Mark Dion, Whitechapel Gallery – OCA Study Visit 15.4.18

This show begins with an arresting tableau: an aviary containing an apple tree, bolted together, and adorned with books and bric-a-brac, and 22 live, tweeting, zebra finches. There is a lot of bird poo. We can go inside and share the space with the creatures. The key message seems to be how indifferent the birds are to the ‘library’ (books gathered locally by the gallery staff) as a metaphor for our inability to understand the natural world.

The room also contains four large structures simulating ‘hides’ used by hunters and observers in the wild. On the walls, there are medieval style standards featuring fictitious crests which celebrate the violence of hunting. The hides are characterised by types of hunter (Dandy-Rococo and The Glutton) and represent traditions becoming out-moded (The Ruin) – a lost way of life. One of these hides (or ‘blinds’) literally holds up a mirror to us. Another is too high to see properly and is vertigo-inducing, perhaps symbolising the precarity of man’s perceived dominance over nature.

Upstairs, the artist has recreated a study which may belong to a Victorian naturalist, featuring drawings (all in blue and red crayon – see the explanation below), specimens and wonders of the world or of our imaginations. A series of simple drawings of Dead Trees, made in tar, is opposite a row of black and white photographs of taxidermied polar bears, presaging their imminent extinction.  The wallpaper repeats a pattern of extinct animals. The room is warm and welcoming at first but soon starts to feel small and claustrophobic.  Dion says, “Artists must resist nostalgia… When we reference the past it is not to evoke ‘the good old days’. Our relation to the past is historical, not mythical.”  We are encouraged to browse through the books which have prominent Mark Dion branding but do help to provide a wider context for his work.

Next, we experience the frustration of not being able to enter the Bureau of the Centre for the Study of Surrealism and its Legacy, 2005. This has a 1920s feel and is stuffed with curiosities and, I expect, ideas that I wouldn’t be able to fathom.  The wallpaper has a Rorschach motif and monograms, from famous Surrealists apparently.

The next room houses a large museum-style storage cabinet with drawers displaying items found around Bankside before the construction of the Tate Modern complex. There are also photos of the team involved in the work (in black and white – why?)

The final room is a modern simulation of the Wunderkammer depicted in 17th C engravings, full of crude sculptures coated with luminescent paint and displayed in darkness to give a ghostly but modern effect. Dion describes these creations as “testament to the abstraction, destruction and metamorphosis that human beings enact on the natural world.”

This show is a mish-mash of Dion’s work over the two decades and as such has had to weave together some disparate elements. It is very evocative – we have a strong sense of the muddy banks of the Thames and the camaraderie of the volunteers, as well as life inside the hunting hides. I was left with a feeling, though, that there are almost too many ideas to take in and the connections are not always obvious, making the journey a bit bumpy. The installations don’t quite fit right within the space and where there is emptiness, it seems wasted.

Dion’s obsession is clear and the sheer depth of research is remarkable so all the work feels very authentic. He says he wants to slow us down and that there are rewards for those who are careful and attentive. It certainly is thought-provoking, causing unease for the viewer, even where the art is playful or absurd.  Dion says we should not get hung up on what is or isn’t art: be critical, bring yourself to this theatre.  The more you put in, the more you’ll get out. He encourages us to be detectives at a crime scene.


  • Trees. The tree of life; of knowledge; of evolution – phylogenetic; of societal, philosophical and spiritual hierarchies.  Visual metaphors.
  • Use of the word ‘theatre‘ in the title – a stage for various actors. Could also be alluding to a medical theatre?  Is Dion a conjurer? We become part of the performance eg only four people being allowed into the aviary, entering the Dandy-Rococo hide to observe the rest of the gallery room.
  • The overlap – or at least connections – and exclusions between science and art. Lots of grey areas between objectivity and subjectivity.  Dion explores the nature of science and art institutions as well as natural history and the history of ideas. He revels in the complexity and glory of the natural world but also emphasises how our fascinations and interactions are destructive and irreversible.  Sometimes, he seems to be saying, it is hard to identify where observation and conservation become exploitation.
  • It is human nature to hunt, collect, observe, taxonomise, create classifications and order, finding meanings and connections and also ultimately to dominate, subjugate and objectify. The link between knowledge and violence (Victorian colonialism).
  • Collaboration. Dion works closely in consultation with local authorities, historians, ecologists and volunteers to mobilise excavations and scavenger hunts resulting in a huge treasure haul of found objects, historical artefacts, curiosities and bits of plastic crap. Equity of presentation. He is relinquishing some control and allowing for human error and for quirks to be introduced. He acknowledges the team and gives them wall space.
  • Orphaned collections. How museums and galleries (and all of us) decide what is worth preserving and what can fall into obsolescence and obscurity.  ‘Relegated to oblivion’. How to accord ‘value and significance’.
  • The Uncanny. We are never quite sure what is real and what is not. What is right and what is not. How far we can interact with the natural world without destroying it?
  • The red and blue pencil drawings. I found this to be intriguing and have luckily now discovered the ‘meaning’ here:

