The exhibition I most enjoyed at the Tate Modern was within the two series ‘Red’ and ‘Dusk’ by Ukrainian photographer Boris Mikhailov. The photographs examined the politics of everyday life in the Ukraine during the Soviet era and its aftermath, something I was completely unfamiliar with.
I particularly enjoyed Mikhailov’s series titled, ‘Red’ which depicted life in and around Kharkov between 1968 and 1975, using the colour red as a symbolic reminder of the inescapable presence of the Soviet regime. Each photograph contained something red, making the imagery as a collection extremely arresting visually. The photographs were vibrant and beautiful. I also liked how the photographs were presented in the exhibition space, none of the photos were framed, and they were just stuck straight onto the walls. I think this aspect gave the exhibition a more natural and spontaneous feel.
The large-scale photographs in the series, ‘American Power’ by Mitch Epstein were stunning. Again I found myself wanting to learn about something I wasn’t completely familiar with due to beautiful images. There go, I read the short description alongside the images. Overall the images examine how energy is produced and used in the American landscape. The pictures question the power of nature, government, corporations, and mass consumption in the United States. The photographs clearly show how patriotic America really is, evident through the American flag and the red, blue and white colours that creep into the images.
The two images I would say best-represented Epstein’s questions about power in America, was the image of Gavin Coal Power Plant, Ohio, 2003 and the image of the BP Carson Refinery, California, 2007. The first image because it starkly shows the effect of the pollution the power plant causes on the natural environment and the second because despite the refinery causing pollution it remains patriotic by displaying a large American flag on the side of the building.
The last exhibition I visited at the Tate Modern was ‘Diane Arbus: Artist Room’. Her striking photographs had already been introduced to us in previous lectures so I was keen to view more of her images. Arbus’ diverse compilation of black and white photographs presented in a three-room display showed a wide range of her intriguing images of outsiders. As I began glancing over the pictures displayed on stark white walls, with matching border and frame, it seemed all too easy but to categorize her images into two subject matters, that of the abnormal and the normal.
Nonetheless her images were fascinating but I was torn as to how I felt towards them. I was puzzled as to whether the pictures were cold and aloof or not. The photographs seemed stark and candid giving me the impression that Arbus lacked in love and compassion for these individuals, also emphasized in bluntly titling them as ‘freaks’.
When coming across the image of the male transsexual, loosely holding a cigarette, rollers pinned in his hair with a vacant expression, I thought of Nan Goldin. I helplessly started to draw comparisons between Nan Goldin’s photographs of transsexuals and this single image taken by Diane Arbus. Further fuelling my uneasiness as to how Arbus actually felt towards her subjects.
Goldin’s images of her transsexual friends and gays instantly evoke a high charge of romance and love, a feeling of spontaneous image making with a sense of rush and magic. For me her images ooze love for her subjects. I think it’s because her images seem so natural. Her photographs are often lit from natural light sources and taken on compact cameras, giving them that raw lustful edge. However Diane Arbus, for me stirs something very different.
I found Arbus’ images more peculiar and controlled. The idea of controlled made me wonder if that’s how she felt towards the ‘freaks’ like she felt they needed to be contained. All her images were shot in a similar way further limiting the subjects and forcing them to fit into the title of ‘freaks’. Then I had another thought. Maybe the way in which the images were taken and represented how society, at that time, felt towards people who were different. The mastery of the conventional technical aspects presented in Arbus’ images, for me heighten the strange and obscurely troubling aspect of ‘Freaks’. They were so stark it’s disturbing. And I think this is how people thought of humans who were different, disabled or born with mental or physical problems.