Magazine article The Spectator

Deceptive Images

Magazine article The Spectator

Deceptive Images

Article excerpt

I Am A Camera

(Saatchi Gallery, Boundary Road, NW8, till 25 March)

In the centre is Christ, a strangely serene figure, in the centre of the emotional storm his words have created. Around him, seated behind the long table, the Apostles react in differing ways to the announcement that has just been made - but only one, Judas, reveals through his posture his guilty knowledge. It sounds like Leonardo's `Last Supper', one of the most familiar images in Western art. But actually it isn't, quite.

I am describing not Leonardo's original, but a waxwork tableau, rather loosely based on the Da Vinci painting, to be found in a small town in Japan. This in turn has been photographed, full-scale, by the artist Hiroshi Sugimoto and the result is on display at White Cube, Hoxton Square (until 3 March), along with various other portraits of waxworks including Rembrandt, Richard III, Winston Churchill and Napoleon. More, including Henry VIII, and his six wives, are on show in the exhibition I Am A Camera at the Saatchi Gallery.

These are thoroughly weird and paradoxical images. While the wax originals are presumably, like all their kind, easy to spot as inanimate simulacra - because, for one thing, they are unnaturally motionless these photographs are more deceptive. Shot by Sugimoto against backgrounds of deep, inky black they look startlingly lifelike, as though one were looking not at, say, a waxwork of Richard III, but at a rediscovered photo-portrait by some late15th-century predecessor of Snowdon or Beaton. Or, at the very least, at publicity shots from a Hollywood costume drama.

This kind of confusion is part of the point. What Sugimoto manages to do here is to cast light in various shadowy and halfforgotten corners of the history of art. The family tree of the visual arts, like most families, contains several relations who, for one reason or another, aren't much talked about. One such is the waxwork - an offspring of the thoroughly respectable tradition of sculpture. Madame Tussaud trained as a sculptress, then got started on the path to fame by copying the features of guillotined aristocrats in revolutionary Paris.

Of course, wax is a material that has been used by perfectly pukka sculptors; nor is it unknown for sculptural works of art the sacred images in Spanish churches, for example - to be coloured as in life, and dressed like dolls. Still, somehow - perhaps because they are shown as a fairground attraction - waxworks have not been considered quite the aesthetic thing.

The case of photography itself is different - more like that of the illegitimate nephew who returns from America richer than the direct line. For a good century, photography was considered not really a true, noble art - though periodically practised with great distinction by proper painters such as Degas. But since the late Sixties, all that has changed. Photography is now considered, in art opinion-forming circles, to be not only a true art, but perhaps the rightful heir to the estate (painting and sculpture being hopelessly old and feeble).

Witness the last Turner Prize, won by Wolfgang Tillemans, a practitioner of what is effectively the creative snapshot. There are plenty more snapshots in I Am a Camera - an exhibition which blends a little painting and sculpture that edges close to the photographic with plenty of the real thing. On show there are photorealist pictures by Justin Brooks, huge black and white heads in the manner of Chuck Close, and photorealist sculpture - if you can imagine such a thing - by the late Duane Hanson, figures so real that they can only be distinguished from visitors to the Saatchi Gallery by the fact that they are much less smartly dressed. …

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