Win­dows on the world

Stills and Street Level join forces for Am­bit – a wide- rang­ing show­case of work by emerg­ing pho­tog­ra­phers based in Scot­land

The Scotsman - - ARTS - Su­san­mans­field @ words­mans­field

Iam al­ways heart­ened by art that con­cerns it­self with so­cial is­sues, which sets out to say some­thing about the world, per­haps even with a mind to change things. How­ever, it can be such a re­lief to see art which en­gages with more than just other art, one can for­get how hard it is to do this well.

Shadi Habib Al­lah’s work at CCA is con­cerned with the small lo­cal shops in Mi­ami’s Lib­erty City, where he used to live, which are strug­gling for sur­vival and re­sort­ing to an al­ter­na­tive econ­omy of ex­chang­ing food stamps for cash at pro­hib­i­tive rates. It’s an is­sue ( with or with­out food stamps) which is af­fect­ing in­de­pen­dent shops the world over, and one well worth ex­plor­ing.

Part of his ex­pres­sion of it is a 750 square foot vinyl floor from a for­mer

cor­ner shop in Mi­ami which has been shipped into the gallery and ti­tled 70 Days Be­hind In­ven­tory. A fur­ther work, Mea­sured Vol­umes, ar­ranges the plas­tic wrap­ping used for mul­ti­packs of bot­tles aim­ing, per­haps, to sug­gest a shop no longer deal­ing in real goods.

The floor, though awk­wardly in­stalled be­hind a video screen, is evoca­tive of its past life, but it doesn’t ex­plain the prob­lem – we need the ac­com­pa­ny­ing text for that. An au­dio ex­tract from the Oprah Win­frey Show in 1986 on the sub­ject of wel­fare high­lights how poli­cies make peo­ple turn on each other, the “de­serv­ing poor” on the “un­de­serv­ing.” But th­ese dis­parate el­e­ments feel life­less; there is no artis­tic trans­for­ma­tion. Be­ing placed in an art gallery is not al­ways enough to make some­thing art. Habib Al­lah’s 2010 film, The King

and the Jester, is a dif­fer­ent kind of work. Made in an auto re­pair shop in Lib­erty City, the 30- minute film looks like pure fly- on- the- wall ob­ser­va­tion of the banter of em­ploy­ees and cus­tomers, the odd hi­er­ar­chies and power re­la­tion­ships which de­velop in the work­place. How­ever, it is partly scripted, a so­phis­ti­cated piece of work de­vel­oped dur­ing a long pe­riod of en­gage­ment with the men in the car yard, very likely end­ing up with some­thing both odder and more “real” than fly- on- the- wall cam­eras would have cap­tured.

There is a sim­i­lar in­tent in

Work­ers! – the film made by Swedish artist Pe­tra Bauer for Col­lec­tive in col­lab­o­ra­tion with SCOT- PEP, a char­ity led by sex work­ers which ad­vo­cates for the rights of those in the sex in­dus­try. The film is the prod­uct of a three- year en­gage­ment pe­riod, and cred­its SCOT- PEP as co- cre­ators. The film fo­cuses on a day when the char­ity took over the STUC build­ing in Glas­gow and hosted its own con­ven­tion: we see them putting up pic­tures, lay­ing out bis­cuits on plates, iron­ing ban­ners. While pro­tect­ing their anonymity ( at least un­til the fi­nal scene) Bauer lets us eaves­drop on their con­ver­sa­tions, mostly earnest dis­cus­sions about their cam­paigns.

The group is clearly work­ing hard to align it­self with trades union tra­di­tions – right down to the ret­rostyle ban­ner cre­ated in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the artist Fiona Jar­dine (“Sex work­ers – unite!”) – to iden­tify it­self as a union, and sex work as work. There is a de­bate to be had about this, but the film ei­ther ig­nores this or pre­tends it has al­ready hap­pened. By mak­ing her sub­ject the co- au­thor of her work, Bauer has given up her own au­tho­rial dis­tance, her right to ask chal­leng­ing ques­tions.

The artist and her team have cre­ated a rather beau­ti­ful, qui­etly con­tem­pla­tive film while avoid­ing, with al­most com­i­cal del­i­cacy, any ref­er­ence to what it is th­ese work­ers do. The ar­range­ments of bis­cuits, the right- on con­ver­sa­tions, cer­tainly chal­lenge our per­cep­tions of sex work­ers, but also leave us rather

Shadi Habib Al­lah: Free Rein

CCA, Glas­gow Pe­tra Bauer and SCOTPEP: Work­ers Col­lec­tive, Ed­in­burgh

JJJ Am­bit: Pho­togra­phies from Scot­land Street Level Pho­toworks, Glas­gow and Stills, Ed­in­burgh The ar­range­ments of bis­cuits, the right- on con­ver­sa­tions, cer­tainly chal­lenge our per­cep­tions of sex work­ers

dis­en­gaged, while the ele­phant in the room is trum­pet­ing loudly in our ears.

Mean­while, Scot­land’s two ded­i­cated photograph­y gal­leries join forces again for Am­bit, the an­nual show­case of emerg­ing Scot­land- based pho­tog­ra­phers. The 11 artists shown across the two spaces are a very internatio­nal group, wide- rang­ing in their sub­ject mat­ter, ge­o­graph­i­cal lo­ca­tions and ap­proaches to photograph­y.

Kieran Dodds ( Stills) ful­fils one tra­di­tional func­tion of photograph­y by show­ing us an as­pect of the world we ( very likely) didn’t know about: Te­wa­hedo Ortho­dox churches in Ethiopia, and the oases of trees they have around them, in an other­wise crit­i­cally de­for­ested land. Edyta Ma­jew­ska ( Street Level) de­scribes her own jour­ney through ap­ply­ing for Bri­tish cit­i­zen­ship, us­ing a wide range of pho­to­graphic me­dia, from po­laroids to printed wall­pa­per, to ex­plore her feel­ings.

Iain Sar­jeant ( Street Level) doc­u­ments Scot­land with a eye for the un­ex­pected, the in­con­gru­ous and the quirky: a squint lamp­post cut­ting across a build­ing, hay bales wrapped in bright pink plas­tic. Alex Hall ( Stills) finds a kind of ele­giac beauty in a scrap­yard, each dam­aged car ev­i­dence of a trauma. Mhairi Law ( Stills), has shot a se­quence of im­ages in low light of the marker off the coast of the Isle of Lewis where the HMY Io­laire sank in 1919 with the loss of over 200 lives.

Some of the other artists pri­ori­tise ex­plor­ing the pro­cesses of photograph­y for con­cep­tual rea­sons, or use pho­to­graphic el­e­ments as part of a wider fine art prac­tice, but th­ese five artists all tell a story. It’s not that photograph­y can’t be con­cep­tual, or ex­plore what is be­neath the sur­face, but what comes across, at least from this ex­hi­bi­tion, is that the medium is ide­ally suited to telling us things about the world, or invit­ing us to see ev­ery­day things in new ways.

Shadi Habib Al­lan un­til 2 June; Pe­tra Bauer and SCOT- PEP un­til 30 June; Am­bit is at Stills un­til 2 June, and at Street Level Pho­toworks un­til 23 June.

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