Rural | Urban – An exhibition review on sustainability

Rural Urban exhibition at Somerset House, London in May 2013

Rural Urban exhibition at Somerset House, London in May 2013

Somerset House is currently leading the way in London as a venue for exhibiting photography at the highest level. Bright rooms with quaint fireplaces and views through large windows onto playful water-fountains make for a pleasant viewer experience. The latest installment “Rural | Urban” follows hot on the heels of the Sony World Photography Awards to explore the relationship and tensions between rural and urban environments. A truly pan-world issue in our globalized society that affects just about everyone, it deserves greater attention on the world stage and a sensitive treatment of the challenges we all face.

The very words “rural-urban” force you to rethink the whole debate and I find myself wanting to make a conscious effort to never utter (or type for that matter) the rather backward phrase “urban-rural” again. It also follows a certain logic – the migration of people, resources, and talent – that is happening around the world. The tagline to the exhibition, “In search of balance”, is equally as revealing as the title. I’m not so sure if the exhibition fulfilled this promise or even fully committed to exploring it. Much is talked of sustainability today but not many people are aware of the full meaning of the concept. “In search of balance” is a much easier notion to communicate and identify with. Perhaps too much focus was given to portraying obvious imbalances and tensions although I recognize that much of the debate is skewed in this way. However, I think that by portraying harmony and equilibrium more effectively, it can reinforce all the more those examples that lack such qualities.

The installation of such a large exhibition to be shown to the public for just four days is somewhat baffling. This may be the inaugural exhibition where the sponsors are testing the waters but nonetheless, it deserved to open with a bang and not a whimper. After all, this exhibition has a strong message to impart to the public and so needs to ensure that it reaches as wide an audience as possible. It may be that other larger follow-up exhibitions are planned but I think that the sponsors missed an opportunity to make a real impact from the outset. It didn’t appear to me that budget was a major concern based on the printing, framing and “landscaping” of the exhibition and although Somerset House is a prestigious and well-visited venue, I feel that it would have made sense to hold elsewhere if a longer tenure could have been secured. Logistics aside, perhaps it shows a certain lack of confidence from the sponsors. It is worth noting that Syngenta, a global Swiss agrochemical company, has a somewhat controversial public image to protect due to debate over use of its pesticides and biotechnology research. I have no intention of making this review political as there are others who will no doubt step into the breach and so for now, I will just say dear readers, that I am simply glad photographers have another outlet in which to show their work and achieve recognition.

The work of both the professional commission and open competition winners was outstanding (with the possible exception of Andre Francois, whose work did nothing for me). Holly Lynton is particularly deserving of worthy mention. Her images stood out in similar way to Jan Brykcynski of Poland in that they communicated the uneasy relationship between Man and Nature, the Rural and the Urban, on a more personal level. Somewhat more debatable was the quality and curation of themed images. The conventional approach of organizing pictures around a theme is rather clichéd I feel in this day and age, although I understand the need to achieve cohesion both within and across the exhibition. Even if the ultimate aim is to raise awareness of specific issues, there are surely cleverer ways of doing this. Urban sprawl, migration, infrastructure, greener cities, food production and deforestation were all represented, some more than others. Anna Beeke’s “Mimic”, a water tank trying to blend in with its surroundings and Arjen Schmitz’s “Hong Kong” that perhaps encapsulated the rural-urban divide best of all, were personal highlights for me. On the other hand, certain images such as the Didcot B power station at night were intentionally oversaturated to enhance the rural-urban effect but did no favours for the photographer’s work.

Several glaring omissions were evident if we stick with the theme-oriented approach. Renewable energy infrastructure, most often located in rural environments to provide for urban populations, and the fate of the planet’s oceans and waterways which cover the majority of the earth’s surface, both deserved a place. Likewise, the farming community was under represented and the greener cities theme could have been expanded to address this. In fact, communities in general were notable for their absence. Even the people-centric theme of “Migration” portrayed the solitary individual struggling to eke out an existence without paying homage to the new communities that they have formed and those that they have left behind. I, for one, would like to explore the rural-urban divide along such lines and have already started a project with this aim. Dalston vs. Dalston takes a look at two very different communities that share the same name – one in the tranquil surroundings of Cumbria next to the scenic Lake District in England, the other in my gritty inner city neighbourhood of East London.

Migration

Migration

Of particular commendation was the inclusion of living installations in some of the rooms. The open refrigerator with capsicum plant was perhaps a little too over-the-top but the grass-lined wall and indoor garden with surrounding bench did add a touch of rural to the urban environment. I feel that this approach could have been explored further to not only create a sense of tranquility and harmony but also to portray the unease and tension between the rural and the urban. This should not take away from the photography but I believe it could enhance the overall visitor experience and allow them to interpret the images on another level. Rural | Urban is worth comparing with another recent exhibition in London exploring a similar theme in order to give some perspective. The Environmental Photographer of the Year (EPOTY) award at the Royal Geographical Society in April was rather disappointing. Aside from an obvious lack of budget that did no justice to the photographers’ work, there was also a notable lack of imagination in the overall curation of the exhibition. Images were invariably too small and too uniform in size with no ebb and flow of energy thus removing any impact and leaving the viewer with a very flat experience. Perspex frames dehumanized the images and left me feeling rather cold not just towards the images but also towards the issues they were trying to portray. Another niggle for me was the obvious overlap – must we see yet another image from Bangladesh, another over-packed train? And some selections were frankly baffling and totally misplaced in this exhibition (e.g. Beach pleasure by Andrzej Bochenski). As a first attempt, Rural | Urban has done rather well but should strive for far more.

Adding a touch of rural to the urban

Adding a touch of rural to the urban

Perhaps the biggest photography prize in the field of sustainability and the environment is the Prix Pictet, which showed at the Saatchi Gallery in London last Autumn (read my review here). This is where the big guns come out to claim the richest prizes and perhaps Syngenta are looking to challenge this title at some point. Even if not, theirs is a welcome addition to this under-represented and globally significant topic in the annual awards calendar. It is also heartening to see that photography has a greater outlet for environmental documentary and artistic expression today. However, it’s important that such work gets out of the galleries and onto the streets to make it more accessible to the general public. Outdoor shows such as the Hard Rain exhibition at St Martins in the Field next to Trafalgar Square in Central London come to mind. I would also like to see more events organized around such exhibitions and not just the predictable public speaking by established photographers. Again, the aim should be to make photography more accessible and to raise awareness of the issues being portrayed to a much wider cross-section of society. In the case of Somerset House, they could use their extensive frontage onto the Thames visible from the Southbank and a large square that already draws crowds in the winter with its ice rink, to lure people into the galleries. Photography has an opportunity to lead the way in how it engages with its audiences over other more established art forms such as painting or sculpture.

Will society continue to become increasingly more urbanized after mid-century? Or perhaps the next evolution in the rural-urban debate will be the breakdown of borders on the way to becoming “rurban”? Whatever the result, I certainly hope photography will be there to inform, enlighten and inspire all the way.

View images from the exhibition here