    These drawings are created using an “accountant’s pencil,” which are blue on one side (for additions) and red on the other (for losses). The pencil has become a staple of Dion’s work, at first just for sketching out sculptures and installations, but over time the drawings have evolved into artworks themselves. The accountant’s pencil allows Dion “to differentiate aspects of the drawing, be that foreground and background, details and generalities, even different responsibilities for myself and my assistants.”

For further research and consideration

  • The meaning and implications of nostalgia. How does it impact what we do, or don’t do, today? How is it weaponised and politicised?
  • The use of tar as a medium for the dead tree drawings. Tar is caused by ‘destructive distillation’ – the breakdown of organic matter and has some associations with pollution (hence the pigeon skeleton in tar next to these drawings, although why a pigeon and not a seabird – a more traditional association?). Tar is also used to preserve wood and make things waterproof and as a traditional topical medicine.
  • What makes it ‘bathetic‘ (per the review in The Standard)
  • Robert Smithson – why does Dion reference his weight?
  • Hiroshi Sugimoto (referenced in the Guardian review as doing some of this much better).
  • Comparisons with Joan Fontcuberta.
  • Comparisons with Robert Zhao Renhui.
  • Comparisons with Batia Suter.
  • Speculative Realism. Never heard of it. What the hell is it

Key takeaways for my practice

  • The sheer eclecticism of show; mixed-media adds a richness and diversity and is very appealing and inspirational.  ‘Fragments and miscellany’. The World in a Box. “The Incomplete Writings of …”
  • Fascinating emphasis on connections and intersections. The surrealist approach of putting things together that would not normally exist side by side.
  • The creation of immersive habitats to explore multiple, complex ideas.
  • Including more drawings to show context and evolution of work and ideas.
  • Playing with scale (worked really well in the Wunderkammer room).
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Assignment Five – the oral presentation

Please do leave your comments when you have had a chance to watch the presentation.

There is a bit more info on the planning and prep here and here.

The password is ChaCha.

PS Many thanks to my study buddy Rob Townsend for helping me out of a techno nightmare in getting this converted to video format…

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Assignment Five – planning and preparation

Having decided on the topic of ‘The Ethics of Representation in Portrait Photography’, the next step was to create a list of the key issues underpinning this area, such as power relations, indexicality, mass production, reflexivity, authorship, semiotics, context etc

This meant that I could pin insights and examples from my research around these themes to help surface my ideas, articulate the basis of my exploration and present some provocative questions.

It helped to distil all this down into five or six bullet points per theme and then start to group the themes to find the right narrative flow for the presentation. Using Post-it notes gave me flexibility but also gave me licence to be rather indecisive.


To keep some control over the tentacles of this beast, I started to map out a structure. At this point, I referred back to the brief again to ensure I had covered the key areas.


From this, I was able to create a more detailed storyboard.


Key challenges:

  • Making the research material manageable. This is a vast subject and almost every photography book I have touches on it in some way. The research potential is pretty much infinite so it was a struggle to keep the volume of information under control and not become overwhelmed.  Storyboarding really helped to combat this.
  • Choosing images which were provocative without me editorialising too much. The audio part of the presentation inevitably changes the context of an image but not necessarily in the way the artist would have intended.
  • Cutting the presentation down without losing key elements of the narrative. My first run-through was over 23 minutes long so I had to axe a lot of ideas and images. Once I had cut out multiple examples, things I might find difficult to pronounce (eg Erno Nussenzweig) or other non-essentials, I realised that the journey had become choppy and I needed to reintroduce some linking ideas to smooth it out.
  • The technical aspect of publishing the final presentation. This has actually been the biggest challenge. Having an ancient computer and lack of suitable software means I cannot export the presentation in a format that can be uploaded to Vimeo or YouTube. Playback on the PPT itself can be jumpy meaning that sometimes there is a transition to another slide before the audio has fully played, completely ruining the whole effect. Fixing this issue is a work in progress. I am on Plan E at the moment.

