Not All Documents Are Records: Photographing Exhibitions As An Art Form at Open Eye Gallery

Venice,1968. Artist, workers and students protest, XXXIV Esposizione Biennale Internazionale d'Arte “Photo Ugo Mulas © Ugo Mulas Heirs. All rights reserved”Words by Kate Chesters

This exhibition at Open Eye Gallery, curated by Lorenzo Fusi, features documentary photographs taken during some of the most important art events in the world: Documenta in 1959, Kassel, Germany, the 1968 Venice Bienniale, and previous Liverpool Biennials. Throughout the exhibition, the question of “can photography be the site where the history of an exhibition is produced and still retain its independent artistic autonomy, thus overcoming pure documentation?” is discussed.

The first gallery space features the work of Spanish artist Cristina De Middel. In this space, selected images and newspaper cuttings are pasted onto the gallery walls, giving the Open Eye a new appearance – a fresh change from the normal plain white cube. For her contribution to the Biennial, Middel has combined photographs and newspaper articles from previous Biennials in Liverpool. Due to issues of copyright, Middel has manipulated her chosen images (which contain photographs of art works) by pasting over selected areas with coloured paper. By doing this, Middel encourages discussion regarding documentation and appropriation, prompting the audience to question why, if it is acceptable for an artist to create works using appropriated materials, is it not acceptable for a photographer to create art works using images of art?

© Paul Karalius 3

A negative aspect regarding the curation of this exhibition is that there are no explanatory wall texts giving information about the exhibition’s theme to viewers as they enter the first gallery space. Information books are available on benches for visitors to peruse; however, it is not until the second gallery space that the audience is given any real information on the subject of the show. As this exhibition is reasonably conceptual and academic in its theme, more information could have been provided from the outset to aid the visitor’s ease and enjoyment of viewing the works on display.

The second gallery in the exhibition looks at the 1968 Venice Bienniale. All of the works by the three artists in this show links to previous Biennials across Europe. This space contains black and white photographs, a video, and black and white protest boards. The opening of the 1968 Bienniale was one of the most controversial in the history of Venice: many art works were withdrawn or covered, whilst students and artists protested in the streets against the militarised Bienniale, or “the biennial of the police”. The video which plays in this space is spoken fully in Italian which, along with the Italian photographs on display, allows the viewer to more clearly imagine what this revolutionary time was like. The images on display show various exhibitions during the Venice Bienniale, with many art works covered by paper or boards, with statements such as “La Bienniale Fascista” (“The Bienniale is facist”) and “under these conditions we do not open”.

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In the third gallery space, 26 small black and white photographs taken by Hans Haacke are displayed, showing audiences in 1959 at Documenta 2 looking at famous works of modern art by Pollock, Rothko, Mondrian, and Kandinsky amongst others. These images document and capture not only the curation of the exhibition, but also the audience’s responses to the works. When looking at these images you are looking at pictures of pictures: was viewing these photographs the same as physically being at that exhibition and seeing the art works in person? No. A documentary record of something (photographs of an art exhibition, a recording of a theatre performance, a video of somebody singing) is never the same as the real thing. What is recorded of the event will always be nothing more than a document: the art works featured in the photographs taken by Haacke are scaled down and altered because of the uniform size and black and white colouring of his collection. These images, along with the entire theme of the exhibition, are very interesting because of the debates and discussions that they prompt regarding appropriation within art.

This is a very interesting display based on a topic which has not been regularly discussed in exhibitions.

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Not All Documents Are Records is on display at Open Eye Gallery until Sunday 19 October, so get down there this weekend for your last chance to see this unique exhibition!

Image credits: Main image: Venice,1968. Artist, workers and students protest, XXXIV Esposizione Biennale Internazionale d’Arte. Photo Ugo Mulas © Ugo Mulas Heirs. All rights reserved. All installation view images © Paul Karalius.

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