A low key review of selected images in the ‘Cut’ analogue photographic exhibition at the Packing Shed, Harts Mill, Port Adelaide. This exhibition was part of the 2021 SALA Festival in South Australia.
The review focuses on selected photographs in the exhibition to explore the conceptual aspect of photography and the way that it undercuts the common view that a photograph is simply a visual capture of something out there in the world. Cut continues the series previous of exhibitions in Port Adelaide that have been curated by Tony Kearney centring on a single word. It is great to see that conceptual photography is live and flourishing in Adelaide and that it is being approached with some good craft skills. The exhibition is both an argument against the view that conceptual photography isn’t art photography at all, and by taking the craft of photography seriously, it rejects the views of the conceptual artists that photography per se shouldn’t be taken seriously.
The exhibition Cut demonstrates that medium specificity for photography can encompass both images and ideas. An excellent example is Simon Trnovsky’s Facet:
We need to to situate this review in a historical context of art criticism, since both art criticism and reviews of art exhibitions are few and far between these days, even for exhibitions in commercial galleries. What is now published is largely promotional in the context of the cultural devastation of the arts and humanities in Australia since 2016. Art criticism has no central texts and the practitioners engaging with the problematics of a body of work with serious, long form art criticism have retreated to the university. Unfortunately, academics engaging with photography in this way in Australia are few and far between.
This desultory state of affairs — critical failure — is especially the case for reviews of photographic exhibitions in Adelaide. The mainstream press (ie., The Advertiser) no longer does journalistic type art reviews; the online magazines (City Mag) are more concerned with lifestyle (fashion, food and wine); photography has a very low profile in In Review; the Adelaide based visual art magazine Artlink has a national art focus and its reviews section shows little interest in local art photography. Photographic criticism, as distinct from exhibition reviews, is not taken seriously in this capital city’s photoland, which is still beholden to the legacy of the modernist idea of divorcing the image from text to ensure the purity of the medium.
Adelaide’s visual culture is usually overlooked in the national histories of the visual arts, forcing Adelaideans to write about their own history. If we don’t do it ourselves, then it will not get done. Today, only the occasional blog steps into this lack of institutional space with its deafening silence to acknowledge, engage, and write about the art works being produced. Examples of DIY reviews are here and here and here. Unfortunately, blogs are seen as so yesterday in a world of social media now dominated by Facebook, and very few people read them. In this vacuum exhibitions come and go and they are soon forgotten. Along with this forgetting and lack of online conversation is a disappearing sense of a cultural memory of South Australia’s visual history.
It is in this context that Cut appears. It is a curated exhibition of analogue photography held in the Packing Shed at Hart’s Mill in Port Adelaide as part of the 2021 SALA Festival in South Australia. Curation is now central in the art institution, curators are more powerful to the art world that art critics in determining who or what gets shown. Ernest Gombrich’s insight that ‘all art is conceptual’ is accepted as opposed to the innocence of the eye.
The conceptual orientation of Cut is premised on interpreting the word cut, thereby offering a space for photographers to explore the different meanings of cut using film-based photography. The photo below, for instance, refers to rope splicing in ropework: that is, the forming of a semi-permanent joint between two ropes or two parts of the same rope by partly untwisting and then interweaving their strands. A cut splice is is a join between two ropes, made by side splicing the ends slightly apart, to make an eye in the joined rope which lies shut when the rope is taut.
An initial experience of walking around the exhibition is that some photographers ( eg., Annette Willis’ historically significant, sombre black and white prints of the North Head Quarantine Station) left it up to the viewer (not the non-existent art critic) to connect their work on the walls with Cut’s conceptual orientation. Often more emphasis is placed on the equipment and materials (film, paper, print) than a text relating the images to the exhibition’s conceptual underpinnings.
This is disappointing, given that conceptual photography is a means to stage an idea, without having to embrace the common view in the conceptual art movement that the idea is more important than the finished art work. The result is that though there are some bodies of work are really interesting in themselves, such as Nici Cumpston’s delightful hand coloured cacti from Tuscon Arizona 2005-2021, these exclude themselves by failing to engage with the concept and multiple meanings of ‘Cut’.