Today me and the boy spent the day taking one of our favourite walks, which is along the Thames between Canary Wharf and Wapping, and dropped in to The Wapping Project along the way. Located in a disused hydraulic power station, it houses a restaurant and art space and is currently showing Edgar Martins‘ This is Not a House.
The exhibition features a series of photographs taken in 2008, which explore the dilapidated and abandoned spaces which were left behind after the sub-prime mortgage crisis . The photographs were originally commissioned as a photojournalism project by the New York Times and Martins visited six locations across the USA, photographing empty homes, golf courses and hotels.
The curation of the exhibition space fits perfectly with the photographs. The concrete gallery has been blacked out, with only a few spotlights illuminating the works, so they seem to exist in an empty space themselves. Bleak sound effects including dripping water and eerie winds are piped into the background, giving the whole exhibition a really unnerving effect on the viewer.
Martins wanted to convey the way we, as a society, put our narratives and identities onto the buildings and spaces around us. So when these buildings are abandoned, they represent a break in ourselves, especially for a country like the USA, whose whole history and identity is built around the idea of exploration and settling.
“The houses depicted in this series do not refer just to the particular. They are images of spatial assemblages, of kinds of stages on which a number of quite different (and perhaps incompatible) narratives might be enacted,” Martins explains. “These images, these houses, these ruins, reflect back at us the human constructs that we project and impose on them.”
Interestingly, when the project was published in the New York Times, it caused a considerable controversy when it was discovered that Martins had digitally altered some of the images. This not only upset readers but was apparently a breach of his contract. Martins responded by releasing an essay entitled, How Can I See What I See Until I Know What I Know in which he argues that his photos were not dependent on the ideas of photojournalism but were trying to get the viewer to think about his or her reaction to them. In other words, it’s more about the process of communicating, about getting the viewer to think about the fact and the construction of the image at the same time.
“Bernardo Soares (one of Fernando Pessoa’s many heteronyms) wrote ‘some truths cannot be told except as fiction’. Perhaps it may also be the case that some truths are better told as ‘fiction’,” Martins explains in the essay. I found it quite interesting to think that while we will easily accept digital manipulation in magazines when it comes to images of human beings, we are outraged when this happens in photojournalism. Although I think this should have been made clear in the article, it is interesting that people are upset when they feel their history has been doctored and yet they are only happy to have their own physicality Photoshopped into unreality.
The works in This is Not a House cause us to question what we know about reality and fiction. Even when photos have not been digitally altered, they are still inevitably constructs of the photographer. Someone is pointing a camera, many scenes are artificially set up. Where do we draw the line in terms of what we will believe? What is really important is the inescapable reality of the people who have lost their homes, while the people who caused the financial crisis are back to bonuses as usual.