Wednesday 22 September 2010

Eadweard Muybridge / Rachel Whiteread

Eadweard Muybridge

Muybridge is best known for his photographic studies of humans and animals in motion: multi-angle series of shots of, say, a woman walking down a set of steps and turning; or the image that proved that a horse can have all four hooves in the air in the course of galloping. I heard visitors announcing to each other "This is what we've come for" when they reached zoopraxiscopes and zoetropes (the contraptions that animated these series) two thirds of the way through this exhibition. Like me, they probably remember their inclusion in childhood books of experiments. Moving or 3D images are inately entrancing to us (remember the arrival of magic-eye pictures), but it is clear how, in the 1870s and 80s, Muybridge advanced cinematography, zoology and figure-drawing.

The preceding few rooms show the continuation from his ground-breaking work in photography - both the art and the technology. An Englishman in America, Muybridge (who frequently revised his name and identity) was keen to make the most of the newest arenas. His single-mindedness (which may have lead to some questionable ethical and moral choices, leaving aside the accusation of murder) and innovation are clear even today and his travels result in a document of American expansion in the second half of the 19th century, complete with Indians and Chinamen.

The daring and sometimes mind-bending views of Yosemite and San Francisco (I spent some time working out which way up the book should be, with another visitor) convey the wonder and the lure of both the American landscape and its new towns. It's not just because I've been there that these settings make the later images of Panama and Guatemala look quaint, despite their theatrical poise and precision.

Although the first few rooms hop about in the artist's chronology, they all lead up to the big draw, the high-tech experiments involving rapid-fire work with multiple cameras, prefiguring Matrix-style "bullet-time". He tried everything: analysing the movement of people with physical impairments; wrestling; splashing about in tubs of water; getting into bed and, most amusingly, a woman in a full Victorian dress and a large hat, leaping over a stool. The camera's ability to stop time and to split a subject into multiple angles (a trick replicated for visitors with a clever glass wall at the entrance and exit) proved what the eye couldn't see and still struggles to believe.

Rachel Whiteread Drawings

I can't imagine a more opposite artist to have printed on the same ticket and exhibited just through a wall or two from the Muybridge show. In the work of Rachel Whiteread it is the spaces that are captured and frozen; arenas of human activity are rendered monumentally still; busyness countered with contemplation.

Throughout this Autumn, Tate Britain hosts a fairly conventional appreciation of Eadweard Muybridge right next to this smaller (and cheaper) exhibition showing the byproducts or sideline of Whiteread's immense public sculptures: her sketches, drawings and doodles.

Some pieces show visual preoccupations that fed into full-scale work; some are simply intriguing by showing Whiteread's playful experiments with line; some show the construction behind specific works such as the Holocaust Memorial.

It's informal but technical, and accomplished despite being created without display in mind, but has no real conclusion. I'm not sure that the organisers know what to do with a collection that is neither a body of related work nor a progression of complete statements, but a scrapbook of a journey that isn't yet finished.

These two shows are running at Tate Britain from 8th September 2010 to 16th January 2011. Extra marks to the Tate for the A6 exhibition guides.


On the subject of Yosemite, let's compare Eadweard Muybridge at Mariposa Grove in 1872 to my sister at Mariposa Grove in 1998. I've been debating whether it's the same tree.

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