On a rare sunny day in Dublin, The Copper House Gallery opened its doors to the public with something not only unique to the relatively new space, but unique to the exhibition calendar. Tiane Doan na Champassak’s double-barreled solo exhibition Showroom/ Spleen and Ideal had come to town, and it marks a plot on the map for some of us to remember at least.
This exhibition is something of a coup for The Copper House, and more than that, it is something which many of us in Ireland have been waiting for quite a while. Reflected in the exhibitions opening speech by Peggy Sue Amison, she highlighted the importance of bringing new work of standing to the country. Important for any burgeoning scene, it opens possibilities and inspiration for the patrons and practitioners alike. It reinforces the idea that a scene cannot grow sufficiently without being willing to look outside the typically insular climate.
Similarly, the point was reiterated by Tiane in his following address, noting how important it is for himself and his work to be seen by a new audience. What stands out here is the notion of having a body of work reflecting a rich culture such as India’s without it being dogmatic or didactic. The pleasure of encountering an exhibition of beautiful prints, produced by an artist who undoubtedly knows his subjects through years of negotiating and conversing with them on a personal level, results in an authentic and satisfying experience for the visitor.
The situation being what it is, and it has been getting better each year since Ireland’s awakening to the joys of contemporary photography in any organized fashion over the last half decade, we have seen a growing number of young photographers not only taking advantage and benefitting greatly, but also an urge to become involved on a more intellectual level. This was evident in the previous solo show by David Thomas Smith at The Copper House, which was widely appreciated for its ingenuity and daring use of contemporary technologies. Where Tiane Doan na Champassak’s work fits so elegantly is that it encapsulates the transition that is necessary for Ireland to develop a successful photographic culture beyond the current situation. Not only does his exhibition represent this native cultural transition, it is quite fittingly about transition.
Showroom, located at the ground floor gallery space, is deceptive in nature. At first it could be a documentary project on the poor in India, mainly portraits shot in monochrome and colour film. It is in fact a small slice of a long running project exploring the rather confusing world of the Hirja, who in turn become Aravanis, devotees of Aravan, a local deity, in whose honor an annual festival takes place just before the Tamil new year at an otherwise prosaic town called Villuppuram. Apart from the ritualistic aspect of the festival, the Hirja use this time to congregate and socialize in what could possibly be the most normal time of the year for them, being that they are everything from “gay, straight, bisexual, bi-curious, transvestite, transgendered, transitioning” as the project synopsis states. And here in lies the impact of the work, the couples we see kissing and hugging with faces obscured could be any one of the labels we Westerners live and die by. Religious affectation and belief structures collide with sexuality, body image, performance and ultimately acceptance. By confusing our rigorous view of the world, we are left to appreciate the subjective quality of the image itself – effectively replacing our system of judgment with one of openness. The occasional exposed breast and intimate quality of the images more than speak for themselves, and understandably some of the more explicit images from the series were present but slightly hidden in a smaller room reinforcing that intimacy.
If Showroom is the profane, the body struggling to be freed from repressive form, then Spleen and Ideal is the sacred, the transitory angelic. On the second floor exhibition space hang the green and yellow tinted images of pretty Thai girls, or boys appearing to be girls, shot between 2010 and 2012. There is a clammy heat to them, like we are viewing these mysterious nymphs through bed sheets creating an almost claustrophobic sunlit ambiance. From black eyes they peer over their shoulder at us, their long hair and full lips, supple breasts and knowing otherness enticing our gaze like some tale from Sinbad. This series is not a documentary either, it isn’t about to lift the veil suggested by the cracked and washed out emulsion tones that form the photographic image. Spleen and Ideal is a seductive whisper, a sirens call, deliberately misleading enticement to slowly draw the viewer into the calm waters. And those of us who can feel it soon follow.
Like all transitions, there is a necessary willingness, yet this can sometimes be based on deceit too. An act can be deceptively simple, or the destination deceptively alluring, and this is where Showroom/Spleen and Ideal finds its power as a show. We become open to the deception, willingly deceived by the artist and subjects alike.