We are happy to announce an exhibition featuring the project Album 31 by the artists Sophy Rickett and Bettina von Zwehl. The project was commissioned by the Grain Photography Project and the Library of Birmingham. During the two artists’ perusal of the Library’s photographic archives, they came across a collection produced by the Victorian photographer and parliamentarian Sir Benjamin Stone; his album no. 31 provided a set of practical and conceptual principles which Rickett and von Zwehl used to work collaboratively and to produce their own project, Album 31.
Stone created an extensive collection of meticulously compiled and catalogued albums. In his album 31, he put photos he wanted to keep but which didn’t fit into any of the categories that structure the rest of his collection. He positioned the images according to a set of criteria where subject matter, processes and timeframes co-exist in unexpected relationships that enable both humour and the spectre of human darkness to emerge.
Rickett and von Zwehl became interested in the motifs in Stone’s album 31, and in how its awkward juxtapositions could be productive as well as meaningful. They explored how Stone’s otherwise structured approach, governed by intention and purpose, was corrupted by contingent and possibly unconscious relationships. In engaging with Stone’s archive, Rickett and von Zwehl also reflected on their own quite different practices, and the changing history of photographic imperatives and behaviours.
Using Stone’s album as a starting point, the artists set about revisiting and retrieving material from their respective production histories. This appropriation from the margins of artistic practice – histories which include out-takes, footnotes, off-mike effects and many other artistic marginalia, enabled them to reuse material that for whatever reason did not ‘fit’; it gave them an opportunity to consider a different set of rationales, narratives, emphasises and trajectories.
Album 31 tests the implications of playing with meaning through re-contextualising and re-positioning subject matter, of resisting the possibility of a single interpretation and resolution.
Also on show are recent works the artists have produced individually: Sophy Rickett’s The Death of a Beautiful Subject (2014) and Bettina von Zwehl’s Laments (2014). These works provide a context for Album 31 and help viewers to read it as a meeting point between two separate practices.
Developed during and after a five-month residency at the Freud Museum London (2013/2014), Laments marks a new departure in von Zwehl’s approach to portraiture. The subjects, all women, are depicted only in outline, in a series of variations on the traditional profile view that is characteristic of much of her previous work. Von Zwehl allowed each sitter to find her own pose, a strategy lending more fluidity and spontaneity to the series. Plunged into darkness, the subjects exude a sense of melancholy, or perhaps the self-consciousness that comes with performing the role of ‘being looked at’. The portraits are complicated by the quality of the headdresses the sitters are asked to wear; they distort the shape of the head, kneading it like clay.
The Death of a Beautiful Subject is a multi-disciplinary project that explores the relationship between photography, materiality, memory and the natural world. Taking as her impetus a set of amateur butterfly photographs made by her retired father (from whom she was estranged for several years), Rickett examines some of the boundaries of commitment, collaboration, authorship and ownership. The artist is interested in the contingent nature of documentary images. She explores ways of resisting photography’s representational aspects in order to pursue something performative, where meaning as well as subject matter are unfixed and open to interpretation. Central to the work is a text written by Rickett herself: its narrative moves backwards and forwards through time, creating a fragmented chronology that manifests a profound sense of subjectivity.
Bettina von Zwehl (b. 1971, Munich, lives and works in London) is known for creating subtle, distinctive photographic portraits. Her preoccupation with the miniature – also its lesser-known C18th sub-genre, the eye miniature – came about during her six months as ‘artist in residence’ at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 2011. Her works, which have been exhibited widely in Europe and the USA, can be found in important collections such as that of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Rubell Family Collection, amongst others. Steidl and Photoworks co-published her first monograph in 2007. She is represented in London by Purdy Hicks Gallery.
Sophy Rickett (b. 1970 in London where she also lives and works) works with photographic and video works where moments of encounter between people and nature are explored. She is interested in landscape, particularly in combining a desire to experience the ‘sublime’ with a profound sense of loss. Her works have been exhibited widely, not least in solo exhibitions at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge; Chateau de Lichtenberg, Alsace; Arnolfini, Bristol; De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill; and Ffotogallery, Cardiff. Her works are included in, among others, the collections of the Pompidou in Paris, the Federal Reserve in Washington and the Government Art Collection in London. She is represented in London by Grimaldi Gavin.
The exhibition is supported by Arts Council England and the Library of Birmingham / GRAIN Photography Project.