Tates Modern and Britain: Street & Studio versus The Lure of the East

Typically, despite the fact that a walk down Vyner Street at this time of year reveals that most galleries are closed for the summer or in the hands of private hires, I still manage to miss or near miss the summer blockbusters I’ve been promising myself to go and see for the last three months.

Orientalism at Tate Britain promises much, largely inspired by the Edward Said connection implied by the title, and sadly doesn’t deliver. The revelation for me on coming across a small oil on paper picture of Sarajevo from 1922 by Stanley Spencer in the very last room was that most of the stuff I’d been looking at before didn’t have any great artistic merit. Even from an anthropological point of view the show doesn’t engage. The imperialist values that seemingly imbue Orientalism have never really express themselves in the purely visual and the show struggles to get to the heart of the matter. The show opens with portraits of Victorian orientalists in arab outfits, the white boy wannabees of their day, moving through architectural studies of Cairo, a very disappointing room showing what the western imagination thought went on in the harem (dull) before petering out in the early twentieth century. The whole thing did make me wonder how things might have played out differently had there been no islamic prohibition on self-representation during the western explorations of the middle-east.

Street and Studio at Tate Modern which you’ve now officially missed is great because as well as the stuff you’d hope to see like Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans the curatorial team have pulled out some seemingly slight but equally powerful pieces you’re less likely to have seen. Coming a few days after my visit to Tate Britain Ed van der Elsken‘s five pictures of a Hong Kong woman again highlighted what was missing for me from the first show. What had appeared to be a set up sequence of a model in the crowds turns out to be way nastier. As Elsken’s is quoted in this extract from the Tate gallery notes:

Ed van der Elsken’s tactics were more aggressively voyeuristic. He followed an anonymous woman around the streets of Hong Kong, creating a sequence of pictures that is reminiscent of a tracking shot from a movie. ‘I followed this babe around for a while. She knew I was doing it, and didn’t like it one bit’, he confessed.

Polish-born (but now based in Germany) Timm Rautert’s 1974 sequence ‘Germans in Uniforms’ made me laugh as did Cindy Sherman‘s ‘Bus Riders’ from 1976. Sherman’s reconstructed the look and poses of a series of people observed on the bus and taken self-portraits. For half the pictures she’s blacked up and here’s my drawing of one of these black bus riders. Here’s my drawing from a sequence of anonymous street photos from 1960s Berlin where passers by posed with a man in a bear costume. I made a list of photographers/works to find out more about (some I’d never heard of):
Lewis Hine
Arnold Genthe’s pictures of San Francisco’s Chinatown
Martin Chambi
James van der Zee
Yva
Arturo Ghergo
Malick Sidibé (I never followed up last time from the Barbican show)
Laurie Anderson’s ‘Fully Automated Nikon [object/objection/objectivity], 1973 and the stuff it’s inspired that’s happening now.

Rght at the end of the show is Rineke Dijkstra‘s two screen video projection ‘The Buzz Club, Liverpool, UK/Mystery World, Zaandam, NL‘ 1996-7 where young club-goers, much the worse for wear in several cases, dance in front of a white screen to a techno soundtrack that seems to be coming from an adjacent room. Larger than life on the wall it’s a powerful piece about inhibition, control.

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