Review: Flat Death: Edgar Martins & Jordan Baseman at Open Eye

Jordan Baseman, Deadness (Still 139a), 2013. Courtesy the artist and Matt's Gallery, London

Flat Death: Edgar Martins & Jordan Baseman
at Open Eye Gallery. Friday 15 January – Sunday 3 April 2016

Words by Patrick Kirk-Smith. Photographs via Open Eye

Edgar Martins and Jordan Baseman share an unusually indifferent fascination with death. Their fascinations vary, and the pair differ hugely in how they choose to present them, but they don’t ever shock. That’s the worry with this show, it’s what I’ve heard over and over from everyone and anyone; is it just a bit too grim? That’s before they see the exhibition.

This is a clever review of archive photography. It implements responsive skill and impartially responsible research. My over-riding impression of this show was that if Martins and Baseman put their mind to it, they could create an equally in depth show about road related hedgehog deaths. A quality which stems from the exhibition’s two parts: its topic and its media. Both under constant scrutiny.

The pair’s particular brand of fascination for death smacks you in the face, very quietly, when you walk in. A bloodied ligature is the first thing we are given to consider, the second, a series of blank suicide notes. And in a manner that’s all we really get, some skewed facts and some creative solutions to tell a gory story. But have you honestly ever tried talking about suicide? It ends up that way, in a series of confused, creative solutions that don’t really touch on the reality. In this case, that seems intentional. Snap shots; moments in time; snippets of thought; simple interpretations; brave faces.

It is an exhibition that takes something wildly uncomfortable and makes it palatable. It’s a true opportunity to discuss the truth of suicide, and it acknowledges that in the inclusion of Help is at Hand – a national publication for ‘support after someone may have died by suicide’.

Upstairs is perhaps the most confronting, but it uses that confrontation to confront itself, not its audience. It utilises the fleeting nature of the slide projector, and whizzes pictures of the deceased past us with a matter of fact voice from Jordan Bateman. It’s an affront on popular culture, on the glamour of death. A necessary truth that echoes through the entire gallery, not just this audio visual installation.

What compelled me to give the show some serious thought though, surprisingly, was its labelling as a photography exhibition. It takes a modern critical approach to photography. An approach which has grown and grown in relevance since Roland Barthes first used those words: Flat Death. Words explaining a photograph is simply a fixed record in time. Recent well exposed projects, pertaining to that thought, include an incredible series of before and after photographs of the effects of the Japanese tsunami, Mirai e no Kioku, which uses google street view as its lens, and simple basic Photoshop techniques to boost focus. The project used archive imagery from google, as well as a public call out for images, to create two snap shots in time of an entire country.

That temperament when it comes to understanding the role of the photographer is genius. It calls the entire practice into question, and leads to exhibitions like this where sculpture, archive, installation and graphics all come together to form a single photograph. It’s a temperament that seems to be represented by the two artists with a near religious dedication; slightly ironic then that this exhibition never really seems to touch on the religious side of death any further than the funeral locations which happen to appear in some photographs.

Another important skill that every photographer holds in their arsenal, is selection. The ability to make an informed decision on what goes in, and what goes away. In this exhibition, that selection process is hugely apparent, including text from various sources in support of images; showing archive photographs, and hand-picked objects, reframed. There is no doubt that this exhibition is the work of two photographers with big ideas about their medium, but that would be nothing without their dedication to their subject. It is an exhibition that takes a scientific look at death and presents suicide in a haunting matter-of-fact way. It’s a whole new way of looking for the audience; one that sticks.