Exposed: Voyeurism and surveillance

Does it live up to the billing?


Filth

While voyeurism features in both the title and the content of this exhibition, those hoping for an erotically charged Stendhal's syndrome moment are likely to be disappointed. However, Auguste Belloc, evidently an early pioneer of pornography with his stereoscopic images from 1860, gives photographic form to art’s most enduring image, the nude.

Among the most surprising images is that of the scarred torso of Andy Warhol taken by Richard Avedon in 1969. The patchwork of stitching is almost painful to look at and suggests that the perpetrator of these injuries, Valerie Solanis, wasn’t kidding with her SCUM Manifesto – The Society for Cutting Up Men.

A darkened corridor displays Kohei Yoshiyuki’s 1971 series of photos The Park, taken at night and made possible using a combination of filtered flashbulbs and infrared film. If Chuo Park in Shinjuku is anything to go by, then dogging is not exactly a new phenomenon and was certainly a regular nocturnal sport in 1970s Japan.

Dirty Windows is Merry Alpern’s series of images depicting the goings on in a rather busy toilet. The long lens and grainy black and white imagery add weight to this voyeuristic display that dominates a gallery wall. On seeing this, Chuck Berry’s toilet cam incident came to mind. Caught with videos of around 60 women using his restaurant loo, he claimed it was for security reasons, as he suspected a staff member was stealing from him. Obviously, he should have said it was for art. Presumably, it’s only a matter of time before some avid photographer is collared with a copious collection of upskirt pics, yet will claim his dubious hoarding is for artistic purposes and is to be pieced together like a mosaic to form a huge image of a lens – a Nikkor, naturally.

Nan Goldin’s visual feast The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is a fast moving slideshow spanning three decades. It’s absorbing and an intimate portrayal of an array of relationships, as the camera’s potential invasiveness seems almost invisible to the subjects involved. While revealing and explicit, the surveillance here is trusted and the work is all the more remarkable for that.

The mood changes considerably with exhibition images that depict scenes of violence and catastrophe.

What you imagined is much worse

Besides wartime atrocities and postcard memento lynchings, the camera preserves the evidence of suicides, murders and, in one instance, the tragic in-air descent and crumpled landing of two people escaping being burned alive; preferring a fall to certain death in Marcello Geppetti’s 1959 photographs Fire at the Hotel Ambassador.

In Their First Murder by Weegee (aka Arthur Fellig). This 1941 scene captures the crowd’s reaction to what they’ve witnessed – an intense mix of expressions from rabid curiosity to disgust and distress. As Weegee wrote at the time, "A woman relative cried... but neighbourhood dead-end kids enjoyed the show when a small-time racketeer was shot and killed.” The manner of those watching appears more compelling than what they’re viewing.

In Brassaï’s 1932 series of images A Man Dies in the Street maintains detachment from the tragedy below. The photographs tell of the gathering crowd and its eventual dispersal. All that remains from the commotion, a mere stain on the ground, is sobering.

Yet Larry Clark’s 1971 image of a pregnant woman injecting seems less convincing somehow. This shot from his Tulsa Portfolio certainly has shock value, as we’re supposed to assume the worst, that she’s a drug addict, not a diabetic. The problem is ambiguity, and having seen so many spontaneous images up until then, the authenticity appears more questionable.

Indeed, this becomes more of an issue with the surveillance aspect of the exhibition. We’re so familiar with its presence, that touting stitch-up videos as art is a bit contrived. Moreover, the photographs of surveillance towers and the like, while highlighting the matter historically, are rather low impact compared to what has gone before. But then again, perhaps this is a stark reminder of how desensitised we’ve become to the snooping state.

Next page: Does it work?

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