Supernaturalartificial: contemporary photo-based art from Australia

Smaller than previously exhibited; Understandably composed

A timely photography exhibition, perhaps touted as a follow-up to Singapore Art Museum’s Australasia (2004), Supernaturalartificial celebrates digital manipulation. With the Month of Photography, a French affair imported to Singapore to start by the end of June, fine art photography enthusiasts should find this in good contrast to whatever the French can offer to us at the Arts House, and Alliance Francaise. The gallery space is rather well curated, with good visual flow and spacing of works with moving images. This traveling exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue, stashed secretly under the counter and watched over by the security guard.

Photography and its technologies have reached a state that it is no longer bound by ‘truth telling’, and indeed narratives at all. It can be appreciated for its abstract pigment qualities just like painting. It can look like a painting too, like in Tracy Moffatt’s "Invocations". Moffatt’s work does look a bit like traditional ink on paper, in texture, composition and colour. Digital manipulation is here to stay. Digital photography has reached such a consumer level that almost anyone can take pictures, good ones and bad ones. And I suppose bad photographs especially, need that extra special effect that warps the image further. Most of the images in this exhibition fortunately didn't go that far for that extra special effect. The images in this exhibition are surreal and extra ‘not quite right’ when you glare at it for that extra instance. They are incredibly sleek in presentation, something Singapore photographers are not keen to spend on. I have the impression that Singapore photographers take after Wolfgang Tilmans more, preferring to use masking tape, small-head pins and the ubiquitous compressed foam or black frame with windowed mounting card. This exhibition is worth seeing to expect better framing, both conceptually and physically speaking, rather than ranting about a lomo snap shot aesthetics, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment gone awry. If photography arguably brought a ‘certain death’ to painting, then digital imaging must and should push the medium conceptually and physical representation too.

The most natural thing for me was to find the work that best represented the theme. Eliza Hutchinson’s “The Ancestors” came up tops, both in execution and concept. The work featured portraits of a man and woman in an extremely contorted expression, jugular veins almost popping, as if they were hung upside down and forced to smoke at the same time. These corpse-like portraits possibly touched on issues of ancestry, a touchy issue given Australia’s history. The concept of memory recorded through photography is of interest to discuss in relation to the work. A photograph, as Susan Sontag argues in On Photography, is more complicated than simply recording a scene. A successful image evokes emotions, powerful ones too. The photographs rival high fashion photography in sharpness, contrast, uncanny makeup, and lighting. The studio shot is perhaps an example of an artifice to a ‘natural look’ in itself. The title provides the contradiction necessary for the viewer to take a closer look, at the pictures. And they are not death portraits, but possibly actors or the artist and friend.The second interesting work, despite its resemblance to Matthew Barney’s Cremaster series, except this time it’s a female protagonist, is Monika Tichacek’s “Lineage of the Divine”. The glossy lipsticks remind me of John Currin’s busty women paintings, a critique of the stereotyping of women. The image is slightly soft in focus creating a surreal feel, like an air stewardess dressed in a pink uniform. The work obviously reels in Kitsch, possibly appealing to a certain male population in Singapore, probably expecting some other arty thing to happen. Nothing other than lip pouting happens.

The title of the exhibition possibly plays on the word “superficial”, inserting the contradictory word “natural”, against the word “artificial”. This should encourage to viewer to consider the processes these works have possibly undertaken, the subject matter they have captured (e.g. Changi Airport’s bonsai orchids) and the final presentation of the work. The rest of the works not mentioned in this text are subtle, and each works quietly in their own way with emphasis on the media or subject matter befitting of the curatorial title. Some of the works have not used digital manipulation, but deliberately used traditional film-based photography to highlight the superficiality of the nature of certain genre of photographs, regardless of the equipment and the carrier of the image. What this exhibition should say to photographers wannabes, is to compose your photographs, both conceptually and physically.

3.0 of 5 stars, despite the smaller exhibition

NAFA Gallery 1

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