Monday, June 18, 2007

Trust: India In Sight

Having known Ryan Davis and Jason Sellars since they returned from their travels in India (amongst other places) roughly two years ago, I eagerly anticipated the opening of Trust at the old Timemasters location adjacent to the War Memorial in downtown St. John's.

I have noted previously on this blog the ease with which individuals can apply for funding from the NLAC, and have suggested more stringent guidelines (or guidelines of any kind, for that matter) be put in place to limit the number of applicants to those with a demonstrable, long-term commitment to an art practice, or showing in peer-reviewed galleries. I've heard too many stories about first time grant recipients failing to complete their proposed projects, realizing too late that this art thing we're all talking about actually requires a lot of hard work, dedication, intelligence and consideration, and isn't just something you can slap together in a weekend.

As both Davis and Sellars lack formal art training, and have limited exhibition experience, not to mention they're both friends of mine, the June 15th opening for Trust brought a great deal of anxiety for both professional and personal reasons. Happily, my worries were almost completely misplaced.

Davis' colour photographs juxtapose the many ironies of contemporary India: a giant Real Estate billboard proclaiming a new house as the way to impress your future wife dominates the street corner under which dozens of filthy beggars congregate. In another, an old woman huddles beneath the word "TRUST" painted on the wall over her head. A third shows an ice cream man sleeping atop his ice cream cart on a deserted, wind-swept beach.

Davis obviously has those two vital skills necessary to being a good photographer: compositional sense and wonderful timing. The photos wouldn't look out of place in some slick, high-end travel magazine, or on someone's living room wall.

Sellars' suitcase installations are more poetic in their manifestation of the artist's experience of India. Using drawings and text from the actual journals he kept while traveling, in addition to sound recordings of trains, snatched conversations and a multitude of other ambient noises, Sellars presents a kind of mythic journey through a haunting, magical and frightening jungle whose ancient secrets can never be known.

But as I walked around the jam-packed opening (the two collaborators know how to throw a party), I found myself wondering about the people in those photographs, and whose voices I heard on the tape recordings, and couldn't shake thinking about the capital (cultural and otherwise) Davis and Sellars had accumulated as a result of this project. Could it be considered exploitative for two Western artists to use the poverty-stricken masses of India in the creation of a cultural product to be consumed by a mostly white, educated, middle-class audience? I thought of Martha Rosler's Bowery photos.

True, the artists did have a box at the door where you could donate some money for one of the schools where Davis and Sellars taught while overseas, but as I watched the crowds of people heading off to the bars, or to their clean quiet homes after the festivities were drawing to a close, I wondered if the subjects of the show would have considered it enough.


Anonymous jpohl said...

That's an age old question with photography/image making in general. When does art become exploitation?

I remember thinking a close friend had gone too far with fuzzy, romantic, hand tinted, black and white photos of sleeping homeless people. Maybe I was wrong, maybe not. Who knows? There is usually justification (aka irony) and it depends on whose eyes you are looking through and who you are speaking for.

I'm too far away to see the show, although your description makes the work sound quite interesting. (I could almost see the work in my mind.) I'm not sure I'd put a limit on who the potential audience. If something really works, and is does with sensitivity photography has great power to move, motivate, empower, and communicate to a much wider audience.

More and more often fears limit great candid photography that could live on for years after we all pass away. Fear of exploitation is just one of these. In some ways this can be seen as a healthy development, but it's a double edged sword. I wrote a little post about this some time ago:

Pehaps there is still something of the belief we can capture souls with a camera, or in an era of political awareness a feeling that we should have more respect for others, or perhaps like the doctor who wouldn't help a patient out on the street, more and more of us are afraid of being sued.

baby calling me... hope this makes sense.
cheers, jp

8:49 p.m.  
Anonymous jpohl said...

strange timing, but i just was shocked today to hear from a family member that somebody had cropped a baby picture my husband had taken of our first born son when he was barely a day old. This person put it on a news blog without our permission, and the image was then also picked up by google news. We've sent a cease and desist, but it's not nice to think about my baby's hospital picture being exploited/used as clip art. I've come across people using my paintings to illustrate non related posts in the past, but somehow this bothers me much more.

it also gives me pause for thought when the shoe is on the other foot. maybe there is something to be said for photo releases.

