Jun 2, 2016 Art city
To whet the appetite for this month’s Auckland Festival of Photography, Metro selects shots of the city from festivals past, and talks to the curator of the flagship exhibition at Silo Park.
In 2003, in her final book, Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag had a rethink. Twenty-five years earlier, she’d written the seminal series of essays On Photography, about photography’s pervasive impact on how we experienced the world — the way looking at it had become equivalent to living in it. The danger was that images could cause us to lose our empathy, by flattening the realities of what they showed. But after Srebrenica, Rwanda and 9/11,Sontag wondered whether looking at images of pain and suffering might actually do the opposite — keep us connected to our humanity.
Thirteen years on, Sontag’s questions matter more than ever. We’re awash in photographs — so many we now stuff hundreds, thousands, into our pockets. Baby pics, holiday snaps, home-made porn, all squished together, searchable with an index finger’s twitch. Then there’s what we see when we’re not looking at ourselves. Abu Ghraib in one direction, naked Kardashians in the other: photography as a simultaneous source of trauma and blindness.
We’re awash in photographs – we now stuff thousands into our pockets.
The Auckland Festival of Photography, on in June, is true to photography’s inescapability, a diffuse, citywide event that welcomes everyone from amateur enthusiasts to top commercial photographers and artists. The breadth of venues — and, it has to be said, of quality — has been an issue in the past. But this year’s programme is anchored by a flagship exhibition in Silo Park, curated around the idea of “home”. Its Australian curator, Simone Douglas, is an artist in her own right. She also directs the master of fine arts programme at New York’s Parsons School of Design.
“New Zealand is at the nexus of the Asia-Pacific,” Douglas says. “And it produces remarkable artists who are unafraid of addressing the complexities of our numerous backgrounds. I wanted to look at the assumption of home as a given. Questions like, ‘Where do we come from? And how long have we been here?’ are a rip tide that runs through our identity.”
Which is true. But is it a truism? Home is a culture-shaping concept, sure. But it can also become a conservative tool, a way to strengthen orthodoxies rather than knocking holes through them. Competing ideas of home are at the heart of everything from Orewa-speech fears about Maori rights to the Nimbyism driving Auckland’s property catastrophe.
Douglas’ thinking about photography and home, though, is nuanced and complex.
She points to the work of exhibiting Australian artists Anna Carey and Ian Strange, whose work examines “the disquiet of the suburban home, where ‘all is well’ slowly dissipates into states of angst”. The duo Lin+Lam tap into the most urgent issue the world faces — involuntary migration — via the history of the Vietnamese refugee crisis. And Shoufay Derz considers ideas of home in landscapes like the Taklamakan desert in northwest China, Taiwan’s badlands, and the Australian bush.
The silos seem a perfect fit for the exhibition — perched on the harbour where New Zealand’s relationship with the Pacific Ocean has played out for hundreds of years. Wynyard Quarter’s gentrification is also emblematic of the fractured and competing ways Aucklanders understand and define home. But it’s an incredibly tough exhibition space; there isn’t a flat wall in sight.
“It’s a gift,” Douglas says, unfazed. “The structure immediately started to inform the kinds of artists I would curate into the show. Who would respond to the potential of the architecture? Who would understand the unique opportunity afforded to them? As I approached artists, I showed them photographs of the space. They were blown away.”
It has all the potential to be a serious, intelligent exhibition. Several other venues around the city are stepping up for the festival, too — particularly dealer galleries. Melanie Roger is presenting Peter Peryer, Anna Miles will show Allan McDonald, Chris Corson-Scott is at Trish Clark, Haruhiko Sameshima is at Whitespace, and Russ Flatt is at Tim Melville (Flatt is also this year’s recipient of the festival’s annual commission).
One of the highlights is likely to be Janet Lilo’s solo exhibition at Te Uru. Lilo is an exciting young artist who regularly places questions of home at the heart of her work. She manages to do this without becoming cloying or clichéd, often using the photographic vocabulary of the internet and the phone to create her large-scale installations.
Which brings us back to where we started — with those insistent machines in our pockets. “Photography has been in revolution since its inception,” Douglas points out. “Screen-based photography is another revolution. The most interesting part of the phone-camera is the image archive people carry around. It changes our relationship to time. Instead of the Cartier-Bresson ‘decisive moment’, it collapses multiple timeframes.”
Auckland Festival of Photography, June 2-24, see photographyfestival.org.nz for the programme.
Photos in order of appearance in gallery above:
1. Building Maintenance Downtown, 2005, Linda Thorne.
2. Garage Sale December, 2001, Sait Akkirman.
3. Make Hay While the Sun Shines, 2013, Colette Rhodes.
4. Karekare Jump, 2013, Rebecca Walton-Hannay.
5. Train Waiting, 2009, Breen Porter.
6. The Flight, 2008, Manuel Toribio.