Susie Stubbs finds an artist grappling with some slippery ideas at Castlefield Gallery
Anyone who still believes that the camera never lies should look away now. David Osbaldeston, the artist who this week opens a solo exhibition in Manchester, sets out to explode the myth that what you see is necessarily what you get. Worse, the idea that the major events of our time are recorded accurately, those wars, disasters, protests and deaths that become fixed markers in our lives, is laid out for what it is – a universal untruth. This is an exhibition that revels in theatricality while reminding us that everything, everywhere, whether in print, in the news or online, is a fabrication.
Osbaldeston’s exhibition opens with a series of six images from recent photo-journalism: the LA Riots in 1992, the Waco Siege that followed a year later, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the first Gulf War’s so-called ‘highway of death’ all feature. ‘I’m interested in how events get fixed in time and in our memory, and the images are all press photographs of particular, decisive moments in history,’ says Osbaldeston. The images have, in fact, been culled from the Internet, printed off, photocopied, collaged, re-photographed onto 35mm film and finally printed on 1980s photographic paper.
It is a curiously analogue process but one that the artist believes reflects the ‘slippery’ nature of recent history. ‘What surprised me most about these images is, if you look them up online there’s a slippage between the date something happened and the date that something becomes recorded – in the case of the Waco Siege, it can be as much as a year. This is most apparent in the history of the past 20 years, before it becomes fixed.’
Although all of the events in Osbaldeston’s photographs have occurred within living memory, the facts around them remain murky. The artist, by manipulating the images, deliberately highlights the gap between what he calls ‘illusion and reality’. The photographs could, after all, be real: they are presented on authentic photographic paper, similar to the stock that would have been used by the original photographers. ‘Photo-journalism is constructed,’ he says. ‘People read newspaper images as fact when they’re not. By putting these images into a gallery, factual images automatically become “art”, but they are essentially the same so you have to ask what is different?’
Osbaldeston’s photographs are only half the story. His exhibition is made up of two discrete works: The Light of the Day, the manipulated images described above, and The Action of the Play, a series of book cover designs from Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello’s play, Six Characters in Search of an Author. The play, written in the early 1920s, is a confusing piece of theatre that deliberately sets out to blur the line between fiction and fact. And it has had a mixed critical reception. When it was first performed, for example, the playwright was forced to leave the theatre via a backdoor to escape the enraged audience.
What unites the two parts of the exhibition is the theatrical. The gallery is bathed in red light and the exterior wrapped in posters, while the artist treats the whole venture ‘like a stage set. The gallery is a book and the viewer walks into the pages of it’. Osbaldeston wants the viewer to be as confused as Pirandello’s punters and he happily prises apart the concept of the suspension of disbelief – reminding us that too often we accept what the media tells us rather than questioning the images, news and accounts that present themselves as ‘fact’. Not only that, but we fail to take into account how the packaging of such facts influences our reading of them. Osbaldeston shows us the changing design of the covers of the play over a 40 year period, for example, looking at ‘how design has become integrated into our experience of time – a visual memory, if you like.’
Of course, without seeing the exhibition it is almost impossible to ascertain whether it manages to convey such complex ideas. And that adds up to only one conclusion: what you are reading here is fiction, or at best this writer’s opinion, and the only way to find out whether this show is any good or not is to go and see it with your own eyes.
Out of Time (The Light of Day/ The Action of the Play) runs at Castlefield Gallery until 6 June 2010. Free. Pirandello’s play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, will be performed at the gallery on 19 & 20 May (6-8pm), free. Susie Stubbs is the Editor of Creative Tourist. Images: both David Osbaldeston: Out of Time (The Light of Day / The Action of the Play), courtesy of the artists and Matt’s Gallery.