THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME
Through interviews with a wide range of people we investigate this year’s focus on exhibition practices. We have talked with Antonio Cataldo, newly appointed director of Fotogalleriet, Oslo; Diane Dufour, Le Bal, Paris; Florian Ebner, Centre Pompidou, Paris; Lucy Gallun, Museum of Modern Art, New York; Marta Gili, Jeu de Paume, Paris; Emma Lewis, Tate Modern, London; Shoair Mavlian, Photoworks, Brighton, England; Anna Planas and Pierre Hourquet, Temple Gallery and Editions, Paris; and Nadine Wietlisbach, Fotomuseum Winterthur, Winterthur, Switzerland. Every interview begins with the question: Why photography? Interviews by Nina Strand
SHOAIR MAVLIAN - Photoworks
The meeting with Mavlian takes place in a café in London, one month into her new job as director of Photoworks. Mavlian says she never had a choice when it came to working with photography.
- There is a long history of photography in my family. My uncle was a press photographer. I studied practice-based photography, and was in the darkroom a lot. I also worked in several photo-labs before I moved to working in museums. The language of photography has always felt very much part of my daily life and it was a language I always understood.
She has just finished work on Shape of Light: 100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art, co-curated with Simon Baker, her final exhibition at Tate Modern, where she has worked for the past ten years.
- Seven of those years were dedicated to photography. I learned a lot from working in a big museum, building a collection and curating large- scale exhibitions, however one of the reasons I made the move to Photoworks was to work with early-career photographers and emerging artists. This is more difficult to do at Tate, although we have included three artists from a younger generation in Shape of Light.
Mavlian says she will miss the Tate building in the former Bankside Power Station.
- I’ve always been very interested in architecture and I’ll miss spending time in the iconic build- ing. However I do believe there are many fantastic buildings to show art in, and I’d like to think outside of the white cube, to look for something that’s site-specific, and to work with that space. I’m not interested in replicating a white wall environment, I’m more interested in thinking about other alternative spaces.
Last year, Mavlian got a taste of working in unusual spaces when she curated the exhibition In Flux, on the invitation of Monica Allende, for Gexto Photo in Spain.
- We installed the exhibition in a totally unconventional space at the beachfront, with one side completely open to the elements. This made me think about exhibition-making in a different way. There was also the negotiation of convincing the artist to go with the space. We couldn’t show hand-printed photographs; we had to waterproof everything and it was very interesting to go on that journey together, the curator and artist.
As a commissioning agency, Photoworks offers Mavlian the opportunity to support early career photographers.
- My vision for Photoworks is to be an organization that gives artists their first shows. To be in dialogue with artists and to work with them to help deliver exhibitions and new work. This is the core of what Photoworks is.
This is also what Mavlian finds interesting about working with younger generations.
- Photography is a huge part of our daily lives, and younger generations are able to read an im- age and immediately identify certain signifiers. That excites me – how we can communicate visually with photography now, this is a positive thing. We’re at this tipping point at the moment where we’re beginning to understand how this type of communication is affecting our daily lives and society on a broader level. And the artist and the art world have to be involved in this conversation, keep up with it, and contribute to this conversation as well.
At the time of the interview, the museum has just listed positions to replace Mavlian, as well as Baker, who is leaving to direct La Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris.
- It’s obviously a very big change for the museum. I started at Tate when I was relatively young, and the amazing thing about Tate is that all curators work together in constant dialogue; there’s not one department for photography and one for paintings. I learned a lot from all of the curators and it was a great privilege to start my career at the museum. It’s healthy to challenge each other’s perspectives. And now I’m lucky to be able to implement my vision at Photoworks and see where it goes. The fantastic thing about my experience at Tate is that we did such a broad range of exhibitions, from Conflict, Time, Photography in 2014, where we examined how conflict is portrayed in photography, to the collection of Elton John, where we looked at the photograph as an object. It was great to showcase his vintage collection in these times when everything is digital. And then this last show, Shape of Light, crosses over between photography, painting, and sculpture.
Photoworks seeks and showcases emerging photographers through the Jerwood/Photoworks Awards; produces Photoworks Presents, a live talks and events programme, and the Brighton Photo Biennial, as well as publishing Photoworks Annual, a journal on photography and visual culture.
- The magazine is an important part of the organization; what form it takes we’ll have to see. The Jerwood/Photoworks award was one of the things that drew me to Photoworks because it’s such a great mentorship opportunity for early-career photographers. Three artists are awarded, and they receive mentorship, support with production, and then an exhibition which tours to three different locations. All artists are asked on the basis of a project they’re already working on, but they’re given the opportunity to make something completely new and different. This means that we don’t know the end product, which makes it even more interesting to follow.
After ten years at Tate, Mavlian is no longer responsible for an exhibition space or a collection.
- It’s easy to get institutionalized working at a big museum. You work in a very specific way, and think about exhibitions in a specific way, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But now that I don’t have a building, the idea is to think more broadly about the presentation of photography. We can insert photography into non-museum environments and reach a broader audience. Brighton Photo Biennial will move towards the idea of integrating photography into the city, making it part of the fabric of the city. It seems to be a human desire to collect, but I believe there’s a shift today towards something more experimental and more ephemeral than physical ownership. With Photoworks we have the opportunity to do something different. Not only do we not have a collection but we don’t have a permanent physical gallery space either. It gives us an enormous amount of freedom to think about photography in a different way.
This interview is from our current issue. We have sadly made the mistake of placing Photoworks in Bristol in the printed version, although we know that Brighton is the correct city. Our sincere apologies.