Key learnings:

  • I need to be able to identify, with confidence, the tipping point when I have researched – and understood – enough on a topic to be able to have clarity of thought, and laser-focus, in my critical position. This distillation process needs to start a lot earlier.
  • Ethics is a very big subject and it would have been better to narrow my focus of study. I had to skip over a number of areas (for instance, I didn’t make time to explore the visual language used by contemporary practitioners in any detail – this needs to be investigated further, later on in my studies).
  • It is difficult to determine a fixed ethical position as every scenario is as unique and complex as we are as human beings. This is why reflexivity is so important. It could be useful to discuss specific examples with other students in future, not least as some form of therapy.
  • ‘Specificity’ is really hard to say out loud.
  • I really dislike Bruce Gilden’s work.
  • I probably should have include a NSFW warning on slide 7 (and maybe 23 although I don’t think that is Cha Cha’s penis, is it?)







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Assignment Five – unpacking the brief

Like most G&M students, I suspect, I was rather apprehensive about the oral presentation assignment, not least because of the Powerpoint requirement. It is also a slightly different medium for the communication of our ideas; lots in common with a blog post or illustrated essay but the audio recording element adds complexity.

The brief is very broad “you’re free to choose from any of the study areas on this course”. At first, I thought this meant we should just focus on either social doc, fine art photography, portraits or advertising, choosing our favourite area. I feared this may quickly become dull, however, ending up as a whistle-stop summary of the coursework.

The key instruction seemed to be to demonstrate an understanding of the underpinning issues of the topic and show how I’ll adapt them to my future practice.

I decided to explore an area which has been vexing me lately which was ethics, particularly in portraiture. I’d become uneasy that I may not have exercised full disclosure with some of my models for my ‘Anomaly’ surveillance project (ironically) for assignment one of G&M and I have been wrestling with my feelings over a photo shoot last year with a bi-polar friend.

The brief suggests looking at: historical background; contemporary practitioners, visual language, influences and contexts; relevance to practice; future plans and direction and possible projects relating to this area of study.

Another key element is that the final presentation can and should be shared in a way that allows for student reviewers to ask questions and for me to be able to reply.

I worked on the assumption that this assignment is trying to simulate a talk or presentation at a conference or seminar.  With this in mind, I took the rash decision to anchor the opening section on one of my images. I intended to set the scene that this would be a bit quirky and quite a personal exploration, not one obsessed with historical timelines or how I can make photographs more like those of the practitioners who influence my thinking and my work.

As well as meeting the key requirements of the brief, my objective was to share some interesting images, ask thought-provoking questions and establish my critical position on the topic.

Final subject title: “The ethics of representation in portrait photography”. Way too to tackle in 15 hours, let alone 15 minutes (+ 2 minutes)…



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Reflection – January 2018

I am busy decluttering and regrouping for the new year. My ‘intentions’ have been mind-mapped.

‘Make more art’ has made it into the top three key elements. As well as committing to the 365 project again, I have included:

  • Experiment bravely
  • Fill more sketchbooks
  • Embrace failure (mistakes are spellbooks)
  • Enter competitions
  • More intentional image-making
  • Visit more galleries, more regularly

Recent random thoughts…

Will the recent change to the character limit on Twitter and how we refine our propositions. It is often said that distillation is a creative superpower. Trying to portray an idea in a single image sometimes feels as hard as trying to articulate a challenge or a problem in one word in the business environment. We watched the movie Arrival last week which led me to read up on the (now discredited) Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and linguistic relativity. Does the use of say, emojis, change the way we think?

Useful insights from Jeremy Bullmore, non-exec director of ad agency WPP:  “By definition, a good creative brief contains a bold hypothesis. To generate hypotheses you need to speculate: you need to progress from the known to the unknown. But you cannot paint the future in the colours of the past.  Other people’s imaginations need to be engaged, excited, signed on as accomplices. And the choice of the language you use is not arbitrary and inconsequential; for an insight to have real potency, the language in which it is couched is at least as important as the inner truth itself. For an insight to have real potency, literal accuracy is less important than its power to evoke.

