I went to the Hayward today to see an exhibition of the photography of Alexander Rodchenko; the price of the ticket included entry to a show called ‘Laughing in a Foreign Language’, a exhibition which “investigates the whole spectrum of humour, from jokes, gags and slapstick to irony, wit and satire.”
It was a pleasure to go to an exhibition of contemporary art and find that the gallery was filled with the sound of joyful laughter.
No, not really. The humour on display was not generally of the kind that would win the artist a long engagement at the Glasgow Empire. Which is fine; work can be gently humorous or ironic or whatever without being laugh-out-loud funny. But for an exhibition themed around humour, it was a curiously deadening event.
Perhaps something like the Glasgow Empire would be a salutary experience for a lot of contemporary artists: having to cope with failing miserably and visibly in front of a sceptical audience. Perhaps then they would tighten up some of their work so it was a bit more punchy. Can there really be many 30 minute video works that couldn’t be cut down to 20 minutes?
I preferred the Rodchenko exhibition. Rodchenko was a photographer/graphic designer in the USSR in the 20s and 30s; I didn’t know a great deal about him beyond what was featured in the recent BBC history of photography. As far as I can see his most remarkable work was in publications like [I may have the title slightly wrong] The USSR in Construction which combine his photography with typography, photomontage and graphic design to produce something really incredible.
But that aesthetic rapidly fell out of favour with the government, who liked to micromanage all aspects of culture; Rodchenko was accused of ‘Formalism’ and had to find less radical outlets for his creativity. So he switched to a more straightforward kind of reportage. Perhaps most intriguing now are the most Soviet subjects, like the May Day parades and athletic demonstrations.
One aspect of the Rodchenko exhibition which I found interesting was the prints, which had quite a limited tonal range; I know I’ve seen more vibrant versions of the same pictures before. I guess the difference is down to the technological limitations of the older printing process—generally silver gelatine prints—rather than anything else, but it’s an intriguing curatorial question: do you present someone’s work as they produced it, or how you think they would have produced it given the chance? I suppose in a gallery authenticity trumps other considerations so you just post the originals.