Raghu Rai at New Art Exchange

On Friday evening we went along to see Invocation to India, the latest exhibition at New Art Exchange, a selection from Magnum photographer Raghu Rai‘s street photography, spanning several decades of rapid change in India. The often panoramic images have a tendency to find the surreal within the photo-documentary frame, as in works foregrounding sleeping men with teeming bazaars and urban streets going on around them, like the products of their own restless imaginations, or works that present statuary, carnival masks and billboards in ways that blend into the human scenery like ordinary hallucinations.

Despite having no immediately obvious connection to the work on show at Nottingham Contemporary (apart from both exhibitions lying on the same tram route) there were things in Rai’s work that provoked some thoughts on the relationships between Goldstein, Collier and Rai, as well as between all three, the idea of the poetic image, and the ability of texts (like photographs) to create as well as describe realities (perhaps that’s what the curator intends to suggest with his use of the words ‘invocation to’ in the exhibition’s title, rather than the more obvious ‘portrait of’).

If nothing else, Rai’s ‘Two Wrestlers’ – an image fusing a pair of athletes with their own painted representations on partially-open doors – offers an instant reminder of the modes of representation explored in Goldstein’s ‘Two Boxers’, and (perhaps) another small validation of Geoff Dyer’s suggestion in The Ongoing Moment that the history of photography is as much about the passing of images between photographers as it is about the recording of the world itself.

Interestingly, at a talk by Niru Ratnam and curator Saleem Arif Quadri, chaired by NAE director Skinder Hundal, Rai came in for audience criticism from two angles: first, that his view of India was partial and in some ways somewhat cliched, and second, that his work lacked the exploratory and experimental qualities being brought to Indian photography by younger artists.

In reply, some of these criticisms were acknowledged by the speakers – both Ratnam and Quadri noted that Rai was working during a period of transition between an older India and the new one, and to a large extent Rai’s work has – if not used cliches about Indian life – then perhaps created a view of the country that has become commonplace precisely through his own work’s influence. Besides, as Saleem Arif Quadri pointed out, Rai is a prolific photographer, and Invocation to India can barely claim to be comprehensive even about the full range of Rai’s work, let alone India itself.

Yet in relation to the charge of an apparent failure on the part of photographers like Rai to engage with wider debates on the artificial nature of even supposedly ‘real’ images (Rai has, after all, said: “a photograph has picked up a fact of life, and that fact will live forever”, as though he believes in the old idea of the camera as absence, an absolutely transparent ‘window on reality’) I suspect that Rai’s relationship to the things he portrays is more complex than the claim to documentary truth might generally imply: despite what he might have said, Rai seems well aware of the artifice of his own techniques, and renders that artifice in some very blatant ways within the photographs he exhibits and publishes.  

So while Rai does offer an interesting contrast in approach and sensibility to the more conceptual photography (and imagery) of Jack Goldstein and Anne Collier at Nottingham Contemporary, there are frequent connections and clues that lead the viewer towards far more complex and interesting relationships between these otherwise very different images. One example, taken from Rai’s Delhi series (not featured in the New Art Exchange exhibition, but fascinating nonetheless) seems – consciously or otherwise – to reference Yves Klein’s famous 1962 photograph of the artist  leaping into a void, suspended almost horizontally between the sky and ground in a deserted Paris street.

It’s an iconic documentation, a fabricated image that draws on the look of the documentary image only to reinforce its own fictional nature. The presence of Klein’s body in space occurs through a suspension of disbelief triggered by the visual cues of monochrome, blurring, a lack of obvious construction or manipulation inside the frame. Rai’s image is less surreal or baffling in terms of what we might be seeing, catching merely the moment of a diver’s exuberant leap into water, but compositionally and visually, the two images seem a close match on several fronts, and create similarly striking scenes: it would be intriguing to know if Rai had a pun on Klein’s 1962 picture in mind when pressing the shutter on his own.

Note, too, that striking contrast of modernist towerblocks and stone ruins, hinting that while Rai might be seen as a photo-journalist in the Cartier-Bresson lineage, catching decisive ‘moments of truth’ in the flow of real experience, his images nonetheless touch down on the conceptual ground of Surrealism often enough to suggest that he, like Cartier-Bresson himself (or perhaps just the world as it is) shares a predilection for elegantly chaotic composition, unsettling poetry and incidents prone to blurring any clear separation between our waking and dream states.

But then, perhaps photography itself – in that act of preserving for posterity every possible kind of unrepeatable split-second incident, and its creation of expectations that what is recorded is always grounded firmly in reality – gives this medium, like poetry, a kind of inherently Surrealist leaning, as the camera endlessly freezes speeding express trains in the tangled undergrowth of forests, or nonchalantly gathers umbrellas and sewing machines on the surfaces of dissecting tables, as though these were the most natural things possible: the very stuff of the world we inhabit, if only we paid attention.

Rai’s plays on the artificial and real, the composed and the natural, the public and private space, the sleeping and waking, the painted/carved and flesh-and-blood states of being, all achieve strikingly poetic effects within these pictures and it’s this – at least as much as any documentary claim they might also exert on our attention – that makes the photographs gathered in Invocation to India so rewarding.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: