Magnum Photos Now: New Approaches to the Archive

I went to this New Approaches to the Archive talk, part of Magnum Photos Now, a series of lectures about Magnum Photos in this year of their 70th anniversary, because I work in the field of libraries and archives and was interested to learn more about a photographic archive. I expected the talk to be more about the archives themselves, but actually the evening was fascinating even though it wasn’t really what I had expected.

The evening was made up of two talks. The first was delivered by Diane Dufour, director of Le Bal, Paris, who recounted her experiences with exploring the Magnum Photo archives and exploring the concepts behind the photos taken, as well as looking at the differences in opinions of the photographers involved. One section was particularly telling, with pictures of Jewish people settling in Israel, while another photographer’s work showing displaced Palestinians was not published anywhere.

Dr Mark Sealy, curator and cultural historian, then talked about the Eurocentric gaze of typical photography archives and made the important point that the first photographs appeared at the same time as slavery was just coming to an end in the UK – as part of a wider point that a photo shows just one aspect of the world at a particular time. He showed us photographs by and of black people during the twentieth century and emphasised the importance of having diversity among the people who are able to search the archives in the first place.

As someone who works in the field of libraries and archives, the talk was an interesting look at the varied uses which can be made of those archives, and their importance in terms of culture and history.


As part of the London International Mime Festival I attended a screening of the 2010 documentary Puppet at the Barbican Cinema. Made by David Soll, the film followed the New York puppeteer Dan Hurlin as he worked on his production Disfarmer, based on the life of Depression-era photographer Mike Disfarmer. I thought it was fascinating, an intriguing glimpse into how an adult puppet show is made interspersed with the history of puppetry. As someone who loves this art form I found it fascinating.

The Gulch: An Amateur Symposium – Barbican

The Gulch

At the end of November I attended an afternoon of talks at the Barbican taking Bedwyr Williams’ exhibition in The Curve, The Gulch, as a starting point. Held in the Fountain Room, I thought the talks sounded quite interesting and I’m always up for learning new things.

The first talk, on taxidermy, was delivered by Errol Fuller, whose topic was inspired by the presence of a taxidermied goat in the exhibition. He suggested that taxidermy is one example of the smudging of boundaries between life and death. During the Victorian era, taxidermy was used to strong effect in science – for instance, Darwin’s finches which demonstrated the differences between species – but it was also fashionable to use it as decoration in the home. Creatures were often posed and arranged as though in performance: playing cricket, making music.

Taxidermy has been out of fashion for many years, but recently it has started to increase in popularity, with a growing interest in natural history and the ethical sourcing of dead animals to use. Courses are particularly popular among young women aged 15-30, while taxidermied animals have begun to appear in artworks, such as the suspended horse in the Guggenheim.

The golden age of taxidermy spanned from the nineteenth century up to the outbreak of World War One. Every town had its own taxidermist, and nowadays many are famous according to their name and town, such as Hancock of Newcastle. George Ashmead, who created a case of 300 hummingbirds, had business premises in Grosvenor Square, while Roland Ward, famed for his lion biting a bison, had premises in Piccadilly. Between the 1930s and the 1970s many good examples of taxidermy were destroyed, even by curators, as they were out of fashion and seen as valueless.

What was nineteenth-century taxidermy about? Two aspects were particularly popular. One was anthropomorphic taxidermy, primarily for amusement, such as tableaux of fencing mice. Another was the use of animals now extinct, such as the passenger pigeon, native to North America and once the commonest bird on earth. Another example is the Great Auk, of which around 65 examples remain stuffed in museums. Hooiers from New Zealand are the only birds in which the males and females have different beaks, but they became extinct in 1907. The heath hen was common when stuffed in 1880 but has since become extinct: it was stuffed to look dead, and Fuller ends his talk by suggesting that it has now become conceptual art deeper and more profound than actual conceptual art.

