Photography as Public Art; the Courtenay Place Park inaugural light box photo exhibition, Flanerie and figments
Photography as Public Art; the Courtenay Place Park inaugural light box photo exhibition, Flanerie and figments - published in PhotographyMatters.com in May, 2008
The precedent for this exhibition was at Waitangi Park on the Wellington waterfront when it opened in 2005. Tens of thousands enjoyed the outdoor exhibition of photographs by Yaan Arthus-Bertrand. Overhead shots of flocks of birds, herds of hippos or whatever seemed to conform to most peoples’ idea of exciting photography. (I guess these are the same people who flock to the international press photography award shows for similar reasons.) Risking sounding like a snob, the nature images bored me rigid. (This is possibly a result of excessive exposure to nature docos on telly in the 90s.)
The photos in the light boxes outside the St James Theatre, Courtenay Place, Wellington have the opposite effect on me: they are very engaging. There have been a number of proposals for the remodelling of this area over the last decade or so, but at last it has been done (except the old toilets…). This inaugural exhibition, Flanerie and figments, was curated by Andy Palmer, working with the park’s designer Simon Bush-King. Andy told me the photo selection was an 18 month project, requiring the approval of the Public Arts Panel.
As Wellington mayor Kerry Prendergast said in her speech at the park opening last Friday evening, 2nd May, some of the images were not to her taste. And I have to say, as exhibition openings go, this was a goodie; very nice wine and food, a jazz band, no bouncers on the door or the kind of heavy-handedness experienced at City Gallery openings, (where one can feel like a schoolkid being herded around, forced to listen to interminable speeches by numerous sponsors before being allowed to touch the wine, etc (I can feel myself being plucked from the invitation list…)), and the speeches were kept concise.
I would like to congratulate the Wellington City Council for their part in this project; for agreeing to put large scale photographs in the middle of town where thousands will see them daily, and for not butting in and censoring the images, even though they have expressed a level of disapproval. Public art should be controversial. No, it would’ve been much easier for the WCC to push for “professional” photographs, highlighting or celebrating some absolutely positive aspect of the city, perhaps making people feel more optimistic about the place, but being ultimately banal. Glad they saw sense and let the curator and designer do their work.
Funnily enough, I was the only person at the opening with a proper camera (with the intention only of taking the images for this blog). There was no press photographer there, and no appointed WCC photographer that I could see. Could it be that with the possible controversy surrounding these selected images, the attention of the press was not sought? Normally an event like this would receive coverage, I would’ve thought.
http://www.wellington.govt.nz/news/display-item.php?id=3198 for more info about Courtenay Place Park.
Curator/artist Andy Palmer, artists John Lake and Shaun Lawson, at the opening.
As I said before, I find the work (mostly) engaging. It’s the sort of material you would see in a small, edgy gallery where it would then only find a few hundred viewers. Here, anyone passing on a bus gets a good view of at least eight of the sixteen 3m high images. And a healthy proportion of pedestrians are stopping to explore. As a bunch of photographs, these certainly challenge the viewer.
My favourite is John Lake’s photo of a girl standing in a tree; one of those images that asks more questions than it answers. Palmer’s pale treescapes, panoramas disconcertingly rotated and set vertically, seem to predict the aging effects the other images may suffer in their six-month tenure. Shaun Lawson has set out to be controversial, with the box at the Mt Victoria end of the park housing his image of a grossly extended tongue; one of the photos that didn’t appeal to the mayor. His other image, from his Actress series, shows a young woman who has suffered a beating from her partner. (This image may soon be withdrawn and replaced by another in the same series.) I particularly enjoy Steve Rowe’s larger than life photos of money machines. At this totemic scale, they are at once deceptively real (I wonder how many people will bowl up in their cars to use them, or maybe try to tow them out) and objects of worship to the stuff that increasingly drives our society. Courtenay Place is the perfect location for them. Clare Noonan’s almost featureless coastal landscapes have a walk-in feel, and are confrontational in their abandonment of traditional, camera club-type compositional elements. I’m a fan. Amelia Handscomb’s images of the historic Thorndon house The Moorings (as photographed by Robin Morrison in the mid 1970s) gain in tension from being sited in the urban pastiche that in Courtenay Place, 2008. The architecture of the Reading Theatre opposite, with its neon signage, is a particular contrast. Others will find the images by Jessica Silk (a nude, via Gustav Klimt, no less) and Victoria Birkinshaw (a boxer) fascinating.
The photographs are somewhat eclectic, but are all by photographers in their twenties or thirties, none of whom appear in the recent book Contemporary New Zealand Photographers; that is to say, this lot are not the usual suspects, but the up and comers, the real contemporary photographers.
While, apparently, a few teething problems have arisen, getting things to look perfect first time round at this scale, backlit and in the open, and dealing with the elements—it pissed down for the unveiling—would be near impossible. The technical issues are now known and will be resolved, and the minor flaws do not affect my enjoyment of these images. I look forward to future exhibitions of photography in this great new venue. Go the Creative Capital.
by james | 8 May, 2008
Viewing a photograph by Shaun Lawson - photo: Dominika Zielinska
This photo by Shaun Lawson was later removed from the exhibition. Shaun's other photo was of a bovine tongue coming through a hole in something. Both images were chosen to challenge and perhaps perturb the viewer. It had that effect on our mayor.
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