Saturday 01 October 2016 – Sunday 01 October 2017
Image credit: Rocket Keflavik by Matthew Broadhead
Unveil’d exposed a vital body of contemporary photography by emerging and internationally recognised practitioners. The festival was Exeter's premier multi-location photography festival, composed of eight exhibitions with supplementary events, workshops and talks – most free to attend. Towers, the headline exhibition, took place throughout Exeter's public gardens owing to a deficit of gallery space in the city, whilst attesting to the fact that the festival was predominantly funded by public money thus, rightly, should be accessible to all. The ten large-scale landscape photographs of Towers were curated to compliment the geography of Exeter's historic City Wall and its ten 13th century towers but, sadly, three of these outdoor works were vandalised. I’m sure this was a case of a few spoiling it for the many as I witnessed a plentitude of people admiring the works, notably a group quietly contemplating Jessica Lennan’s Winterschalf – translating from the German as winter sleep – in a streak of autumnal sunshine: an image of dormant and elegantly bare branches prescient for the park’s own looming seasonal fate. Other works from this display invigorated the city with the Sublime: Eve Cooney’s Jökulsá á Fjöllum (Iceland’s second longest river) confronting the urban with the abject power of nature, the work a close crop of a seething cascade. In Southernhay Gardens, Jem Southam’s Red Mudstone, Sidmouth 1996 served as a reminder for passers-by of deep geological time in their quotidian.
On the other side of town, there was a sense of spring awakening in the exhibition Martha by Sian Davey at Dodo Photo. The show featured selections from a series focusing on the artist’s step-daughter, the production of which commenced when the titular subject was 16 – a liminal age between childhood whimsy and adult responsibility. These images capture how it feels to be ‘untethered’. The subject is pictured with a gaggle of ruddy-faced teens enjoying smokes and sips of beer, boys stroking sun-kissed thighs, or passed-out in long grass — some mid-afternoon slumber. Behind this wild abandon is also a poignant meditation on the photographer’s connection to her subject — a feat to be trusted and admitted into the teen’s milieu — and a study of bond between them, coming, we are told, from a common ground of ‘maternal wounding’. The most arresting image is a pensive portrait: eyes locked to lens, knowing — a ray of light stresses her breasts, her burgeoning womanhood and own reproductive potential.
Rather than connection, Temporary Silence by Jessica Ashley-Stokes exhibited ‘individuals who crave escapism’ in the Walkway Gallery of Exeter Phoenix. I found myself empathising with the subjects when viewing the work — the people pictured quietly reveling in their subterranean lairs and cozy nooks — as the walkway gallery was just that: a passing crowd impressing on my own mute commune with the works. Ashley-Stokes was one of two winners of Unveil’d Open, a competition designed to help emerging photographers develop their practice, according to the theme this year of Land and Culture. The other winner was Matthew Broadhead, whose Heimr series was installed in the Cafe/Bar Gallery of the Phoenix. The title of this body of work refers to Eddic myth, translating into ‘world’ but also ‘dwelling place’. The land in question here was earth in parallel to that of the moon, the series depicting ‘space analogues’ in Iceland, where NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey sent American astronauts to learn about ‘assumed past or present geological, environmental or biological conditions’ of terrestrially similar sites. It’s a series pertinently exploring ‘existential migration’ in our time of mass exodus under duress: a shot of footprints in concrete, desolate landscapes and a bright, pastiche rocket against cloud-shrouded sky — what lies beyond for the outlander?
Exeter Phoenix also hosted Unveild’s book fair, which had emphasis upon self-published material, featuring some fairly slick photobooks and prints to grass-roots zines from the likes of the Antler Press, Plymouth University and Spacex Stuart Hardie. The festival’s photobook award went to Lola Paprocka for Blokovi. The book serves as a homage to Belgrade’s brutalist built environment — what she terms a ‘concrete everything’ aesthetic — intermixed with candid portraits of the city’s vibrant inhabitants, on rich medium-format film. Unveil'd will develop a solo-exhibition in collaboration with Paprocka, to take place in 2017/18, the book will also be added to a permanent collection, viewable to the public at future Unveil’d events.
Complementing the book fair was a series of talks examining The Photobook as Artistic Research & Expression at The Royal Albert Memorial Museum. Amak Mahmoodian presented her newest publication Shenasnameh, the title referring to the name of the official Iranian Birth Certificate. The original document exists as a passport-like booklet containing basic identification information, fingerprints and a photograph. Mahmoodian became interested in women’s representation in these photos, feeling that with state enforced dress code comes the suppression of the individual by official identity. As such, the artist’s book was used as quasi-ethnologic research into the small forms of personal expression, sense of self and character exhibited in these images. Mahmoodian found claims of individuality in small gestures of facial expression — a quiet glint in the eye or subtle raising of brow – and, more importantly, Mahmoodian found women who were profoundly thankful to have their unique personhood recognised. Another speaker, Paula Roush, founder of MSDM Publishing and curator for ə /uh/ -books (a project space for photobook publishing at the London South Bank University), argued for the recognition of the art of photobooks — endorsing experimentation with page folds, the inclusion of ephemera to affect reading experience and the benefits of mounting books on the wall as art; securing a new view and encounter in handling.
A more traditional display depicting the relationship between photography and the invention of moving image was on show at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum. A small cabinet of curiosities, featuring objects such as 19th Century advertisements for Kodak Kine-Snaps and a treatise on locomotion, had been specially curated for Unveil’d in honour of this entwined history. Elsewhere in the museum one could work a mutoscope, gaining first-hand experiencing of activating a still image. Riffing on this, I suggest the gesture of activating images epitomises Unveil’d’s ethos — the festival programme evinced a strong commitment to the recognition of photography’s generative past and future potentialities, exhibiting a strong impulse to support budding practitioners.
Sarah Thacker, November 2016
Working towards a South West where talented artists thrive, and a resilient and connected visual arts ecology that inspires more engaged and diverse audiences to value and advocate for its work.
Part of the Contemporary Visual Arts Network