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In conversation with Thomas Dukes, Curator at Open Eye Gallery

All Images courtesy of Paul Karalius,2016

It’s November 2015 and I’ve just got off the plane from Berlin having seen the Anton Corbijn exhibition 1-2-3-4 at CO Berlin. Unsurprisingly when I land in Manchester its cold, grey and a light drizzle accompanies the drive over to Liverpool where I meet Thomas Dukes, curator at Open Eye gallery, for the first time. He meets me in the first floor gallery space where I’m looking at Zanele Muholi’s black and white portraits of black queers and transgender as part of her Vukani/Rise exhibition.
As we walk by gallery two up to the meeting room upstairs we pass floor to ceiling windows, Dukes tells me this is his favourite part of the gallery. The view outside is Albert Docks and with so much surrounding glass the water glistens. The introduction of windows into gallery spaces is an interesting one. Initially the white crisp walls and artificial lighting were to provide a sterile environment for which to study art without distraction, a neutral space, where pre-existing ideologies would not impinge on the meaning of the work. By allowing natural light and a view from which to see society flow past deconstructs this fragile environment, the experience becomes more social. The window becomes a viewpoint from which to stop and meditate, whether that is on art, life or the intersection of both. align=

Dukes is keen to establish that Open Eye Gallery is a space that exhibits the medium of photography, and not a photography gallery. Whilst this might seem a play on semantics the implications are palpable. The move away from the white cube for many galleries has been a change in wall colour, in the way text is displayed or even removed completely, in the way the work is hung, still on a wall but the composition varies. Open Eye are more experimental, they push the boundaries of what is expected when viewing photography in a gallery setting, something that has been well received by visitors. Dukes recounts an exhibition by Kohei Yoshiyuki’s that took place during the 2012 Liverpool Biennial under the theme ‘The Unexpected Guest’. The work spanned the lower two galleries, the first depicted a cube of 3 x 3 television sets, showing images of video taken in a Tokyo park, arms and legs entangled, clothes in disarray, the content is explicit though the execution demands the viewer to take the subject matter seriously. Moving into the second gallery, the viewer was handed a torch in which to find the images that lurked in the darkness of the gallery space. This performance positioned the viewer into the photographers place, some would argue that this deepens the experience and level of empathy from the visitor, however its also questions the role of photographer as a passive voyeur. Dukes remarks that the visit was an experience for the audience, it stuck in people’s minds and received excellent feedback. 

We fast-forward to the Liverpool Biennial in 2014, entitled ‘A needle walks into a Haystack’ the statement for the biennial states that the artists involved “attacked the metaphors, symbols and representations that make up their own environment, replacing them with new meanings and protocols”. In the Open Eyes’ exhibition statement a question is posed “can photography produce the history of an art exhibition and still retain its artistic autonomy?”. The question is problematic on a number of counts. It is in gallery one, where the commissioned work of Cristina De Middel resides, that these issues are debated in relation to the Liverpool biennials. De Middel uses archival material from previous Liverpool Biennials to create a new installation that covers the three walls in newspaper clippings, exclaiming “£300,000 for that!” alongside images of exhibitions and performances. Layered over the top are framed photographs of other artist’s work that have been censored by blocks of pink paint. It seems appropriate that De Middel, a former photojournalist, has chosen to produce a newspaper to accompany the exhibition, one page has two sections cut out, symmetrical in appearance, although with little reference as to what, as a viewer, I’m supposed to realise is missing. Whilst issues on appropriation and authenticity are put under the spot, I can’t help but feel that the potency of the work lies in a deeper understanding of what Biennials are, what they can achieve, and an intricate knowledge of prior works exhibited. 

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Liverpool Biennial 2016

On the 9th October at half two we arrive at Open Eye Gallery, ready for a tour guided by Dukes. It’s the final tour during the biennial, there are only three of us, and it makes for a more informal and personal tour. We start in gallery one, with a piece that examines the mass protest against the Conservative Government’s Youth Training Scheme by artist Koki Tanaka. Across one side of the gallery space are three enlarged contact sheets where the eye is drawn by the cliché red outlines around select photographs taken by Dave Sinclair during the 1985 protest march. 

In June 2016 Tanaka visited Liverpool for the first time, inviting original participants to take part in a re-enactment of the march, joined on the day by young volunteers brandishing placards made by the artist - they now sit leaning against the gallery wall, upside down with the tidiest typography I’ve ever seen on placard. The TV screens play the re-enacted march, interviews and conversations between the original participants and the youths who volunteered to take part in the new event. One TV screen is placed in front of sofa, which Dukes tells us was at the request of the artist, whilst the other is on the back of a wooden construct that was part of the previous exhibition. 

Dukes mentions that many have questioned the decision to commission a Japanese artist to look at English politics, whilst he cites that it is interesting to have a fresh perspective, there is the wider perspective that it serves foreign policy objectives and in doing so allows for a greater international dialogue that can connect people and ideas across the globe.  

When asked what is expected when entering the gallery the first response is “to be given information”. The information relating to the exhibition was pasted on the back of a wooden construct. There are several texts in the main gallery relating to artwork and the Biennial itself. When visiting galleries I tend to view the work first, then finish by reading the text provided and see if my interpretation of the work ties in with the artists. In a bold move in 2013 the Tate Britain decided to remove their accompanying texts, much to the displeasure of their visitors. Whilst having texts provides context for a lot of visitors, it can limit their interpretation of the work. From the perspective of an artist you realise that once the work has been disseminated you have very little control over the interpretation of your work.

