It is often that the photographic lens exemplifies the artistic genius behind the camera as much as the subject that it photographs. That’s not to say that this process is inapplicable to any other form of art production. But if it is only for the pictorial expression of eternal spiritual truths that justifies the existence of icons (and idols), the photography of belief systems – because of its capability to record time and place yet simulate the real – inches towards the profane. Treading this fine line is Idols and Icons: New photography from Asia & the Middle East, a photography exhibition that examines tropes of faith, ideology and theology by producing what is presumed to be too sacred for reproduction.
With Masters (2009), Manit Sriwanichpoom of the Pink Man fame returns with a photo series of cross-legged monks in meditation, modelled after those who situate themselves in Thai temples receiving alms from the Buddhist faithful. However, Sriwanichpoom’s lens deceives; the blurred life-sized portraits are amulet-type mass-produced objects readily sold in shops, akin to mass-marketed paraphernalia typically associated with cult celebrity behaviour. Masters unapologetically continues Sriwanichpoom’s acerbic photographic critiques of Thai contemporary consumerism, and suggests that the fetishisation of these idols – a non-existent tenet of Buddhism – pushes commonly held religious beliefs into a new, corrupted reality.
Issues of ethnicity and gender are equally prominent grounding anchors in the show. Ampannee Satoh’s Burqa series (2010) visually reduces the conflict to 2 symbols of opposing ideologies: burqa-clad women who stand against Parisian monuments endowed with an idealised republican rhetoric that finds itself reiterated these days (particularly because of the Islamic dress – a clichéd but key signifier of a clash of civilisations that separates public and private boundaries), in the French parliament. Shadi Ghadirian’s Miss Butterfly (2011) is a series of photographs in which a solitary woman weaves a web across several domestic settings, reclaiming the female agency’s dominance in the household while simultaneously suggesting its relentless and inescapable grip.
While commonly employed as a discursive indicator of power relations, the feminine figure’s iconic status is far from formulaic. Outside the virtuous woman’s conventional role as the domestic exempla, Lale Tara’s Innocent Surrogates’s (2010) human-sized female doll-subjects inhabit the main frame of the photograph, located – not unlike a medieval tapestry or a painting – within a border of votive reverence. Almost sacramental, suitably dramatic with some measure of artifice, Tara’s dolls occupy, in good unheimlich fashion, conflicted and malaised positions of transgression that cathartically play out our own repressed enjoyments.
Idols and Icons will be on view at the Yavuz Fine Art Gallery until 27 August 2011.