The second talk, on magic, was given by Jon Armstrong. He started off with a card trick involving members of the audience, and pointed out that a deck of cards has multiple meanings, with cards relating to the days of the year, the seasons, and more. He discussed the practice of magic as performance art, citing the Davenports, late nineteenth century magicians who had a black box theatre, and the magician Kirby who wrote as far back as 1972 on the relationship between magic and theatre. He discussed The Conjurer by Hieronymus Bosch, a work which portrayed magic as an ancient art, and the theatrical tricks that could be seen as magic, such as flying machinery and the ancient mystery plays that had a “hellmouth” on the stage.

At this point there was a break in proceedings, and I took the chance to go and check out the exhibition, The Gulch. This immersive exhibition in The Curve started with a moonlit beach, on which a sole shoe rested beside a camp fire. It then moved into a small gallery space with a couple of displays, including a chair with a winding road drawn on the back. Next I entered a “backstage area” of boxes, drums and beanbags, that could be before or after a performance.

A boardroom, with a long table and a large screen, followed, with a video of a self-confessed depressed hypnotist followed by a taxidermied goat in a bare room with a microphone. The exhibition ended with a curved stretch of race track on which another shoe could be seen.

I have no idea what any of it meant, but I liked it – I got the sense of someone having just left, an empty space that had been in use until a few seconds ago. I felt as though I was stepping into a story each time I moved into a new space.

The third talk was delivered by Dr. Georgina Guy, who compared aspects of the exhibition to other art exhibitions and installations, relating theatre, exhibition and curation to one another as they are displayed and performed. Unfortunately a lot of her talk went right over my head – as an academic I don’t think I was the right audience for what she was trying to say.

The final talk was possibly my favourite: Christopher Green spoke about the science and showbiz of hypnosis. He read about Victorian hypnotists in the British Library and investigated the relationship between hypnosis, theatre and healing, and how many “serious” hypnotists who want to help people end up using the tricks of “stage” hypnotists. I was particularly interested to learn about the famous female hypnotist, Anne de Montford, the daughter of a millworker, though there were plenty of other fascinating characters, including Henry Blythe the stage hypnotist, who hypnotised his daughter to pass her driving test – and she failed. Green was an incredibly engaging speaker and really sparked my interest in a topic I’d never paid any prior attention to. Overall, a fascinating afternoon.

Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers – Barbican Art Gallery

I attended the exhibition Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers at the Barbican Art Gallery. Curated by the British photographer Martin Parr, the exhibition consisted of photographs by international photographers chronicling Britain from the 1930s onwards, and it was fascinating.

The usual stereotypes – queueing, drinking tea, sitting on the beach – were present, but there were many quirky and unusual shots. Most people photographed were ordinary people going about their day-to-day lives: even the pictures taken during the Coronation of George VI concentrated on the crowds rather than the royals. The exhibition is going to Manchester later this year, and it’s worth catching it if you can.

Barbican Conservatory

I’d been meaning to visit the Barbican‘s Conservatory for a while. The second biggest conservatory in London, it is an oasis of calm, full of greenery to counteract the grey concrete, and incredibly relaxing. It is only open on certain Sundays, which is a shame, but on the plus side it provides the opportunity to enjoy a calming couple of hours on the weekend.

The Conservatory contains tropical fish and over 2,000 species of tropical plants and trees. It is warm and humid but there is a also a drier room full of cacti. There are some lovely flowers too. The Conservatory, which is above the theatre, was opened at the time of the original building and there are some interesting photographs of how it looked then. Definitely worth a visit.


Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector – Barbican Art Gallery

2015-04-30 17.28.46

I popped into this exhibition at the Barbican after seeing a matinee there. Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector showcases the personal collections of a number of different artists.

