My slide into teaching has thrown other areas of my practice out of their usual order and at the moment I find myself often only making it to an exhibition in the closing weeks or days of its run. This is not much good for reviewing, but then I did say at the start of the year I was going to do less of that anyway. So this piece should proceed with the caveat that it is not a review of an exhibition exactly, but more of a deconstruction of one from a very particular angle. The exhibition in question is the recent Prix Pictet shortlist at Somerset House, a collection of works by twelve photographers, brought together under the theme of ‘Disorder’. These have been selected from a long-list of over 700, nominated by an international pool of selectors, before the final selection was made by an ‘independent jury’ (although seeing as it includes a former managing partner of the Pictet bank, that independence is a matter for debate). What I want to discuss here is the way that this prize, like any other, is about selections, selections within selections and selections by selections, all more or less consciously directed to achieving a specific end which is only partially about photography. While I cite Prix Pictet as my exemplar, I think similar tendencies are noticeable in every major sponsored prize, and I charge you to look for them the time you go to an exhibition of say, the Deustche Borse or Taylor Wessing Prize, and see if you can’t detect similar things at work.
I’ve often spoken and written on this blog about what I consider to be the uncomfortable relationship between corporate interests and the arts. In particular I’ve tried to persuade that the sponsorship deals between large companies and major photography prizes, particularly prizes with a documentary component, deserve much more scrutiny than they usually get. In particular they require consideration of the ways that this relationship might impact our understanding of what type of issues, and what kind of photographic handling of those issues, are deserving of our attention and thought. When I visited the Prix Pictet on the final day of it’s run at Somerset House these questions of selection resurfaced in the content, form and even the very structure of the exhibition. The most obvious example of this is simply the type of work which makes up the shortlist. The Prix Pictet as in other sponsored prizes studiously avoids projects which engage on any level with the sponsor’s area of activities. Despite the theme of ‘Disorder’ there is no work here which even comes close to engaging with the recent financial crisis, surely the great global disorder of the last decade. This of course isn’t that much of a surprise, while I’ve said before that it would be great to see work like Mark Curran’s or Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti’s featured in the shortlist for a prize sponsored by a private bank, I am a realist.
More interesting than the obvious exclusion of these sorts of explicitly critical works is how this avoidance of these kinds of topics runs down to quite a subtle level. I found it interesting for example that Maxim Dondyuk’s series Culture of the Confrontation on the Euromaidan protests was shortlisted and not say, Donald Weber and Arthur Bondar’s Barricades works on the same topic. Could that perhaps be because a portion of the latter work focuses on the corruption and disorder of the government of former president Viktor Yanukovych, and might shed uncomfortable light on allegations of his systematic siphoning of state funds into private bank accounts in Switzerland, Austria and Liechtenstein? It’s possible. What is interesting and somewhat impenetrable are the reasons for these absences and omissions, whether a form of passive self-censorship by nominators and jury, or something more overt and organised. Without seeing the process from the inside all one can really do is to speculate.
In any case, and as I suggested at the start of this piece, the inclusion, or non-inclusion of particular works and topics is important because the implication of any artistic shortlist or selection is that what is here is the best, the most interesting, the most significant on a theme. By so carefully avoiding work which engages (whether overtly or not) with the issue of capitalism and it’s attendant inequalities, this shortlist manages to transmit the subtext that the dysfunction of capitalism and it’s institutions is not really worth considering as a form of disorder, and is perhaps not even really worth considering at all. The implication instead for a viewer is that here what you see brought together are the essential disorders of our age, the problems that really deserve our attention and energy. And yet our world is a profoundly interconnected one, and very few of it’s major problems exist in total isolation. What links photographs of riots in Ukraine, car bomb craters in Iraq, floods in Africa and the global decimation of bee populations? Without seeking to be controversial for the sake of it I would say that these are all more or less directly the products of the chronic disorder that is unbridled capitalism, and it dosen’t seem to me that it would take a particularly critical viewer to see that link when considering these twelve projects in rapid succession.
Which leads me on to the arrangement and description of the work in the gallery space, which seems almost to take account of the potential for a viewer accidentally drawing this connection from the work by doing the opposite of what one might think to be the normal aim of curation. Rather than weaving together the connections in twelve disparate works to show how they relate to a central theme, the exhibition feels rather as if it is constructed to make the works in it feel isolated and disconnected from each other. Each artist’s work is very much treated on its own, separated from the others in part because of the rather labyrinthine spatial character of the East Wing galleries of Somerset House which requires different rooms to be dedicated to each series, but also by the way each work is isolated from its neighbors intellectual, for example in the inconsistent texts that introduce and describe each work rather as if it existed in a vacuum, rather than as part of a themed exhibition. The result is a strange show where the only consistency is the elephant in the room of this unspoken connecting theme.
I know what I’ve done here is to make this all sounds rather conspiratorial, as if everything from the selection of nominators through to the rather dysfunctional curation of this show have been planned from the off to deliver a particular and rather malign effect. I imagine this process is probably more passive and unintentional than I’ve made it sound, although perhaps lit by moments of more intentional design. Whatever the case, I hope this short piece has given some cause for thought about the way many prizes are linked to outside interests, and has also caused some consideration of the way that these sorts of events don’t simply objectively reflect the type of issues that matter in the world, nor the photographs that are necessarily the most brilliant encapsulations or critiques of those issues. Rather I hope you will see such prizes and exhibitions are very much constructed selections, from the final exhibition perhaps right back as far as the initial selection of nominators, and I would say all linked back to priority that underpins pretty much all corporate sponsorship of the arts. Public image and an atmosphere conducive to profit.