Exhibition: ‘Looking at Looking’

This is just a temporary draft – I’ll be editing it soon…

This exhibition, at the National Gallery International, in Melbourne, fits in very well with my recent reading of ‘Train you Gaze, by Roswell Angier.  The exhibition explores how we look at photographs, their composition and framing; the ways in which the subjects are directed or captured anonymously, and ideas of the gaze between subjects, the photographer, and the viewer.  It is concerned with and encourages ‘looking at looking’.  The exhibition is divided into four sections:

  • ‘Seeing or looking’
  • ‘Returning and denying the gaze’
  • ‘Looking at looking’
  • ‘The observer and the observed’

‘Seeing or looking’

Bill Henson, (Australian 1955- ), photographed crowds on the streets of Melbourne in his ‘Untitled 1980/82 series’.  The event is not explained but the faces in the crowd appear anxious. There doesn’t seem to be any relationship between the individuals standing together, their gaze is directed elsewhere to something we cannot see and few are aware of the camera. The photographs are slightly unsharp and fairly grainy and, judging by the depth of field and perspective, look like they were taken with a telephoto.  I was left with a sense of a sombre occasion, of people taking something in whilst, for a while at least, being unaware of those around them and of the camera.

‘Returning and denying the gaze’

Anne Ferran, (Australian 1949- ), displays ‘Scenes on the death of nature III, (1986)’, a tableau vivant which traditionally might have invited a predominantly male gaze.  However, details within the image and in particular the expressions on the faces defeat that expectation.

Chi Peng’s, (Chinese 1981 – ), work ‘Consubstantiality’ displays white powdered topless men , although gender is unclear, touching hands through, (I think), a glass wall between them. The title refers to the intertwined relationship of the Trinity, and the work expresses the apparent yearning for these bodies to co-exist.

Brook Andrew’s, (Australian 1970- ), ‘I split your gaze’ shows the same face, split into two but with the right half on the left side of the frame and vice versa. The photograph was originally a nineteenth century ethnographic portrait of an Aboriginal man and Andrew’s treatment of it  means that the man is no longer subject to our gaze because the attention of the viewer is ‘split’ and viewing has become more involved.

‘Looking at looking’

David Thomas, (Northern Ireland, 1951 – ), photographed the Brandenburg Gate, but a large part of it is obscured by a large  black enamel square that reflects back a faint image of you the viewer. Thus you are forced to see yourself within the act of looking.

A large Thomas Struth, (German 1954- ), ‘Pergamon Museum IV, Berlin’ is also on display.  See my posting on Struth of dd mmm for a more considered review of his constructed works.

‘The observer and the observed’

This section of the exhibition is predominantly concerned with war zones including Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam.  Ashley Gilbertson’s ‘Iraqis go about their routines’ shows a very striking image of a soldier and the view through the bunker telescope – it speaks of the power and limitations of each of the two sides.  It also reminded me in style of Tim Heatherington’s World Press Photo Prize winning image of an exhausted soldier.

John Immig photographed coverage of the Vietnam war directly from his television set establishing still greater distance between the observer and the observed.  His approach makes the viewer think about the channels through which this news is fed – not something that would be achieved by conventional ‘first hand’ images.

Lyndell Brown and Charles Breen are Australian war artists who were embedded in Afghanistan.  Their work shows the more human side of war, the interaction between troops and traders.  Their approach differs from the news agenda and provides thinking space for the viewer.


Although quite a small exhibition, ‘Looking at Looking’ was well worth visiting.  The highlights for me were Ashley Gilbertson and Thomas Struth but as always, I also learnt from exposure to new photographers and different approaches to work.

I suspect that Henson may have su

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