Simon Norfolk.

I have a tremendous amount of respect for the work of Simon Norfolk and if I am honest I wish I had taken many of the images he produces. The only problems I do have are with many of the statements Norfolk makes (as I have mentioned on here before) which never really make sense to me and seem to contradict his fine images.

The letter below was in today's BJP (although I would hardly call it a letter). It has to be one of the finest critiques I have ever read on a given photographer.

Norfolk's way

Simon Norfolk wants to change our consciousness to enable us to do something 'about capitalist imperialism and the military industrial complex' (BJP, 29 October). Aside from making some attractive photographs, he gives us no clue about what doing something might entail. Are we to all make a pilgrimage to his current show and then write angrily to our MPs? The kind of consciousness shift that I think he has in mind, laudable though it may be, is a bigger job than art photography is capable of addressing. And if post-modernism has taught us anything it's that shrill or 'shouty' (to use his own word) agitprop becomes immediately impotent when purveyed in the commercial arena because it questions the motivations and sincerity of the artist.

To ascribe the ills of the world solely to capitalist imperialism etc is surely simplistic, and then to expect that selling beautiful pictures of the fifth circle of Hell to rich people will somehow assuage this is totally naive.

Ironically, often what comes over to me in Norfolk's pictures is a fascination with weaponry rather than his announced revulsion of it. This revulsion also seems to extend to civilian infrastructure; surely a boring clean room with an empty computer cabinet is not made any more interesting or shocking by reading that it belongs to the French nuclear industry; what would worry me more is the absence of such computers. And what are we expected to make of a very pretty picture of the interior of a 1960s Apollo moon rocket; what sinister secret has NASA withheld from us all these years? Clearly there is a level of discourse that Norfolk wants to, but is often failing to, communicate in the work itself.

By way of contrast, Paul Seawright's dark vision of Afghanistan in Hidden, with its profound psychological insight and complete renunciation of beauty, is a work with clarity of purpose harnessed to a powerfully defined aesthetic signature which goes right back to Fenton.

I think that Norfolk's chosen campaigning aesthetic, the now somewhat cliched one of 'beauty tarnished', is subverting his intent. He correctly recognises that beauty can be a honey trap, but frankly I think he's already stuck in it, thereby undercutting rather than amplifying his urgent alarms to us. He seems to me to be saying that 'the horrors of the world are only worthy of my attention if I can transform them into beautiful prints', an objective, it seems to me, which is also at odds with a proper understanding of the title of his latest project.

Variously translated as 'Even in Arcadia I Death am present' or 'the person buried in this tomb has lived in Arcadia', Et in Arcadia ego, Norfolk's magnum opus in the making, seems to me therefore a bizarrely inappropriate title for a body of work that documents the mindless waste of our dystopian age. Poussin's complex and beautiful painting of that same deliciously ambiguous title is an untarnished classical vision of our mortality and is surely a call to embrace art and the world's beauty in the face of death, symbolised by the maiden standing on the right of the picture; beauty and art together unafraid to offer redemption.

- Sophia Kovacs, Sutton

No comments: