Long post alert!
Women artists are predicted to garner more attention this year. Right on cue there is Women: New Portraits, by Annie Leibovitz, the American photographer. The London show launches the 10-city international tour of the exhibition. These images are a continuation of the project Women that Leibovitz began with Susan Sontag many years ago.
I went to see the exhibition with two women friends, one of whom is a professional photographer.
Walking from Wapping Overground station, and talking about this and that, we could have easily missed the venue, the disused and dilapidated Wapping Hydraulic Power Station. While accessible on the shiny new Overground from the south and the north, it is not obvious why this venue was chosen. The show is sponsored by UBS so it is not like it was on a British art grant and had to be shown in an area being regenerated. Despite the location, it appears to have been a popular show, as evidenced by the crowd control frames, not in use when we went, in the grounds of the building.
As we entered, a young lady in an orange jacket stopped us. She would like us to know there are trip hazards inside. Oh, and we could take pictures with our phones if we like, but not with a camera.
The reason for the warning became clear soon.
This is no ordinary exhibition. The large hall has three large digital screens and a tacking wall with chairs in the middle. These screens are plugged into the walls, and necessitate floor cable protectors, which are the trip hazards we were warned about. Each large screens is made up of smaller screens. This makes for an interesting viewing experience. One expects the photos will be “broken” in some form. But as the images move at a soft clip – on two of the three large screens, except the one at the back which has a static picture of Queen Elizabeth II — they don’t feel broken. The tacking wall has same-size prints of many of the images. Another standing screen lists the names of all the women whose photographs are on show.
While Women, the project began with images of American women in the late 20th century, Women: New Portraits looks at some other women too. Queen Elizabeth II and Adele being two of the several British women who are featured in this show. There are unexpected pictures of persons in personas such as Ellen Degeneres in a sparkly bikini with a white pantomime made-up face.
There are family portraits such as the Osbournes, who are probably the second most famous British family. There are mother-and-child(ren) portraits such as Arianna Huffington with her daughters and Carolina Herrera with her clan, but more notably, the striking Richardson clan.
Then there are portraits of domestic violence, of mine workers, of athletes (Serena and Venus feature in one such, looking fierce and awe inspiring), and of models in a long tableau format. While heavy on famous women, the range is considerable and admirable.
Gloria Steinem referred to those chairs in the middle of the hall as the “talking circle” where people could sit and discuss the feelings these photographs evoke. When we visited, there was very little talking going on. In a small backroom, with a tastefully casual ambience with a long communal table and several small and high-back chairs, there are books of photographs, not all by Leibovitz. That is where people talked more, mostly in whispers.
My photographer friend and I looked at some images in those books together. She pointed out how Leibovitz’s subjects almost always make eye contact with the camera. We talked about how our knowing the stories can change how we see the images. I confessed my prejudice that if I do not like a public person for their politics, I find it hard to appreciate their photographs, no matter how technically brilliant they are. Equally I felt Queen Elizabeth II’s photo is harsh, and her eyes without the signature twinkle makes for a strangely alienating experience.
The venue remains a peculiar choice. No doubt, by design.
Its bare-boned, utilitarian look is far from the opulent art galleries many of us are so used to. It is rough and ready, but it has potential. It has after all been transformed into an art gallery. It could be anything – a performance venue, a fashion show catwalk, a school, a speakeasy, a dance studio.
Perhaps that is the metaphor for modern womanhood where Annie Leibovitz’s art forms a confluence with the venue: the power to be the anything the woman can will herself to be.
(See it in London before February the 7th, 2016 if you can. Else catch it in Zurich, Frankfurt, Istanbul, Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo, San Francisco, Mexico City or New York through to December 2016.)