Juha Tolonen: The consolations of photography; and Tim Pearn: On the beach: Perth Centre of photography.

Juha Tolonen: The consolations of photography; and Tim Pearn: On the beach: Perth Centre of photography.

By Graham Mathwin

This is the first show I have reviewed at the Perth centre for Photography’s stunning new grounds at 18 Colin Street, West Perth. The move is an intelligent one, and I hope that it begins a shift of spaces out from William Street, into Perth’s extraordinarily spacious suburbs.

The work presented however could not be more different in conceptual and technical prowess. Juha Tolonen’s incredible show is a testament to his ability, and deepening of his investigations into photographic media. The conceptual background, while ostensibly simplistic, is overcome by the complexity of the work. Tim Pearn’s work however, is an inappropriate discourse and an unengaged, though systematic, exploration, which appears simplistic in contrast.

The problem with Pearn’s work exists over several levels. On the level of the photographs themselves, there is little attention paid to the technical qualities of the scans/photos. I appreciate the scan as a manner of looking that is physiologically alien to us (as opposed to the one-eyed, static version of our eyes, embodied in the camera), but here it fulfils its most banal, everyday function of recording endlessly similar subjects. A shallow depth of field does not mean a shallow work, but Pearn’s plastics are neither disgusting enough nor beautiful enough to warrant any dissonance or joy.

In this, the installation reciprocates the work – both are as regular, systematic, and standard as a metronome. There can be benefits to approaching things systematically. A certain absurdity is implicated, sometimes a rigour. Yet here it seems to fulfil no function. Prints arbitrarily blown up to the scale of others, showing the limitations of their device of capture could be a successful device – here is comes off as an arbitrary oversight. The ironies of the plastic materiality of the prints, utilising foam core and laminates, or at least gloss, reveals a conceptual flaw in the apparent dialogue of environmentalism the show evokes. The discourse is too simplistic at both ends – both in writing and in art production. Scanning plastic and printing on gloss paper is not a problem, but it is a problem if you think you are doing any favour to the trees. Art struggles to ‘raise awareness’. In the words of Rancière, its power lies in how it ‘distributes sensibility’. The difference between these two things is important – not only for describing why activist art so often fails, but also why art is powerful – why we’re all here. We all basically agree on plastics. I’d be hard pressed to find anyone in PCP’s audience who didn’t know about environmental issues. There are interesting things to consider: in how scientific practice fails to engage the public on environmental issues, which usually fall for the idea that they live reasonable and scientifically informed lives. The only rationalism that dominates is economic rationalism, and it silences scientific kinds of systematic exploration, close to that which Pearn has undertaken.

Pearn’s work is no Burtynsky or Gursky, ambivalent works that each have the quality of showing us the banal vastness of the industrial empire we have built. Nor is it a work like Agnes Denes, whose environmentalism is realised in full in her work. It is an awkward and difficult show, which suffers for its materiality, its installation, and its inappropriate treatment of a highly simplistic subject. It is a problem of discourse that can be overcome, but that is rife through the body of work.

It contrasts rather vividly with the attentive, delicate works Tolonen has on display – technically rigorous, though somewhat typical, they are rich in their execution, particularly their combination and installation. (http://www.juhatolonen.com)

