Expanded Self-Portraiture, This Unfolds, Ffotogallery, Cardiff

Text by Luke Healey

This Unfolds is a significant milestone in Ffotogallery’s Wish You Were Here programme, which sees them oscillating between their HQ at Penarth’s Turner House and Cardiff’s Dairy, as part of a space-sharing arrangement with the temporarily homeless g39. Featuring 7 Welsh-resident photographic artists, many of them fairly recently graduated, the show undertakes to examine an approach to lens-based practice situated around ideas of narrative, duration and what the curator, Leela Clarke, refers to as ‘a kind of expanded self-portraiture’.

The work of Ami Barnes is undoubtedly the truest example of the latter on show here. Barnes successfully delivers a self-portraiture refracted and realised through all the mediatic surfaces that stand in the way of intention, representation and self-knowledge post-Match.com and post-Facebook. For First Dates, shown here in only half its glory, the artist, while posted in Marseille, invited six individuals out on dates. The documentation of these ambiguously romantic encounters is presented in slide-show format, overdubbed with the artist’s own narrated recollections. The trade-off was simple: her counterpart would be invited to live out their ideal first date in return for the experience being caught on film, by means of remote control to which both participants had access.

The finished product is reminiscent of lo-fi reality TV, with all the grisly fascination that entails – particularly in the case of the one really bad date recorded here. If First Dates functions as an effective comment on the commodification and hyper-narration of personality in the 21st century – the ‘unfolding’, in other words, of something previously singular into a stream of harvestable data – and of how this century’s emotional openness seems at one with a certain remoteness and disaffection (Barnes is concerned that the aforementioned ‘really bad date’ is using intimate conversational gambits merely to get good images), it also speaks more fuzzily about the relationship between image and wish-fulfilment, a shadowy discourse represented here by a stark, flinty economic transaction.

Unlike brasher examples of contemporary autobiographical work – one shudders to think of how First Dates might have turned out in the hands of Tracy Emin – Barnes’s work rewards rather than deflects time spent in its company. This is true of a number of the best works in this show, so that, ingeniously, the title This Unfolds works not just as a thematic marker but also as a two-word review.

Ryan Moule’s contribution, in particular, equals and then surpasses the Four Tet song for which the exhibition is named in terms of slow-burning emotional potency. January 1988 is as straightforward in its execution as Barnes’s First Dates: a time-lapse film of a durational work realised at the Truman Brewery, London in June 2010, for which Moule suspended a photograph of himself as a baby in his mother’s arms, subjecting this sentimental relic to the vicissitudes of chemical reaction, and ultimately erasing the image.

The idea of erasure has a strong lineage in contemporary art, stretching back at least as far as Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased Willem de Kooning Drawing. Though Moule’s film resonates with the ideas and appearances of this lineage (the washed out, semi-erased aesthetic of Gerhard Richter’s portrait work is another clear touchstone), it seems neither over-academic nor – as might be the other danger – melodramatic, instead treading the fine ground between Roland Barthes’s categories of studium and punctum, and augmenting the question mark projected by Barnes’s work onto the relationship between emotion and image in an age of endless reproduction.

Though the show as a whole possesses an overriding maturity, not all the works in question are as engrossing as those provided by Barnes and Moule. Amy Bullock’s large prints of deerskin floating on water are stunning, but their Beuysian poetics lacks depth, even if the carefully chosen hue of the accompanying wall texts – grey on grey – means that the accompanying inscriptions appear in a process of gradual revelation. Sheree Murphy’s images the homes of recently deceased relatives display their hauntological wares a little too obviously, and Chiara Tocci’s photographic studies of remote areas of Albania seem similarly bound too tightly to the conventions of ‘serious’ photojournalism, even if they are ostensibly underpinned by a rich, personal-political narrative encompassing the artist’s childhood and the migration of Albanians to her Italian hometown.

Absalom & Bardsley’s attempt at conveying social narrative through photographic montage is altogether more successful. Their studies into 8X’s, the ex-ammunition storage site in Bridgend, South Wales, is a concise and vibrant document of the lived experience of those born and raised in the sorts of ‘remote areas’ used as chess pieces in successive international conflicts: built for World War 2, the site was later nominated as a safe haven for a select 200 individuals should nuclear weapons ever be dropped on British soil. After the worst of the Cold War was passed, the artists colourfully record, 8X’s became a sort of adventure playground, and a key part of any Bridgend childhood. Images of industrial cast-offs bent and morphed into play equipment possess a levity and knowingness lacking from Tocci’s work.

This wit is shared by the Norwegian Paal Henrik Ekern’s large-scale photographs, which confront the Italian’s studies from the opposite wall. Manscapes repeats the same scene over and over again – a besuited Ekern confronts a naked Ekern against a bucolic backdrop taken either from his adopted or native home. Each work is a frozen dramatic narrative or a frozen joke: these wide-open landscapes are the sort of places where one might go to ‘find oneself’, but not perhaps in this way. A reductio ad absurdum in photographic form, Manscapes hints at something more stunted, self-fulfilling and ultimately futile in the quest for self-definition. If Ekern’s work evokes a particular act of ‘unfolding’, it’s the unfolding of an onion: a trek through seemingly endless selfsame layers that induces tears and ultimately leaves you with nothing.

This Unfolds ran from 18 August – 3 September. Currently on show at Ffotogallery’s The Dairy is Gawain Barnard: Maybe We’ll Be Soldiers and at the main gallery, David Barnes: King Tide.


Ami Barnes from First Dates (2010)
Courtesy the artist