There was a palpable air of excitement when arriving in Liverpool to see how things were shaping up for LOOK/15, the third edition of Look: Liverpool International Photography Festival, which utilizes the many – and often outstanding – venues in the city.
The problem with press days, especially during festivals, is one sometimes finds oneself a little early. With so many hardworking volunteers scrambling about the place trying their best to get everything installed and finished right down to the last minute the press people encounter semi or half-installed exhibitions. However, everything is not lost. The more established venues such as Open Eye Gallery and the Bluecoat were ready for action and presented immaculate shows that did the festival programme justice.
The intellectually challenging and conceptually sound multi-room installation of NITRATE by the Spanish born and British based Xavier Ribas at the Bluecoat was one of those rare occasions when photography, video, text, the archive and presentation all combine seamlessly to offer the visitor something beyond a single stylistic approach that equally intrigues and haunts. Ribas’ first major UK exhibition, this complex work produced between 2009 and 2014 investigates the history of nitrate extraction in the Chilean Atacama Desert by British companies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Using a grid format, Ribas presents beautiful monochrome images with accompanying text in a way that skips rather than drags. The text appears impenetrable to the eye, but that is fine, it should be viewed as a graphic that can be read as opposed to information alone. The images share a lightness of touch, and while some being obviously archival, there remains a magical ambiguity about others. The subject deals with colonial powers sucking the life-blood from an inhospitable location, which in itself is full of irony and contradiction, and unfortunately continues today across the world. In one of the oldest buildings in Liverpool the exhibition is suitably located, adding a further element to the work.
Over at Open Eye Gallery there is a feast, with a selection made from the gallery’s curatorial team based around the idea of ‘social portraiture’. Presented is a group of small but very effective installations of photographic works that each say something different in unique ways. On individually coloured walls, Helen Marshall’s Project Tobong is a perfect opening to the visitor upon entering the gallery, and shares similarities with Max Pinckers’ work close by in St. George’s Hall. With Project Tobong, Marshall has been in Indonesia working with Risang Yuwono and collaborating with Ketoprak Tobong Kelana Bakti Budaya, one of the last remaining theatre troupes in Yogyakarta, Java. The images carry a pathos in the pride shown by each performer set against a diminishing landscape, alluding to the friction between modern globalised life and an often futile attempt to retain cultural traditions.
Upstairs, Louis Quail’s Desk Job is a fine series that combines humour with a serious undertone about quality of life and working conditions in our present day first world. The glory of capitalism and of profit margins and the false smiles of sales and marketing fall away to expose the unhealthy, bored, under-stimulated and draining existence that each individual probably never envisaged when they sat their exams and graduated from college. These are portraits that tell an insider story and incite the visitor to imagine entire lives for the poor souls trapped in each cubicle.
Richard Ross will make you cry; his pictures from the long-term project Juvenile in Justice, produced over the last 8 years, document the US juvenile justice system in all its unfathomable inhumanity. The American prison complex is a far-reaching and wildly cruel system that exploits the weak, impoverished and unlucky and exists in the most part as a corporate entity. If the visitor comes away from Ross’ pictures with anything, it is a gratitude that not every country treats its citizens in such a manner, and the understandable hope that they never do (although, given that the Conservatives are in power the UK’s prison service is being privatized). Ross states “I lecture more now at law schools than art schools, people are using my images not only in museums, which is great, but also in public policy.”
Since Belgian born photographer Max Pinckers gained international recognition for his project The Fourth Wall he has been deservedly praised and promoted as a rising star in photography. In Liverpool’s St Geoerge’s Hall, down a long narrow corridor you will find prints from Pinckers’ 2014 project Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty pasted to the curved 19th century walls. Curated by Tadhg Devlin, the prints vary in size and texture according to their subject, which means the torn newspaper cuttings describing horrific ‘honour killings’ look authentic, as do the transcripts of young lovers begging for assistance. Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty is a part documentary-part staged convolution exploring India’s complicated and traumatic attitudes towards romantic relationships and young love. At times it is heroic, innocent and joyous, while at other times it is narrow-minded, inscrutably malicious and medieval in its notions. Against this backdrop of ancient socio-cultural traditions fighting it out with modern contemporary attitudes is the idealized world of Bollywood and soap opera kitsch, adding a visual dimension to an already bulging narrative. Pinckers has a determined eye and an acute sense of style that cuts to the quick and gives the visitor something real yet seemingly fictional. It is a unique talent, and his work is a marvelous addition to the festival programme.
Festival themes can be problematic at times, causing confusion for visitor and curator alike. With LOOK/15 there was a theme of exchange with a focus on migration, women and photography, and memory, which altogether gave a broad enough scope to stage some decent exhibitions. That broadness can become a bit vague at times, but it is better to have a loose collection of great shows that really capture the visitor’s imagination than to have a tightly bound collection that speaks of little but curatorial decision making. It may need a little more tightening up in lots of ways, but Liverpool has a something in Look that the city can be proud of and we can look forward to.