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On the note of mass communication Dukes talks of how during the first protest children had to use flyers and word of mouth in order to organise the march. The age of mass communication is dying due to technology; a new world emerges where the individual has more power. In a world where you can sign several petitions on Facebook in a single hour, it’s difficult to imagine a march of this scale taking place today in Liverpool, even in the guise of a re-enactment. 

Vertical strip lights sit high upon on the wall, illuminating the area with an even light. Dukes notes that Tanaka talked about the democracy of light, his dislike of audiences being guided around gallery spaces by spotlights. I find the notion of democratic lighting an interesting one, especially after years of visiting photography galleries where lights act as beacons enticing people to the jagged edges of frames, before falling off into the shadows and nothingness. Artists taking control, assuming some of the aspects of curation, especially in regards to lighting, is an idea that lingers from the 2014 biennial. The artist Whistlers’ paintings, displayed at the Bluecoat, displayed his patented ‘Velarium’ system, folds of yellow material hung from the ceiling, pinched at points by hangers, diffusing the light around the room. Whistler was one of the first artists to think about the exhibition space as a complete environment, where colour schemes and gallery attendant’s clothes were taken into consideration. This consciousness as to how your work is being presented to your audience adds to the widening current debate as to the roles we each play, and how these are constantly evolving, for example, the artists role is no longer limited to creating work, you now have to consider the space it will be exhibited, the colour scheme, the amount of works displayed, roles are progressing and expanding.

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The second gallery is occupied by artist Fabien Giraud and Raphael Siboni with the series ‘La Vallee Von Uekull”. Using the latest video cameras the duo record sunsets, minus the lens on the camera, in the hope that one day they will be able to capture more information than the naked human eye. Without the lens the image is soft, pixelated, beyond any real recognition. There is no sound in the space, and the image takes up the entire back wall. The ceiling is low, with wooden slats painted white to match the walls, I feel as though I’m inside of a container, adding to this sense of time standing still with an overall awareness of movement outside of the space.  

Three quarters of the way back from the screen sits a wooden bench where one can sit and watch the sunset. I wonder if there is enough information, visually or from the artist statement to encourage people to stay in the space. In the time we’ve been in several people have come and gone within minutes. Perhaps this exposes one of the main challenges with any Biennial, dealing with peoples short attention span, with such a cornucopia of information on offer it’s difficult to get people to sit and focus. When our art education teaches us to build projects that require slow, long analysis, it becomes at odds with the audiences needs. Yet as I watch the mellow light slowly shift into warmer colours, I begin to relax, everything seems to slow down, the notion of what time is and what it means lingers in my mind.

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Upstairs leads to the third gallery space where the work of Hesam Rahmanian, brothers Ramin and Rokni Haerizadeh resides. The trio have moved away from the stereotypical white wall gallery space by painting the walls, changing the light colour, the assemblage of sculpture, photographic prints, video and sound, in doing so they alter the atmosphere and the perception of the work exhibited. 

Three submersibles, Anti-Catty, Princess Rambo and Space-Sheep were created by the group to smuggle art work from Dubai to Liverpool. Space-Sheep sits at the far end of the room, the metallic surface of the sculpture glowing red under the lights. Deciphering the shapes integrated into the sculpture I can make out an ironing board, balancing a top a wheelchair, with four small plastic garden chairs.

The film projected onto the wall amid the intricate detail of black and white triangles depicts the artists performing to the camera, dressed up and wearing pig masks. The masks mixed with the music calls to mind Studio Ghibli’s animated film Spirited Away, in which the main characters parents gorge themselves on food until they turn into pigs. The film explores capitalisms single-minded concern with value, and its effect on traditional Japanese Culture. I see these elements mirrored in their work, there is a deep concern over the standards of value, their constructed installations confront the conventional modes of presentation, it is this challenge of the traditional that has led to the Iranian Haerizadeh brother’s exile in Dubai. After exhibiting in Saatchi exhibition Iranian officials became aware of their work, raided a collector’s home, confiscating two of their works and threatening the patron with 4 months in prison. Another Iranian artist Monir Farmanfarmaian had her collection confiscated by officials during the Revolution, and has since moved to Dubai, and now sees part of her collection for sale at auctioneers such as Sotheby’s.

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One section of the gallery space escapes the red light and the psychedelic black and white triangles, a solid block of dark green paint tapers off in a triangular fashion drawing the viewer in. The change in decor and style tell us to focus, pay attention, this is important. Upon the green wall sit three prints, each from the private collection of the artists, reading left to right sit framed photographs by Mona Hatoum, Helen Chadwick and Robert Mapplethorpe, each one smuggled in on a submersible.

Tucked away in the far right corner of the gallery sits a suitcase, an artefact that Dukes nearly forgets during the tour, hardly surprising given its out of synch with the rest of the work in the room. The piece is by artist Lara Favaretto, entitled ‘Lost and Found’, and features a series of lost luggage in which she has placed one of her own items inside and then thrown away the key. The luggage has been disseminated across several different sites of the biennial and is somewhat crude in its attempt to draw connections across the different sites.

As the tour ends we peel away, studying the individual works more closely, for myself it was the photographic prints, in particular Mapplethorpes’. In such a short space of time we’ve covered a lot of conceptual ground. Dukes enthusiasm for the work and artists carried the tour through at a steady pace, allowing us all time to consider the works and discuss our thoughts. I am conscious that space and time have repeated themselves throughout this written piece; perhaps it is a subtle nod to the theme of the Liverpool Biennial, which is time travel. As we leave the gallery to explore the other exhibits and spaces one question resounds - what is the role of an artist?