I whizzed through this exhibition quite quickly; some exhibitions make me pause and reflect and examine each exhibit in minute detail, but this wasn’t one of them. Having said that, it did get me thinking about how artists are inspired by the things they collect. Andy Warhol’s collection of packaging and brands clearly inspired his famous pop-art works, while Damien Hirst’s art was clearly influenced by his varied collection of taxidermy. Looking at this exhibition was something of a guilty pleasure: I am one of those people who likes “things” so seeing collections like this helps to justify my obsession in my own mind. Even though I don’t have the space for a collection of any kind…

Man With a Movie Camera – Barbican Cinema

Shown as part of the City Visions series at the BarbicanMan with a Movie Camera is a 1929 experimental silent film with no story or dialogue, directed by Dziga Vertov and made in the then USSR. This showing was accompanied by Paul Robinson’s HarmonieBand, and preceded by a 3-minute showing of Hungerford: Symphony of a London Bridge, a pilot for a projected London Symphony film.

I went to see this because I am interested in Russia and Russian culture, and I really enjoyed it. The film is full of life and interest, filmed in different Russian towns and including lots of different people. Unusual angles and quirky happenings made it a fascinating watch.

Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age – Barbican Art Gallery

Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age is an exhibition taking place in the Barbican Art Gallery until 11 January 2015. It contains work by eighteen photographers from the 1930s until the present day, such as Berenice Abbott and Hiroshi Sugimoto, and features the work of architects such as Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright.

I found the sheer variety of the exhibition particularly interesting – the photographs cover many different kinds of buildings in lots of different countries. These include 1930s New York, glamorous Hollywood, South American favelas and modern Chinese riverside buildings. The exhibition is definitely worth seeing, even if you don;t think you are interested in architecture.

Digital Revolution – Barbican

Described as “the most comprehensive presentation of digital creativity ever to be staged in the UK”, Digital Revolution, an immersive exhibition of art, design, film, music and videogames at the Barbican, is one of the big exhibitions of the summer. I visited on Saturday afternoon, and thankfully my Barbican membership allowed me free entry without having to wait for an available timeslot – a definite perk of membership!

There were three main sections to the exhibition. The first, which took up the whole of the Curve and several feet outside of it, was by far the largest. The second was a small, fenced-off area in which participants could play some indie computer games. The third was Umbrellium’s Assemblance, a laser room installed in the Pit Theatre. There were other little bits dotted around the Barbican too, such as electronic “pet snakes” as part of Minimaform’s Petting Zoo, and another installation off-site in the Bloomberg Space which I didn’t get round to visiting.

The first bit was great fun, and I think my dad and brother would have loved it. It contained lots of retro computer games, including those I remember, such as Tomb RaiderSuper Mario Bros and The Sims, and those that were before my time, like Pong and Tetris. I was sad not to see the NES classic Blades of Steel there, however!*

The Sims

This nostalgic section was followed by some more modern developments in the field of technology, including some “birds” made from old mobile phones, and an installation by pop star There was also a selection of cutting-edge fashion, including a 3D-printed dress worn by – who else? – Lady Gaga.

Birds of the future
Lady Gaga’s printed dress

If I have a criticism of this part of the exhibition, it would be that it was just so crowded. I understand that it was timed, and the Barbican have genuinely made an effort to control numbers. However, in an interactive exhibition such as this it can be very difficult to play that game or experience that technology without queuing for a while.

Magically transformed into angels
Pretty butterflies

The indie-gaming section would probably be of most interest to serious gamers. I had a go, and recognised one of the games – my housemates have been talking about it for ages. You play an official on the immigration desk of a totalitarian East European state, and you have to decide whether to let people into the country or not. It’s a brilliant idea, but I couldn’t play it for too long as it traumatised me!

The laser room was fun, but I got bored after a few minutes. The exhibition took me around an hour and a half to explore in total. However, I didn’t spend too long in any one place. I am sure that someone who was really passionate about gaming and technology would be able to easily spend half a day or more here.


*Amazing graphics. Awesome music. All your friends will want it!

United Visual Artists: Momentum – The Curve, Barbican

After the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition at the Barbican I had a little time to spare and decided to pop in to Momentum. This exhibition is taking place in the Curve until 1 June and consists of “a carefully choreographed sequence of light, sound and movement, which responds to the unique space of the Curve.”

The environment was created after a lot of research and uses sophisticated technology. I can’t say that I was amazed by it, but I enjoyed the atmosphere, and the lights were rather hypnotic.