Bullmore also famously wrote: “People build brands as birds build nests, from scraps and straws we chance upon.” and then declared it to be demonstrably untrue here.  He makes the point that birds intentionally seek materials for nest-building. We must always put in the work.

Talking about market research he says, “Giving high potency to an insight is an intensely creative act: it requires a massive injection of imagination. As with any other creative act, it also demands an understanding of what is already in the receiver’s mind; and just as importantly, what is not already in the receiver’s mind. Metaphors, similes and analogies work only when the reference points are already familiar to their audience.”

I seem to recall Mark Twain saying, “Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising.”

This is a wonderful perspective:

“If advertising images are to blame for instilling a sickness in our souls, the images of artists are what can reconcile us with our realities and reawaken us to the genuine, but too-easily forgotten value, of particular bits of our lives.”  We know that art is appropriated by advertising and vice versa and in our spectacle society wheels turn within astonishing wheels.  There are some good examples here of where the two overlap.

I regularly see ads in street art format on the walls of buildings in Shoreditch. If I must be bombarded with sales messages, I personally would rather see this aesthetic than traditional outdoor poster sites. But it infuriates some of the street artists who will spray over the messaging and admonish against the commercialisation.

Is the constant digital feedback loop for consumers – and the behavioural analysis that is now technologically possible – different from the classic advertising persuasion piece? This seems to be much more in favour of the individualism of the target, albeit rather creepy when machines ‘know’ so much from our browsing history.

Having rarely worked with a tripod except when shooting video, I am surprised by how detached I feel from the experience, compared with holding the camera up to my face. The slower process is enjoyable and I can understand why Alec Soth favours this with his portraits of strangers. There is time for a connection to form with the subject matter but it feels more like the camera is doing the job, rather than the photographer.  Odd.



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Assignment Four – images and submission notes

As per my statement of intent, this work aims to “reflect, support and extend the Foul Play brand, positioning it at the high end of the market, appealing to the true crime aficionados as well as those aspiring to become part of this growing and powerful community.” As this is a new launch, it must use some of the existing visual language representing this genre to attract readers to the brand, as it establishes its personality and credentials.

Target demographic

  • Millennials
  • Primarily females
  • Cosmopolitan/metropolitan
  • Digital natives
  • Comfortable financially, living in small urban spaces
  • Multi-media-savvy
  • Active on social media
  • Consumers of true crime podcasts/TV series/books

Brand identity

  • Eerie, mildly threatening feel
  • Non-sensationalist
  • Eschewing grisly crime scenes
  • Absolutely no sexualisation of passive victims
  • Stylish, high-end
  • Unashamed

The images have been constructed to create some frightening scenarios, encouraging the viewer to gaze and confront their fears within a safe environment. I have referenced some familiar visual tropes of the genre (black and white with red accents, use of creepy masks, amateur weapons, shadows) but have tried to elevate the imagery avoiding the wholesale deployment of clichés (crime scene tape, bloodied knives, abandoned barns in the woods/top of an improbable hill, silhouettes coming out of the fog).

Final product

The magazine is being crafted by an independent publisher so I believe the calendar can have a handmade feel. This will also appeal to the millennial audience which favours artisan products. It will be bound by simple bulldog clips, in keeping with an investigation/case-file approach. This must be a functional product or it will be disregarded. The paper will be lustre so notes can be written in the date boxes.


As far as we are aware, there is currently no direct magazine competitor to Foul Play at the high end of the market. As well as desk research on multi-media images associated with the genre, I have considered some of the major brands which are targeting this eclectic audience:

Key considerations in the creation and selection of the final images

  • Anonymity – adds to the mystery of the scenes and rejects the idea of personality cults around criminals
  • Women are the powerful observers – and effectively authors – of the image; no sexualisation or passivity – even the victims must have agency
  • Non-sensational – no blood, no aftermath crime scenes
  • On brand and appropriate/appealing to the target audience




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Preparation for Assignment 4

4.8.17 – the first discussion with Grace Harrison about the concept of Foul Play magazine and me possibly helping with some of the photography.

