Parr’s ambivalent obsessions
Parrworld: The Collection of Martin ParrJeu de Paume, Paris
30 June – 27 September 2009
Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead
16 October 2009 – 17 January 2010
‘Parrworld’, the title of Martin Parr’s latest exhibition, is a bold if not presumptuous declaration. The work of any visual artist or photographer could, after all, potentially be described as a ‘world’. Is there something about Parr’s photographic output or way of seeing that particularly merits the term and makes it more than a piece of hyperbole?
In Paris, at the majestic Jeu de Paume gallery in the Tuileries Gardens, Parr’s travelling exhibition was elevated in translation to an even grander plane, becoming ‘Planète Parr’. Initiated by the Haus der Kunst in Munich, the show presents items from Parr’s vast private collection of postcards, ephemeral objects, and pictures and books by other photographers.
If full blown, no-opportunity-left-unseized collecting is a kind of respectable mania, Parr is gripped by a profound and apparently life-long case of the madness. He began as a boy with fossils, birds’ nests, stamps, bus tickets and Victorian pennies. Since then his irresistible ‘collecting gene’ has driven him to acquire Soviet space race memorabilia, Margaret Thatcher toby jugs, Spice Girls chocolate bars, and more Saddam Hussein watches than one man could have any reasonable use for. ‘Planète Parr’ was bang up to date, too. Parr has already accessioned Obama flip-flops, Obama O’s cereal, and Obama condoms (‘Use with judgement. Smaller sizes available’).
These items, along with the ‘boring’ postcards of motorways, caravan sites, laundromats, product shots and holiday camps, were presented without information – the better to prompt personal association and fantasy, according to the curator. For Parr, all his collections interlink with his work as a photographer, which he also sees as a form of collecting. While any photographer might be defined as a collector of images, there are obvious links between Parr’s relish for kitsch memorabilia and the banal and sometimes ugly scenes of everyday life that soon became his trademark. As time passes, these mass-produced mementoes, whether celebratory (a Falkland Islands tea towel) or vengeful (‘wipe out Saddam’ toilet paper), accumulate an overwhelming sense of pathos that comes from the tragicomic gap between their aspirations and an often tawdry reality.
Parr’s position has always seemed ambivalent. Is he sympathetic to the ordinary people he shows in such an unflattering light, or is he indulging in clever cruelty at their expense, as some have charged? Sure, he set out to document our growing affluence with unsparing candour, but his politics remain unclear. Was it solidarity with the workers that led him to collect posters from the notoriously bitter miners’ strike in 1984-85, a watershed moment in British political history? Or should the strikers’ desperate sentiments – ‘Wanted: a living wage’, ‘Coal not dole’, ‘When they close a pit they kill a community’ – also be viewed now with the ironic detachment and even wry amusement that our historical and social distance from these struggles can so easily encourage, particularly when the context is a collection of ephemeral rubbish?
Two recent projects by Parr, also on show in Paris, complicate the picture. The Luxury series, taken from 1994 to 2008, shows the super-rich at play at venues such as the Basel Art Fair in Miami Beach, the Millionaire Fair in Moscow, and the Cartier International Polo Challenge in Dubai. The slideshow version presented at the Rencontres d’Arles festival this summer was stunning, almost activist in its anger, whether the flies buzzing on the soundtrack (by sound artist Caroline Cartier) were interpreted as a metaphor for the people in the pictures, or as a reminder of the dirt and poverty so many endure.
Parr is never more pointed as an image-maker than when he is stitching someone up – or giving them the chance to do it for themselves. In a picture taken at the July Races in Durban, South Africa, in 2005, a woman pours her attention into her Samsung mobile. In her other hand, she clutches a pale green handbag with a gold strap, as if she is modelling it for the camera, though she seems oblivious to Parr. The word ‘Fetish’, formed from precious stones, becomes a preposterous talisman of affectation, solipsism and greed.
The selection could do with tighter editing, especially when viewed on the wall at leisure, but the best pictures equal the impact of those in The Last Resort, The Cost of Living, Small World (on show in the gardens outside Jeu de Paume) and Common Sense. They also complete a pictorial narrative that reflects the trajectory of his enormous success. Having begun by photographing working-class experience and then moving on to the middle classes, Parr is now gunning for the financial elite. It is the perfect subject for him and he deploys the same ruthless eye that he once focused on blighted beaches, tedious garden parties, rampant international tourism and shopping.
At this point in his career, there may be nowhere else for Parr to go, unless he were to abandon his role as a chronicler of complacent consumerism and seek out starvation, conflict and disaster. That seems unlikely. Last year The Guardian asked Parr, as our most esteemed photographer, to take pictures in ten British cities, including Bristol, Manchester, Liverpool, Edinburgh and Belfast, which the paper presented as sixteen-page sections only available to readers in those cities. The supplements and some of the pictures were on view in Paris in the final room. Although Parr had check-listed all the right social activities – keep-fit class, pie shop, hen night, flea market, sight-seeing tour, Friday prayers at a mosque – most shots bore no resemblance to the mischievous, unflinching, ambivalently satirical images that staked out the territory of Parrworld and built his reputation.
When Parr lines up his subjects at a respectful distance his pictures lose their compositional complexity. They come out like anybody else’s. Sentiment softens him; niceness robs him of anything vital to say; woolly celebration is fatal.
Meanwhile, the Luxury pictures are barbed and deadly. This is Parr’s world now. He should keep on sticking it to the rich.
First published in Eye no. 74 vol. 19 2009
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