop told me that the next big exhibition, when the Campany one is over will be Thomas Ruff, which will also be worth a visit.