Signs of a Struggle: Photography in the Wake of Postmodernism

Victoria and Albert Museum, free admission, until 27th November 2011, Gallery 38A

Anne Hardy’s “Untitled IV (Balloons),” 2005

Alongside its current Postmodernism exhibition, the V&A have curated a display of photography to demonstrate how such approaches have affected the art form. Like many of the museum’s ‘displays’ you’d be forgiven for missing it entirely, or mistaking it for part of the permanent exhibition, as even in the ‘What’s On’ guide these free, temporary collections (sometimes little more than a single case) are bundled only at the back of the leaflet and nowhere near the like of the ‘main attractions’. In the case of this display though (and of many others….The House of Annie Lennox is worth a look at the moment too) the intrepid museum goer is rewarded with an exhibition that is well curated, enlightening and rather less packed than the ‘main attractions’.

The long and simply lit Gallery 38A (right opposite the Cast Courts, which would prove to be fortuitous later) offers a comfortable and unobtrusive background for what is quite the jumble of photos. But, with the Postmodernist mantra of parody, wit and freedom in mind, I drank in the colours and patterns of the eclectic collection.

First to catch my eye was John Kippin’s “Nostalgia For The Future,” 1988, which demonstrates the industrial decline and its impact on the British Landscape. As a ship rusts on the beach, lodged in the sand and surrounded by froth, in the forefront of the image a rather dated but delightfully twee caravan nestles into the dunes as a family nearby gathers to take in the scene. Across the photograph, the title is emblazoned in bold white type, rather foreboding and almost forewarning.

With almost equal sense of nostalgia and departure, Anne Hardy’s “Untitled IV (Balloons),” 2005, evokes the broken narrative of a vibrant and lively scene recently vacated. In some sort of garage or out-building, a party has been abandoned or simply not been cleaned up after…. Helium filled balloons and their dangling curled ribbons bring a movement and ‘just left’ feeling, as do the piles of cigarette ends and used paper cups. Intriguing too are the odd finds amongst the more explicable detritus of bricks, foam sealant and planks of wood, as a huge bank of electric switches sits next to scientific chalk etchings on the room’s back wall and a rabbit ornament on a high shelf appears to be casting judgement over the scene. I’m not sure if it’s the quirky playfulness of this image, or the unsolved mystery which intrigues me, but there’s something in the bright colours of the paper chains and the oddities hidden in the scene that makes me both smile and raise an eyebrow.

Karen Knorr’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” 1986-89, shares its title with Walter Benjamin’s essay which suggests that the mass production of art destroys its ‘aura.’ Whilst the figure in this piece sits amongst plaster copies of some of the world’s prized artworks in the V&A’s Cast Courts, he in fact dotes on a printed volume rather than taking in his surroundings, made up in themselves of reproductions. The brass plaque on the elegant wood frame bears its title, and adds a resonance only a formal type can.

Ann Jone’s “Hair Clip and Tweezers,” 1994, is perhaps the piece which most raises a smile in me. Each framed photo is a facetious parody of social history and society’s throw away nature. An enlarged and somehow therefore rather alien set of tweezers, and a hair clip (mind you this is the kind my grandmother used and so I’m not sure even the most of people at this exhibition will recognise it) are labelled rather cheekily on card, in clear type, with a description of their purpose as though they were used for some ancient practise, long forgotten. Rather than make me feel guilty for forgetting things or throwing things away though, the piece made me realise how precious the things I cling onto are, and how there really is treasure all around.

Lastly, at the far end of the room, Clare Strand’s “Signs of a Struggle,” 2003, forms a finish to the exhibition in a seemingly associated but oddly disconnected collection of black and white images. There is a wonderful ‘found’ nature to these photographs, which, if they had not been tampered with would not tie together at all. However, through various markings and embellishments, they have been made to look like crime scene evidence and like some bizarre, disjointed story. If anything, the labelling (arrows pointed to numbers, markers on a path with numbers on them) makes them all the more ambiguous, although as our attention is somehow drawn to a worn piece of carpet, holes in a bedroom wall and a hand revealing absolutely nothing beneath a linoleum floor, the photographs are nonetheless dramatic, if utterly fantastical.

I would recommend a visit to the exhibition if you’re at the museum for the Postmodernism exhibition or the Power of Making exhibition (post to follow on that…very much worth a see). And even if you combine a trip with the Cast Courts just opposite it’s worth a wander (although the Italian half of these is currently closed, but from upstairs you can look down on some of the amazing pieces and the work the museum is doing). The best route is through the shop though, so be warned, it’s a major distraction.

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