I Am A Camera (Saatchi Gallery, Boundary Road, NVV8, 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.
But the focus is on the photographers. Nan Goldin takes snaps of nouveau New York low life: transvestites, drug addicts, someone dying presumably of Aids, various tangled naked bodies. There are also Richard Billingharn's photographs of his own family living a less smart version of
low life in Birmingham — tattooed, drunken, brawling. And Tierney Gearon comes closest of all to the mood of the family photo album, since her subject is her own children, updated putti who do putti-like things, such as peeing in the street, in middle-class America.
It's easy to see the case for the snapshot as contemporary art. It's an admirably democratic form — intimate, unpretentious, adapted for transcribing random passing reality. On the other hand, I can't help feeling that it's not enough — that it's just too light, too flimsy to be stuck up on the walls of an art gallery. Most of the above, in fact, look as good or better in the accompanying book. That brings us to the big difference between photography and the other arts — not just painting and sculpture, but also music, architecture, poetry and drama.
All the above are capable of producing physical responses — sensations of weight, space and mass, emotional tingles down the spine, goose pimples. In a recent interview, a well-known critic pointed out to me that photography alone does not do any of that for him, or for anyone he has ever discussed the question with. What does this indicate about the status of photography as an art?
On the other hand, the waxwork portraits of Sugimoto underline how intimately interconnected are the histories of photography and realist art — going back to the days of Leonardo and Holbein. Many artists in the past, David Hockney has been arguing — and will argue at greater length in a forthcoming book — used lenses in different ways to help them with their work.
Certainly Canaletto used the camera obscura, and very probably Vermeer did too. And it is a short step from the camera obscura to I Am a Camera — all that photography adds is sensitive paper to fix the image. Vermeer and Canaletto used hands, brushes, eyes and paint to do the same thing. Of course, they did not simply copy the image projected by a lens — they probably used it as a checking device and starting point. In a sense, photography grew out of realist painting (which, indeed, started looking like photography before photography was invented).
For those of us who love the language of paint, there is a huge difference between a Vermeer and a Cibachrome. Still, it is no accident that Sugimoto and also Tom Hunter — another Saatchi photo-artist, though not represented in the current show — are obsessed by the man from Delft. Sugimoto, who seems to me to be by far the most interesting artist at the Saatchi Gallery, somehow rearranges all this complex history, and at the same time brings Out how strange are all these attempts — painting, photography, waxworks, sculpture — to stop time and change. I suspect, though, that his real medium is not film but ideas.