4:52 a.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

interesting review,..
esp. the exploitative position,..tappin in to these socially conscious ideas, good? bad?
its a fine line when your essentially a tourist,..
ever heard of the idea that the camera steals your soul? This might sound silly to some people but what I'm trying to get at is, How well do you know a culture because you taught there for a couple years? How candid were these pictures and how would the subjects feel knowing theyre hanging on a wall, while people shmoozed the opening party sippin wine and feeling good about how poetic everything is...
Anyways, Oprah recently built a school for a limited number of girls (girls/boys?) to attend - those with the best marks, to learn a little of what its like to be a westerner...

5:12 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"how would the subjects feel knowing theyre hanging on a wall, while people shmoozed the opening party sippin wine and feeling good about how poetic everything is..."

that's hard to say isn't it? some might feel exploited, and some might feel honored. It depends what was said to them when the photo was taken, before or after.

I usually ask permission before or after, if I think there is a small chance an imagae may end up as a study for a painting (and if the portrait is an obvious thing.)

btw. it looks like the news site responded to our request to remove our baby's picture. having second thoughts about google image search. it almost seems set up to encourage people to rip off other people's work. If i ever use images for my blog I ask permission, give credit and/or link directly to the source, but many people don't have that much integrity. Hope this is not too much off topic... just following the discussion on exploitation.

and speaking of which i was suprised to find one of my body parts appeared at rca and i wasn't notified... not that I would say no to the well known photographer in question, but it was a nice how do you do. I meet my friends partner for the first time... and he tells me they were just looking at my derriere in the gallery. I'm not sure if I was more shocked that anybody could tell that it was me. The things we do when we are young and foolish.

I think I just wrote too much...

1:52 p.m.  
Blogger Gillian said...

I think one of the questions
that need to be asked to determine
if a show like this is exploitative
is to what extent the artists are collecting profits from this work-
yes they did receive funding from nlac- but the funds raised by donation from the exhibit are going
someplace useful-

"Admission to the show is by pay-what-you-can donation. All funds raised will go to the Friends of the Tarabai Desai Eye Hospital in Rajasthan, a family-run hospital that provides free or low-cost eye surgeries and treatment for those in need."
quoth Erin McKee, the scope.

I think these photographs and the suitcases illustrate the relationships Jason and Ryan had with India and the people they met- I think it's a little too simple to just throw out a musing on the nature of exploitation in art work and photography without fully contextualizing the work. It would be different if, as what often happens, this work was made for exclusive purpose of profit for the artists with no recognition of reciprocity of the subjects implicated in the work.

In this day and age I don't think it's possible for work to be made by Westerners about travel in non-Western parts of the world w/out these questions being raised. It's good to know that Jason and Ryan were mindful of these questions in the production and exhibition of their work.

cheers m'dear.

7:19 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

that fact that its so easy to throw out musings on the nature of exploitation should be telling of the mindfulness of this exhibition. I don't think this issue is dealt with in an overt way/ unconsidered. So what if they are donating money? This doesn't mean anything. Because you do something/ a good gesture/ in a public setting doesn't mean you are a great person. this can often be read as an act of vanity - excessive pride in one's appearance, qualities, abilities, achievements..So why shouldn't something like this/ appearance of being socially conscinece/ be scrutinized? And since when does being socially conscience equal good art? These are good photographs at best and perhaps they might make good photographers some day. But I might get more out of a National Geographic magazine to satisfy my aesthetic sensibilities as well as my hunger for knowledge of this place...

2:14 a.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


june 18....come on, get with it!

11:49 a.m.  
Anonymous mrpig said...

yo Craig

Is this the end?????????????????

9:49 p.m.  
Anonymous ziggy said...

How about a review of Annette manning trinkas show

6:17 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

you always hear how there's nothing going on in NFLD...can it be, six months since anyone made any art?

Write something or kill the blog!

3:06 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

it's over!

11:43 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Went to the opening and found it very interesting. However, that was many months ago and I was wondering what happened to you???? You've not posted in sooooooo long. I know that there have been many exhibitions over the past few months. What have you been doing? I do hope you're feeling well and you're not gone off somewhere to leave us all in the lurch.

However, from seeing the comments here, it seems that this blog has become extinct!

12:49 p.m.  

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