I have not read Alain de Botton’s Consolations of Philosophy, nor have I read the eponymous predecessor – Boethus’ sixth century magnum opus. I do not think that either is intentionally or necessarily relevant to this body of work, except so far as the space that each consists in: of addressing a situation where someone requires consolation. We can understand the need of Boethus: he was to be executed. Alain de Botton is not about to be murdered, except by zealous philosophers of a less popular and populist trend. DeBotton and Tolonen probably share the non-imminence of their deaths, or at least, the consolation that each desires is the consolation from something quite different than that Boethus required consolation from. Boethus needed to see that life was not hopeless and meaningless because he had fallen from grace, and was to die, despite the love and justice of a God he still believed in. De Botton and Tolonen require consolation from the hopelessness and meaninglessness of life, as the world has already ended. Though they might believe in a god, they no longer believe that there is definitely the one god Boethus believed in, and that it is the true, total and one god of absolute knowledge and power. It is not only god, though. De Botton, in writing his consolations, is clearly attempting to console us in our everyday lives: lives that have become necessary to console, in their very everydayness. We have lost even the belief and the meaningfulness of Boethus’ life before he required consolation. Even naked and newly born, we seem dressed in meaninglessness, like original sin. Tolonen, as little as he shares with De Botton, does share this: that it is the mundane, or perhaps the quotidian, or perhaps the everyday, that takes centre stage, and seems to be his location for the search for consolation, if not meaning. This is not to say that the images are thereby not extraordinary, but they are clearly not the romantic images of Ansel Adams – where meaning is found in the sublime, and its referent – the might and awe of God in nature. It is also not an everyday of many people for Tolonen – or at least not groups – rather, it is the landscape. Tolonen, in the text for the exhibition, invokes the problem of photographing the landscape in the contemporary world: “When the photographer Mahmut, in the film Uzak, considers the compositional possibilities for a landscape photograph in an Anatolian mountain village we hear him mutter ‘fuck it, why bother?’” Tolonen interprets this against the backdrop of social media, and the saturation of imagery in contemporary culture. Romance, in Tolonen’s images, seems to be both the goal, and too cheap. Mahmut’s inability to find meaning in the mountains, or more precisely, his photographing of them, is indicative of Tolonen’s concern.

Tolonen’s photos have a touch of fiction to them, and it is the fiction of meaning, and meaningfulness, that haunts them. Extremely beautiful images, they are vacant of meaning, still. The ghost of humanity haunts them. There is the great sadness of a world that he believes has ended for photography. He finds a kind of poignancy in this space, and it is this poignancy that is his consolation. It is the existential argument, after Camus: ‘the only serious question is suicide’ (The myth of Sisyphus). The answer Camus provides to his question, and Tolonen’s reply to his, is perhaps very similar: that there is no point, but that there is meaningfulness in endeavour.

Yet while Camus is extreme, Tolonen’s world seems wrapped in a kind of beige-ness, that seems timely. It has been nearly a hundred years since Camus posed the question of suicide, and people still kill themselves on a regular basis. Though it is probably rarely for the same philosophical reason as Camus refuted, there is undoubtedly an affirmation of meaninglessness in coming to perform such an act. It seems that in the one hundred years since Camus, no more meaning has come to fill the void. We are, if anything, without even the consolation that our actions are our own – that without God we are free, as Jean Paul Sartre liked to say. We are, instead, compromised by society, structures, and the fact that we only know we are within them, because those structures have built us to know we are within them: that they define a horizon of possibility we may not be able to know or escape from.

Tolonen’s images themselves feature interstices and interactions with the landscape: a blue streak, a yellow lawnmower. Two paired images inside the door, one pair appearing to be an averaged version of the two below, disguise the violence and happiness of the other pair, reducing them to colour swatches. Their de-saturated mid tonality showing up the murkiness that defines so much of out current social situation, and certainly the difficultly Tolonen must feel, adjusting from Australia to Finland. The most striking elements of the show are Tolonen’s careful choices in the collage of images and cutting of paper. In the delicate, averaged scheme of his images, these joins fracture the peace, a knife in the perfect, model-like landscapes he presents. This is often the experience of viewing we encounter in these works subject as well. The appearance of the gun, the car caught atop a perfect, cylindrical bridge, an empty, frozen playground, and a tower block, leaning faintly to the left. It is always the intrusion that is interesting. In the beige that has consumed Tolonen’s photography and image of the world, his images catch on a crack. In this sense they are like Paul Graham’s work, similarly engaged in documentary practice, they evoke a complex and important space. One is reminded, in viewing Tolonen’s work, of Graham’s inclusion of a wide angle in his depiction of the troubles in Ireland: the faint oppression that marred the view.

These shows, at the Perth Centre for Photography, close in two days, on the 15th of November.


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