Heightened focus – Tom Hunter at the BIAD

Tom Hunter exhibition, St Paul's, Birmingham

Tom Hunter exhibition, St Paul’s, Birmingham

In the beginning photography created an ‘altered state’ in what was, and to some extent still is, the heady realm of ‘Art'; it provided a means by which an image could be taken to the people rather than wait for that singular creation of oil or marble to make its way to the people. It would appear that the early practitioner’s of this new technological medium didn’t fully appreciate that they had a ‘game-changer’ in their hands; until, that is, Kodak developed the means by which the great unwashed would be able to grasp the film winder and participate in the development of ‘Art’. That ‘Art’ was almost entirely in the control of the manicured hands of those that ‘had’ before the ‘Brownie’ rent asunder that divide and democratised the medium and that it is today slowly and inexorably being subsumed back into those self same institutional paws is not the she subject of this post.

Tom Hunter came to ‘Art’ late, he had participated in a different life before finding his voice in photography, or perhaps rather using photography as his voice. One of his key areas of interest was to subvert the notion that ‘Art’ was for the those whose lives were privileged, who by the lucky happenstance of birth would be inculcated into the language, the history, the elitism of ‘Art’, and that mere mortals would always have to struggle with the contextual baggage that accompanied ‘Art’. Hunter sought to suggest that the lives of the people close to him, living in a squat in Hackney, had every right to expect access to that hitherto exclusive world of the ‘haves’. Hunter strove to include the people around him into his narratives, using classical art pieces gleaned from the National Gallery as a basis to challenge not only the place of ‘Art’ in a social context, but also directly to the establishment, as he sought to bring attention to the plight of his fellow squatters. I have written about this side of his early work here and here. But it was to explore his newer work that took me to the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design, to hear him discuss his work as well as look at some of it in two outside installations in the city.

Reprinted by kind permission of the artist Tom Hunter

Reprinted by kind permission of the artist Tom Hunter

A lot of Hunter’s work of late has veered away from the overtly political, though it is never far away from his thoughts. The use of a pin-hole camera to photograph, what on the face of it, are architectural shots of factories – both decrepit and functional – concert halls, religious meeting places; or to put it another way, places that were meant for people to convene for a specific purpose, is, on the face of it a curious one. Bedevilled with compositional difficulties, the wooden box pin-hole camera has very graphic visual aberrations (that he doesn’t try and hide away from, rather glories, it seems, in them). No tilt and shift gadgetry here. These images usually contain the presence of a stage, be it an actual performance hall with a proscenium arch, or a concert hall, an alter or similar. These shots, these long exposure shots are interesting because they do not present the people who inhabit/inhabited the space. Very few of the images have strong referential imagery that places the physical presence of people at the core of the work, rather though they suggest the presence of people. One gets the notion of the spectre of people present. Of people who used to inhabit these places. Hunter’s commission in the second city is, by his own admission, held fast to the documentarian tradition but with strong fictional overtones, he feels free to adapt the fiction to fit the truth, and the use of the pin-hole camera serves two purposes I think in the process. Firstly it allows time for the images to develop, both in the mind of the photographer but also in the wooden box that slowly fills with light. Hunter likes to have a parallel life when the exposure is taking place, to have a chat with whomever is with him in the building, the Imam, the Rabbi, the factory owner, the gold smelter. That the images aren’t digitally clean seems to suggest that the filmic quality of the photographs have a narrative embedded into the negative slowly allowing the chemical action to take place and help shape that narrative. Furthermore, the optical qualities of the pin-hole produce images that force the viewer to Hunter’s vision. The images aren’t generally very sharp anywhere on the photograph, but if anywhere the centre core of the photograph is the easiest for the viewer to rest at. Not for this photographer, with these images, the edge to edge sharpness of, dare I say, a Crewdson filmic composition. Hunter wants the viewer to consider the image in a static way, easily finding the core and finding it more satisfactory to rest there rather than trying to un-pick the visual aberrations that a pin-hole aperture creates. Hunter therefore directs the viewer to his perspective, leaving perhaps less for the viewer to explore of their own volition. And then, in Hunter’s words, “allow the story to develop in the mind of the viewer”.

Piano - detail

Piano – detail

Curtains - detail

Curtains – detail

The weather, for viewing outside installations was, to put it mildly, hardly conducive. Cold, wet and very windy these two exhibitions didn’t appear to witness many viewers other than Anne, also a student with the OCA and me. I was struck by a number of things: Firstly of course was the fact that the images were subverted by the presence of a layer of water on the image. This extra layer of texture added to the feeling of the presence of ‘ghosts’ maybe not in the machine, but in the spaces that were being pointed out by the directionality of the pin-hole, heightening the focus of our attention with, in Hunter’s own words, “the requiem of a dream’ that was once the power house of the Industrial revolution, that paid the men who paid the taxes that emancipated the youth through education and that in contrast to today’s universities which are ‘finishing schools for rich kids’.

And that, in the process of the commission, this work was to be shown outside and free 24/7 as it states in one of the pieces of marketing that I saw. The artwork being placed directly in front of the public inviting the viewers to engage and take direction from Hunter, not being forced to venture into some hallowed hall, but in the environment of the everyday, democratising the ‘art’, inviting a discourse with all and sundry. And this chimes with something else that Hunter spoke about during his talk, about connectedness. About how he needs to feel connected, which I am assuming to mean invested in, as much as connected to, his subject to allow himself the engagement to make the piece of art. The connectedness he feels with the process of film, the connectedness he feels with the subject and the connectedness he feels with the people and place.

All in all another inspiring connection with the artist.

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5 thoughts on “Heightened focus – Tom Hunter at the BIAD

  1. A most artistic and literary piece John. I wish I could have gone as you make it sound so entrancing and I do admire Hunter’s work. I actually thought the raindrops were part of the images until I realised it was actual rain and outside!
    Remembering too regarding Birmingham and the ‘haves’. It was also the home of the Quaker industries and the garden suburbs those manufacturers built for their workers. I remember when we lived in Kings Heath and how, if the wind was right, the smell of chocolate used to drift over our garden from Bournville.

    • Thanks Catherine, I’m not sure I could have resisted that aroma drifting on the wind! The rain did provide an extra component to the prints and seeing them before the talk helped a lot I think.

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