Sunday 26 October 2008

Sarah Moon at the RCA

Yesterday I managed to catch the last day of a fleeting retrospective of Sarah Moon's work at the Royal College of Art. I had read about it in the Independent earlier in the week (see the article, Frocks and Fantasy below) but at the time it hadn't registered with me just how short has been the run of this exhibition.

I've always been interested in Sarah Moon's work, and never had the chance to see it in such depth. Many of the works were new to me. It was presented in a non-conventionally non-linear way (though apparently carefully planned) which for me worked well, and compounded the eerie claustrophobic essence of her work, where each is separate from the other, whilst the whole effect is of a gently restrained but perhaps slightly insidious "crowding in" around and about you. Like strange dreams, half-remembered. It's possibly worth noting that my companion felt differently about the presentation, and was somewhat thrown by the seemingly disordered approach and particularly the lack of space between the black and white works : the fashion images were presented more conventionally.

Moon has made films of various fairy tales, along with a body of work of film stills from each, and her film The Red Thread (after 'Bluebeard') was included here with stills alongside (The Little Mermaid was also shown on film but unfortunately I was unable to catch this one). I looked at the stills first, which contained a descriptive narrative in french attached to the base the pieces themselves, with translation below. Half of these were in darkness because of the layout of the room, with the screen running the film in the middle. I thought this was a shame as it was almost impossible to read the text or see the photographs in the darkened half of the room. I overheard someone complaining about this later who was told that the point of that part of the exhibition was the film not the stills but I tend to believe that if you are going to show something, you should show it so that it is visible, or not bother at all. The pieces which represented the dead wives were perhaps the most striking of these stills, where each photograph became part of a larger, three-dimensional sculptural piece including some of the trappings of death (for example, strange, dark-blooming flowers). Due to their relative size and the fact that they were not along the furthest walls, they benefited from the spooky half-light within which they were placed.

The Red Thread alludes (I assume) to the line of blood that binds this particular story, and there was such a meandering thread or wire linking each of the pieces. The narrative is Moon's version of the Bluebeard tale, and for me it had an intense kind of almost unbearably uncomfortable claustrophobia that I've not experienced as a viewer since seeing the film Erasorhead. I am fascinated by the way narrative and poetry can be applied to photography, and for this reason found The Red Thread interesting and refreshing although ultimately it left me a little dissatisfied. I enjoyed it's tangible yet metaphorical qualities (such as the thread, the use of text, the sculpted flowers) but I found the husky heavily french-accented narrative, the very heavily-freckled heroine, the hammer-horror, just a little clich├ęd and even at times, bordering on a little silly. (And what is it, continually, with the obsession with freckles in the photography world). But whatever my response and possible reservations, there was a rarely-experienced pleasure in the process of being at the mercy of an unusual and powerful storyteller.

Susannah Frankel writes in the Independent article below “Moon's voice, above all, is an intensely personal one, whispering, rather than shouting.” She certainly does not shout, though I wouldn't describe her work as a whisper either, more an attempt at wordless communication direct to your sub-conscious mind. At it's best, it works powerfully in this way. Occasionally, for me at least, it falters slightly in its originality and becomes just a touch heavy. I wonder if a further pursuit of her own, more literally personal tales would have appealed to me rather than the re-telling of an old, even hackneyed one. But perhaps, given her use of the medium also, that would be a step too deep and too far. And I concede, of course, not her point here.

As for the fashion photography – I adored it. How unique it is to see the fashion world presented in this way, without the glitz and the gloss and not an anorexic model in sight. Truly fashion as a fine art – though Moon herself would be uncomfortable with viewing her own work as art, although is it the 'artiest' photography (a little too much so just occasionally) I have seen in a while.

Reservations aside (small ones really) Moon's retrospective was a breath of fresh air - or should that be the lingering echo of another world. Visual poetry it certainly is. We see far too little such introspective, poetic work amongst the glitzy, over-saturated colours, the deadly smoothness and hyper-reality of popular contemporary photography. It is a great shame this exhibition was not on for longer. However the less comprehensive concurrent exhibition at the Michael Hoppen Gallery runs until the 15th November, so if you missed the RCA exhibition, catch it if you can.

Michael Hoppen Gallery and book Sarah Moon- 1,2,3,4,5

Frocks and Fantasy - The Independent

Sarah Moon at the Kyoto Museum of Contemporary Art