The ONE Project. By 29 photographers. Fringe Dwellings. By Dean Cross. Huw Davies Gallery, PhotoAccess at the Manuka Arts Centre. Until March 20.
Reviewer: Peter Haynes.
The ONE Project curator Hilary Wardhaugh presents a unique approach to the portrait genre in this clever and beguiling exhibition. 28 named artists (and one anonymous) were each invited to take a portrait (subject to be chosen by the artist). They were to use the same Nikon camera and had only one opportunity to make their images. The first artist then passed the camera to the next and so on until the film was exhausted. (As an aside I thought film has 36 frames – where are the other images?). The camera was placed in a box accompanied by a book in which the artists recorded their choice of subject and other pertinent information related to the project. The box and contents are integral to the exhibition as they were to the process that formed it.
The premise is a fascinating one and raises many questions about portraiture, multiple imagery/images, and what is the value/role of the single photographic image in the digital era. It also clearly asserts the role of the photographer as "auteur", the controlling eye behind the camera. In The ONE Project there is no opportunity to discard or edit. The image as presented in the gallery is the result of the curator's insistence on each artist's careful consideration of all the details that go into the making of a photographic image prior to the final click. In this process Wardhaugh takes on the role of "über auteur" (if you'll forgive my linguistic borrowings) as she has provided a set of conceptual and technical limitations in which her chosen "auteurs" must operate.
The exhibition is installed with the works following the order in which the photographs were made. The artists only saw their work after the installation and so the individual results of the strictures of the process are as much a surprise to them as they are to viewers.
The range of responses is as various as the 28 artists represented. Some, including the curator, have elected to take fairly straightforward images of friends or family in various suburban or rural locations. Others show their subjects in the workplace (Leonie Keogh's The taxidermist) or in "places" where the latter is the subject rather than the figure(s) in that "place". Madeline Bishop's Charlotte and Tigger and Geoffrey Dunn's The space between us exemplify the latter. Throughout the exhibition there is a feeling of intimacy, of the closeness of the relationship between artist and subject. This sometimes results in sentimentalism (Tim Anger's Becca reclining) but also in powerful visual statements (Jeremy Byrne's "Katie - my muse and Denise Ferris' Untitled). The ONE Project is an interesting exhibition whose interrogative premise makes for active participation on the viewer's part. The individual approaches to the curator's demands provide visual and intellectual stimulation while raising pertinent questions about the photographic portrait in particular and the photographic image in general. While, as one would expect, the results vary, the overall impact is very satisfying. A final point - I found it more than ironic that the images as exhibited are inkjet prints taken from the original negatives, some of them in editions of 10 - so much for ONE.
In the back gallery Dean Cross's Fringe Dwellings is an installation consisting of Polaroid photographs and the temporary plywood doors used during construction of houses. The Polaroids are displayed on the doors in various numerical configurations apart from six abutting images placed on the blank wall as one leaves the space. The doors lean against the walls, a positioning that underlines their temporary status – these are used on building sites to prevent people from accessing unfinished buildings.
The Polaroid images are soft-focus views of the suburb of Bonner on Canberra's northern edge. Each shows houses either complete or in various stages of construction but always characterised by the absence of any real human presence. People are present only in the evidence of activity (piles of building rubble, empty parked cars). This aspect of the images is pictorially underscored by the unstintingly repetitive angular geometries of the buildings that populate the almost bleak suburban topography. The implied romanticism of the artist's use of soft focus is quietly disintegrated by the tedium of the unimaginative architecture whose incessant angularity is only broken by piles of rubble or occasionally by trees or the frothy volumes of clouds.
Bonner is named after Australia's first Indigenous Federal parliamentarian. Neville Bonner was a senator (for Queensland) from 1971 to 1983. For Cross the irony of naming a new suburb that absorbs lands originally inhabited by Indigenous Australians after another Indigenous Australian is doubly damning. The Indigenous references though are not immediately discernible in Cross' installation. What is clear though is the encroachment of the built environment onto the natural environment. And as that built environment is arguably an ugly (or at least insensitive) addition its suitability is also clearly questioned. Cross asks his viewers to consider issues of Indigenous ownership and dispossession through examining his aesthetic means. The Polaroid is essentially ephemeral. Its images will fade and lose any potency they might have had. The "doors" of the installation are also ephemeral in the sense that their role in the real world of building construction is also temporary. They are removed when building is complete. Cross builds up his narrative experientially. We move into and through the installation slowly and are asked to stop and absorb the images, their placement and their relationship to the other elements of the installation. The fragility of the Polaroid contrasts with the sturdy bulkiness of the doors. We are also not given access to the interiors of the bland facades of the houses, a restriction reinforced by the presence of the unopening doors around the gallery. All of these devices are cues/clues to the artist's wider issues. The conceptual and thematic layering allied with the exhibition's choice of "place" (viz. the suburb of Bonner) and the concomitant connotations of that, give Fringe Dwellings an edginess that is clear in its aesthetic resolve. Whether we are able to access Cross' cultural and societal concerns without recourse to accompanying text however, remains moot to me. Yes, the clues are there but I suspect that their implied impact may be lost on many of us.