Gérard Rancinan’s thematic series of photographs – Metamorphoses, Hypotheses, Specimens, Wonderful World and Portraits – at the Opera Gallery Singapore are visually seductive and epically provocative representations of the contemporary issues that assail the twenty-first century. Exploring a complex web of interconnected issues – such as human rights, freedom, immigration, globalisation and capitalist culture – that would take more than bulletin news and politicians’s blustery promises to unravel, Rancinan’s photographs undertake this daunting task with interrogative aplomb, consistently alluding to the malaise of insatiable appetites that contribute to (and are subsequently reinforced by) today’s cultural vernacular.
The Raft of Illusions reworks the cheerless, murky tones of Théodore Géricault’s Raft of Medusa (1818-9), an iconic painting of French Romanticism depicting barely-alive survivors in the aftermath of a shipwreck that precipitated a political scandal of his day. In its current incarnation, modelesque figures are depicted as refugees clad in branded scraps of fabric, who writhe on a raft hailing a partially submerged Hollywood sign and the Eiffel Tower in turbulent waters. These survivors, recast as fashion victims, desperately flail for rescue, yet look to the powerlessness of these selfsame drowning symbols for help.
If the female personification of a bare-breasted Liberty heroically leads her people with a bayonet and the tricoloured French flag in patriotic solidarity in Eugène Delacroix’s La Liberté guidant le peuple (1830), Rancinan’s Freedom Unveiled utilises the enduring legacy of the French Revolution and the idea of patriotic militarism to emphasise the mixed-bag of signs that characterise the excess and detritus of consumerist culture. Liberty is, for Rancinan, a woman in a black hijab who stands with ragged street urchins and handcuffed bodies against an apocalyptic backdrop of underground graffiti art, McDonald’s distinctive arches and television images of Mickey Mouse and Christian media evangelism.
The wry appropriation has shockingly humorous appeal at times: Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper (c. 1495-8) is transformed into a junk-food addiction fest, symbolised by the presence of a burger flipper who takes Christ’s place at the centre of the table, and is surrounded by his 12 obese disciples as customers. Marilyn Monroe in Warholian colours takes centre stage in a remake of Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656) (she finds her way back into his lens in Desperate Marilyn in Wonderful World series) in a parody of our fascination with celebrity culture, and its quest for physical perfection readily found in surgical procedures with throwaway money. Mass consumption and ubiquity are propositions that are further developed in the Wonderful World series; Batman Family and the Mickey-mouse faced Family Watching TV postulate the dearth of individuality as a consequence of homogeneity and market forces.
In a melange that is part-fashion-spread and glossy poster magazine advertisement, Rancinan’s highly stylised photographs take on the sombre, surrealistic hues of Old Master paintings in a conflation of moralistic sensationalism and hedonistic consumption, expressing a deep ambivalence towards the unchanging nature of human behaviour. His works are quite literally, a metamorphosis – a transformation – of their originals and like their predecessors, also sardonic reflections of contemporary social ambitions and their far-reaching consequences: the plight of immigrants who sometimes turn up European shores barely alive, the phenomenon of junk food culture and climbing obesity rates, the disparity of wealth distribution and the decadence of celebrity lifestyles. But while his oeuvre is a response to cultural decay and the weighty socio-political issues that permeate contemporary life, it celebrates as well, the aspect of absurdity that persistently accompanies the paradoxical sensibilities of modern existence.
Gérard Rancinan was born in Talence, France and is a multi-award-winning French photographer. He has exhibited in the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, the Opera Gallery in Hong Kong and London, and will be showcasing his trilogy at the Triennale di Milano in May 2012. This series of works is part of a world tour that began in London, and will be on show at the Opera Gallery Singapore until 25 March 2012.