Michael Wolf: Informal Arrangements at Flowers Gallery, Kingsland Road, London 27 November 2015 – 9 January 2016
Most street photographers concentrate on the people or the townscape, but there are a few who avoid direct representation of either to focus on objects. The most consistent current practitioners of that quirky mode – albeit as part of much wider practices – may well be Richard Wentworth, whose new book has just been published, and Michael Wolf, whose show at Flowers Gallery runs throughout December, with a follow-on book due in January.
' I walked out of my house one day and there was a tomato under the wheel, and you don't have to be a great detective to tell what this car has not been moving for a while, and that there have been some rainstorms.... the temptation is to think somebody placed the tomato under there!' but 'I think this tomato is a dropped tomato which found its way... it's the fact that the tomato is like a cartoon – we know that it is fundamentally a squishy thing. The tyre is also a vegetable product, substantially still connected to trees and oil, and the tomato has been fertilised, probably with oil products'
How much substance is there in this playful amusement? There is, says Wentworth, 'a lot of death... a lot of suffocation as in 'Amerixan and French cinema when I was a young adult - bodies in polythene bags'. Wentworth's analysis of human resourcefulness and improvisation concentrates on non-conformity, on what people do when they have to think for themselves, and how the same problems are dealt with differently according to individuals and their circumstances. You could also say that Wentworth leaves the readymade in its original place - everyday life - and so deconstructs the whole idea of repositioning it in a gallery in order to change how we see it... But, of course, he does that as part of an art practice....
Munich born Michael Wolf lives between Hong Kong (since 1994) and Paris, but also visits China frequently. His best known photographic series are probably Architecture of Density, which scrutinises Hong Kong’s high rise buildings; Tokyo Compression, focusing on people on underground trains; and Real Fake Art, depicting Chinese painters of fake works alongside the works Wolf purchased from them, combining real objects of a sort with the photograph. Since 2004 (and so covering the same years as Wentworth’s digital output) Wolf has also been recording his wanderings round the hidden network of back alleys of Hong Kong. Those alleys, says Wolf, present ‘an authentic slice of Hong Kong’s grass roots culture’ and ‘should be nominated as a heritage site’. Situated between public and private space, they act as shortcuts between the main thoroughfares, provide quiet resting places, and are claimed as much-needed storage spaces by local workers and residents (Wolf says Hong Kong is ‘still a sufficiently Confucian society’ for such objects to be left on the street without fear of them being stolen).
Wolf’s language is different from Wentworth’s, but the subject and spirit relate. Wolf is similarly interested in how functional decisions lead to unintended aesthetic results, but is more closely invested in building up a picture of how that relates to the working patterns of a particular place, and in how solutions vary over time. The exhibition places clusters of images into themed groups, such as gloves, exhausts, tape and clothes hangers. My favourite set is of mops. Left in store or just to dry, they take on an anthropomorphically bewigged look and also, suitably given their relationship to water, resemble fountains. Even better, Wolf has found one alcove in which they are left to dry while at the same time placed to discourage urinary urges: this double function leads to a modernist effect, of which Wolf has found three different arrangements / solutions in the same alcove over the years. He also shows short video loops of some scenes with movement such as fluttering rubber gloves.
Wolf brings his photographic subjects further into the realm of the real through a window display which acts as a typology of items appropriated from a Hong Kong back alley, with string and wire hangers prominent; and in the gallery , where ten of his collection of some 100 of what he calls 'bastard chairs', are set on plinths. He buys them on the street or else arranges to replace them with a new one. They’re mostly from China, are small enough to be transported easily by air, and demonstrate the owners’ abilities to patch up and re-use. Another group of photographs features more makeshift chairs, including some which have found themselves with three legs, and one with two short and two long legs, having been sawn off as an adaptation to place them on steps.
|Hong Kong chair in the gallery, as if for invigilation|