Magazine article Eye : The International Review of Graphic Design

Parr's Ambivalent Obsessions

Magazine article Eye : The International Review of Graphic Design

Parr's Ambivalent Obsessions

Article excerpt

Parr's ambivalent obsessions Parrworld: The Collection of Martin Parr Jeu de Paume, Paris 30 June - 27 September 2009 Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead 16 October 2009 - 17 January 2010

Reviewed by Rick Poynor

'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 massproduced 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.

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. …

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