Disclaimer: This is not an exhibition review!
On recent trip to the south coast I visited A Green and Pleasant Land exhibition at the Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne.
The exhibition sets out to show how the British landscape has been interpreted by artists since 1970. From the exhibition preamble, the show is described as:
“Considered as a whole, the exhibition shows that the British landscape is unpredictable, contested and interdependent. It also demonstrates the important role that artists play in articulating these concerns”
As you view the exhibition, the images are not shown in chronological order. Walk through the doors and straight ahead, the towers of Agecroft Power Station taken in 1983 by John Davies loom as a large-scale print. As you leave the exhibition there is an image by Fay Godwin from 1976. In between a varied selection of work and artists is shown.
Exhibitions from collections function on several levels. In the first instance, they are a great way to access the work of many different photographers. For the student, you can explore a variety of work to then follow up on any photographer/artist that you found particularly striking. We can view real prints on display, getting a feel for scale, presentation and use of captioning. The selection of artists allows for each photographer to appear within a context of contemporaries. As a viewer of the show, a narrative establishes of the progression and response of photography to the landscape.
Beyond this experience, we should take a more critical viewpoint and consider who is shaping the interpretation that we are being shown. If we take a further step backwards, travelling beyond the landscape we gain an insight into how photography in its widest sense is being viewed within the established gallery/museum sphere.
We should always consider how the curation of such shows leads to an established timeline and story of photographic history.
In this case the images are, in the main from Arts Councils own collection and the selection of material is in therefore constrained by what is held in this collection.
There are some notable inclusions. As you travel along the timeline, more women photographers are included. The work becomes more experimental.
Through the show, we see the introduction of digital technology, the growing proliferation of moving image, mixed media and installations as part of the photography art world.
As with all history, we should be critically aware of the sources used to formulate established histories. Over time a conformity of memory establishes, as each curator and historian references that which has become before. Works of art and artists become ingrained in the established historical cannon of photography.
In the essay “The Judgement Seat of Photography”, Christopher Phillips writes about the succession of Head of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Phillips describes how the various approaches to curation have ultimately shaped galleries/museums approaches to displaying photography.
For all of photography’s perceived democracy we are still establishing its history through the curator’s eye.
A Green and Pleasant Land
Towner Art Gallery
Ends 21 January 2018