Text by Thomas Hopkin
You Are The Company In Which You Keep forms part of The Social: Encountering Photography, a series of exhibitions and events throughout the North East. You Are The Company In Which You Keep takes the ambiguous word ‘company’, as a point of departure to explore both current and pre-existing lens based media.
At the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, Thiago Rocha Pitta’s Homage to JMW Turner is suggestive of the expansive nature of the exhibition. The film depicts a burning boat sitting on a body of water. The title and content prompt a sense of destructive romanticism, and alludes to the fact that the camera does not simply act as a method of documentation. Entering the gallery space, the varying interpretations of ‘company’ forms a structure of different zones within the exhibition.
The first zone explores ‘company’ in a military context, particularly the relationship between war as conflict and as entertainment. Nick Crowe and Ian Rawlinson’s The Opera has military avatars deliver veiled threats, humanitarian concern and portent (one avatar alludes to an as yet unrealised conflict between the U.S. and Russia), highlighting the fluctuating boundaries of fantasy and reality in our experiences of conflict. This idea continues with Melanie Friend’s The Home Front series and Craig Ames Other Theatres. The former looks at the popular spectacle of the air-show and the latter documents sites of ‘Mil-Sim’, a game that gives participants ‘authentic’ battle experience.
The next zone focuses on the company we find in urban living, sub-culture and leisure. Martin Parr’s familiar playfulness finds itself aptly juxtaposed with Paul Graham’s pressing melancholy, and the re-appropriated photos of John Stezaker compliment the cut and paste techniques of Linder. The presence of these established practitioners by no means overshadows lesser-known artists. Daniele Sambo’s Sown series shows transformed green spaces in urban environments. The message is one of empowerment and transformation – an idea that resonates throughout this section of the exhibition.
The final ‘company’ is economic. Tim Mitchell focuses on the recycling of something as banal as clothing and at the other extreme, a ship. While the dismantling of a ship has allegorical connotations in a North East context, the meandering journey of fabric presents our perceived charity as part of the chain of consumption.
At Sunderland Museum and Winter Garden’s site there is a theme of ritual – the rituals associated with cultural idiosyncrasies and the ritual of photography itself. Natasha Caruana’s series Fairytale For Sale is a peculiar look at marriage through the images posted by brides wishing to sell their used wedding dresses. The self-disfigured photos aim to provide anonymity between buyer and seller but inadvertently evoke Baldessari and Stalinist censorship in equal measures.
As a phrase, ‘You Are The Company In Which You Keep’ is often used in a negative context. Here it is used to cast a light on contemporary notions of structuralism, with the lens playing the paradoxical role of captor and liberator. Moreover, the exhibition realises the captured image as both a commentator and by-product of our social lives.