Magazine article Art Monthly

Richard Billingham

Magazine article Art Monthly

Richard Billingham

Article excerpt

Richard Billingham Compton Verney Warwickshire September 30 to December 10

One video shows a bear pacing back and forth. Reaching the borders of the screen, her snout brushes against the frame of the image and she turns and heads in the other direction. Occasionally she escapes the static camera, only to return within seconds. The video lasts six minutes and is presented as a loop. The primary looping here, however, is that of the stereotypical behaviour of this zoo animal. This is looped looping.

Bear, 2005, is one of the works included in 'Zoo', Compton Verney's exhibition of Richard Billingham's recent photo and video project. Originally commissioned by VIVID, the project centres on the lives of animals in zoological gardens around the world and comprises a greater variety of works than are on show here. At Compton Verney, the focus is mainly on the video works. This gives a particular feel to the exhibition, one that touches on animal performances and, with that, animal suffering within these confined spaces.

Billingham is not the only contemporary photographer and video artist to turn his camera towards incarcerated animals. Other recent examples include Britta Jachinski and Frank Noelker: the former takes out-of-focus pictures of animals in zoos; the latter photographs animals in such a way that they appear out of place, too big or too small to fit into these built spaces. In both cases, animals are presented as somehow escaping the human gaze that seeks to define them. The works included in 'Zoo' differ from those of Jachinski and Noelker in this respect. The pamphlet essay accompanying the exhibition states that the fixed perspective of Billingham's static camera 'allows the animals to leave and enter the frame', and contrasts this with the way the moving camera of wildlife documentaries creates a false sense of transparency. This statement seems to present a contradiction and, possibly, a misunderstanding of the project. In fact, Billingham's work suggests otherwise, emphasising the contextual and discursive framing, pointing to how these animals are 'captured' within the image in ways which are not more free or, indeed, truthful than the animal representations of wildlife documentary productions. Instead, the use of the static camera emphasises the feeling of entrapment: humans, and with them artists, do not allow animals to do anything. Kea, 2005, is the only piece in which the camera moves, chasing a bird almost obsessively, continually placing her in the centre of the image, making her appear trapped. …

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