29.8.17 – test shots in Arles – identified issues over colour temperature for night shots.

29.9.17 – further discussion with the ‘client’ to get more of a sense of the brand identity for Foul Play.  I have always been wary about the sensationalism around crime, particularly serial killers, but I am starting to understand why this might be intriguing to women and how they are using it for self-empowerment and to build supportive communities.

6.10.17 – mooted the idea to my tutor. Jesse said it sounded interesting and to have fun with it.

20.10.17 – first sight of the galleys for the magazine. The imagery currently used doesn’t feature people much but this seems to be practical/logistical rather than deliberate.

24.10.17 – test shots in Sidmouth. Aiming for a Nordic Noir feel with some Edward Hopper isolationism thrown in.

17.11.17 – researching the true crime phenomenon more and discovering how some women find it to be a very empowering genre, allowing them to confront and take control of fears. Re-scanned Over Her Dead Body to see if there are any links. Not really.

22.11.17 – researching creative approaches to calendar production on Pinterest (eg using bulldog clips to bind or even a trouser-hanger, clipboard, small wooden stands. A reminder that the images do not have to be square or rectangular, can bleed into the date part of the calendar, the dates could be printed on part of the image (CSI feel) or on tracing paper and overlaid or designed as a pattern (maze? or streets).

24.11.17 – search for props, police crime scene tape, masks etc. Resisted temptation to go down the zombie bride route.  Silver shock blanket?

25.11.17 – test shots from 17.30 to 19.00 in Shoreditch. Definitely too dark already.

1.12.17 – interviewed one of the founders of Foul Play to flesh out the company profile and brand identity. Promotion is currently via word of mouth and social media. This will be ramped up as the brand develops and could extend to merchandising. The Foul Play Instagram account shows some of the associated imagery. I have set up a Foul Play Pinterest board to capture some images which may be inspiring or discouraging…

2.12.17 – more confident now in my decision to anonymise all the people in the images.  It will help to imply the ambiguity and nuances of so many criminal situations. Anyone – everyone – could commit a crime or be a victim or both.  This also removes the idea of personality cults which often grow around serial killers or other ‘interesting’ criminals.

9.12.17 – shoot in Allen Gardens using the shovel, pig and evil duck masks. Freezing cold so time pressures and interruptions from tourists.  Luckily more ambient light than previously.  Decided to be relaxed about motion blur and let it add to the atmosphere.

16.12.17 – planning to keep the design very simple; not cluttered or clever. I had toyed with including the yellow markers for crime scenes as numbers in the calendar but I think it is a bit too low-end for the Foul Play brand and would distract from the images.

21.12.17 – Grace has written an article about how women are ‘reclaiming true crime’, explaining that part of the interest seems to be around self-preservation.

22.12.17 – thinking about size. The assignment brief specifies A3 but for my previous assignment, Jesse thought the portrait images looked amateur at A4 (which was in accordance with the brief) and suggested smaller, so it seems there is leeway. I definitely don’t want an A3 landscape calendar – too corporate somehow.  The target audience is made up of digital natives used to looking at things on their smartphones so small should be fine.  Plus they are likely to have small flats or houses with limited wall space. A5 would be cool but will make the date boxes tiny and non-functional. If it is just decorative, what is the point of the dates? It has to be functional or it will reflect badly on the brand.

26.12.17 – shoot with my Dad brandishing various threatening tools. I was worried that axes and saws are rather associated with ‘slasher’ movie. Tried a meat fork but too small to catch in car headlines. Settled for a large and heavy spanner in the end.

27.12.17 – shoot with my niece to add a female presence. Wanted to avoid her looking too much like a passive victim so directed her to run. This also hopefully leaves some ambiguity over whether she is victim or perpetrator. Not an eerie image in itself but should work within the overall concept.

28.12.17 – decided not to include a ‘cybercrime’ image (Matt on his laptop in the dark, shot through the window). This wouldn’t fit with the other scenes and could be jarring. Plus it would require the use of a mask to continue the motif of anonymity which could be confusing. The actual ‘Anonymous’ mask symbolises a hacktivist movement and any association with ‘true crime’ would be controversial and tenuous.


29.12.17 – assembly time!

30.12.17 – final notes ready for my last minute submission before the hard deadline of close of today…



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