Gideon Mendel’s Drowning World is showing at Plymouth Arts Centre until 15 March 2015
The camera is a recording device that can capture the fleeting, bear witness and act as testimony to the world around us. But we, as creators and audiences, have learnt not to trust the verité of a photograph. We understand that the camera does lie and the daily stream of images we receive are, for the most part, constructed. The artistry, if there is any, is in the purpose of construction.
So what do the images of Gideon Mendel tell us about truth. In this exhibition portraits of English flood victims stand motionless before their flooded homes staring silently into the camera, English landscapes are turned upside down by the mirror-like surfaces spreading across them, familiar life is part submerged and our minds are required to redraw the picture in recall. Collateral damage is presented here in the forlorn form of family photographs from Kashmir and in the corner a monitor plays a video of moving images of people dealing with floods in England and Kashmir.
There is no cause and effect here only matters of fact and the aestheticisation of destruction. There is a disquieting beauty in the interior light reflected from the pool-like floor of a room, the water damaged photographs breaking down into painterly layers of colour, the cool candour of expertly composed photojournalism and a video that puts into real-time the still and silent stares.
What is it that we are looking at when we look into the faces of the people in front of the camera, do we see ourselves or do we blame ourselves? The silent photographs convey that awkward moment when a conversation halts and no one knows what to say next. As they stand in front of bricks and mortar, do we see stoicism, defiance or is it something more akin to fatigue; how long have they stood, waist-high in floodwaters, waiting for the photograph to be taken? What is it about the repetition that makes the image so awkward? Is it by repetition that we are made aware of the purposefully composed similarity or are we beaten down by the images and left to care less about who and what these images represent? do they become one and everyone, become us?
Politicians repeatedly ignore any problem that cannot be resolved within an electoral cycle, as creatures of the short-term, we create problems that become critical due to inaction. In asking the question of purpose, Drowning World is Mendel’s response to our changing climates and increasingly extreme conditions. Since 2007 he has photographed floods, and the lives they effect, around the world in an ongoing work that, like the mass observation films of the former GDR, will take years to create. The exhibition at Plymouth Art Centre is only a small part of a larger project and the curators chose to focus primarily on the floods in England during 2004.
Through the camera we bear witness to waters rising but also to a construction defined by aesthetic qualities. In parts the curation presents an us, unmoved by the flood, and a them, in a series of water-damaged photographs from Kashmir; a missed opportunity perhaps to present a shared experience. This is not to say that the project is flawed, not at all, the curation of each exhibition is testing a dialogue with its audience. Drowning World will take time and that is not something we are used to giving things. In the interim this exhibition does succeed in inviting interrogation and a questioning of ourselves. In speaking to Gideon Mendel it is clear that in the long term the purpose of Drowning World is to express a solidarity between people and the way their lives have become linked across continents. Its strength will be in the sum of images from different floods in different countries presented side-by-side. I hope the portraits will be accompanied by biographical details and quotes, as I’ve seen elsewhere in his work, which give voice to the individual and thereby bring us closer. A better purpose for the ruined images might be in portraying something we share; in the boxes of old photographs held equally precious by families around the world.
To see more of Gideon Mendel’s work go to http://gideonmendel.com
Laura is an artist and member of PAC Home, based in Plymouth.