Thursday, October 22, 2009

Martin Parr, Collector and Historian

The other day I was in Tyneside to review an exhibition about T Dan Smith, and while there myself and the I.T girl (who was coming along to take photos, before deciding the weather was too awful to do such a thing) popped into The Baltic to enjoy the wonders of the Urban Renaissance. There was soon to be a Damien Hirst retrospective, but luckily we didn't have to suffer this. What there was, however, was Parrworld, which led to me and I.T, usually so politico-aesthetically sympatico, disagreeing on something. This isn't necessarily because I disagreed with her hostility to Parr and all his works - the words 'irony' and 'end of history' were mentioned - but because I am entirely a sucker for this sort of thing, for these decontextualised collections of political-aesthetic tat. In short, Parrworld (as profiled by this Guardian video) is an exhibition of the man's vast collection, to coincide no doubt with the equally vast (and frankly covetable) book of said collection. Here we have an array of postcards of postwar architecture, the seaside, holiday camps or in commemoration of sundry disasters; a huge collection of photobooks which includes everything from El Lissitzky to Robert Frank; photography, often of Britain, including John Davies' astonishing English landscapes (more of which presently); and, most famously/notoriously, a vast collection of political ephemera in vitrines - the Saddam loo roll, the Bush N' Bin Laden geegaws, Sputnik inkwells, Miners' Strike commemorative plates.

First of all, I have very little time for Martin Parr as a photographer, with the possible exception of the Signs of the Times book (which, much like Abigail's Party, is both a compendium of snobbery and agenuinely chilling insight into Thatcherism). Myself and Joel Anderson have a sort of refrain on our Urban Trawl for Building Design - 'nah, that's a bit Parr', a way of stopping ourselves. This happened first when we saw a bustling farmer's market with nostalgic red & white stalls spreading out from Southampton's Bargate. Fuck that. Too picturesque. We established a strict policy of no 'local colour', no people doing interesting things, no ooh-look-we're-so-eccentric-in-England, but instead tried to make the photographs as wilfully blank as possible. But in that we might well have been influenced by case for the defence #1, Boring Postcards. I don't really give a shit whether or not Parr himself or his audience think Boring Postcards is funny, a nostalgiafest analogue to Crap Towns. When I saw it for the first time I thought it was shockingly beautiful, a hauntingly still document of popular modernism, and it marks (along with the Birmingham scene of Broadcast/Pram/Plone) the first obvious example of the now common the-future-didn't-happen-after-all aesthetic, the revisionism that placed 1950s civic centres and swimming baths along with the Radiophonic Workshop in the area where rock & roll and pop formerly sat. Indeed, I have my own burgeoning collection of 'boring' postcards, and am consistently awed and impressed by the supposedly mundane places that were once considered worthy of a mass produced piece of card. For this if nothing else, Parr has done history some minor service.

Parrworld is too much, far too much, and if I weren't an inveterate collector of tat myself (it occurred to me looking at all this that, in the unlikely event I ever ended up wealthy, I would build up a collection much like this, albeit perhaps without the Obama breakfast cereal and so forth) I would probably be far more hostile. My first response was a consumerist one - oh wow, look at all this beautiful stuff, looking round eagerly at postcards, at silver-coated books on the steel industry of Soviet Kazakhstan, at Yuri Gagarin memorial pens, whatever. Nina reckons, and she is of course right, that this decontextualised pile up is just an exemplar of postmodernism at its worst, an end of history scenario where we can just accumulate ephemera from a time where we actually believed in stuff, place it untouchable under glass, and nothing need ever happen ever again. But what relation does all this stuff have to the aestheticisation of politics? The room with the cases full of Soviet space program whatnot, War Against Terror memorabilia and Miners' Strike posters and plates places all of these things on the same plane. They're all of curio value, and by implication so are their politics, both are fundamentally as picturesquely eccentric as his own photographs, examples of our 'foibles' (as Parr himself puts it). I'm still trying to defend Parrworld as we cross to the Newcastle side of the Tyne, and notice that one of the Miners' Strike posters decorates the front of the Baltic. 'VICTORY TO THE MINERS. VICTORY TO THE WORKING CLASS'. It's like being punched in the guts. In a city which once had some sort of pride in its politics, in an area which dreamed of socialism and self-education, all that becomes a striking, historically rueful what were we thinking? advert to be placed next to the ad for the Damien Hirst show. The very fact it's there is a sign of the working class' neutralisation, the fact that those in the yuppiedromes which tower along the Quayside don't fear it any longer - or at least, that the poster reassures them they no longer need to be afraid.