Lifemarks and Landmarks exhibition 2008
Andrew Rafferty at the Gallery in Redchurch Street
by: Tom Jeffreys
Roland Barthes equated photography with death, and, visiting Andrew Rafferty's exhibition at The Gallery on Redchurch Street, it's not hard to see why. This is a show throughout which the spectre of death looms large, and yet viewing Rafferty's work is not a miserable experience. There is hope here, and humour.
The exhibition begins with a series entitled 'The Stones Remain', first seen in London at the Barbican Centre in 1989. These black and white works constitute a thorough photographic document of Britain's megalithic landmarks. Obviously Stonehenge features, but so too lesser known examples like Long Meg near Penrith and Cuween Hill on the Orkney mainland. These exquisitely lit and composed images demonstrate how time is never simply a linear development: rather, the past is always a haunting presence.
This section blends into a series of images of the British coastline, its sedimentary layers, crashing seas and deep white mists. There's something here akin to Darren Almond's 'Moons of the Iapetus Ocean' at White Cube back in January, but Rafferty's style is less flashy. One particular image is strikingly beautiful: it depicts what looks like Fastnet in Ireland, the sea crashing under and against its natural rocky arch. The foam and spray is blurred in motion, while the cliff face remains hard and still. This dichotomy between stillness and motion is something that is inherent in all photography, but elegantly exploited here by Rafferty.
From here we move round to a series of photographs commissioned by Norman Foster to document the construction of City Hall and its opening in 2002. Here Rafferty demonstrates his interest not only in the sleek compositions of Foster's modernity, but also in the long and grubby process that makes it possible. Builders, cranes, rubble and scaffolding are given as much emphasis as the slick glass and steel of the completed edifice. Colour enters the exhibition for the first time (along with some fisheye lens trickery) to demonstrate both that new subject matter requires new techniques and that Rafferty has mastered them.
A small alcove room round the corner holds perhaps the highlight of this exhibition: a series of works looking at various aspects of Jesus' life from a uniquely conceived angle. Returning to black and white, Rafferty has used himself – Turk-like – to portray a range of Biblical characters. There's nine super close-up self portraits arranged in a square. Rafferty gurns and grimaces: is he Jesus racked by agony on the cross, or Judas by the guilt of betrayal? There's Rafferty with a noose round his neck, and three reflections of him as Pontius Pilate, all smeary and Bacon-esque.
The outstanding work in some ways is an aerial shot of the Last Supper. The apostles sit around a white disc of table. All are out of shot and all you can see is twelve pairs of hands gesticulating – arguing, pleading, blaming. Judas, in the top right corner, is simply a single hand in blurred withdrawal. It's a striking image: innovative, clever and thought-provoking.
Back in the main gallery space, there's a selection of more travel-like works. Deep mists, burning crosses, big pillars, a gargoyle, a wrapped-up museum exhibit, and one starkly composed black and white piece. A road way wriggles into the distance, formed only of white snow and twin lines of black hedgerow. Then it's back to England for Christmas, a wedding, a vicar, the elderly.
And from this England and these elderly, thence to death. There's gravestones up close and graveyards from afar, family vaults and mausoleums, all in respectful black and white. Contrast is provided by the red and white striped hazard tape that encircles the gravestone of NJ Neal, RAF Flight Engineer and by the teddy bear marking a sudden road-side fatality.
In addition, Rafferty has printed photographic images onto shards of stone. These look like fragments of grave, the markers of death crumbled and themselves dying. Some are housed safely in a museum-style display cabinet; some are placed on the gallery floor. Death lingers and spreads. Although it is this last section that deals most explicitly with the end, death is apparent throughout: in the transience of man's existence compared with the imposing permanence of nature, even in the death of our gods – both of Jesus as the son of God and of the paganism that inspired the megaliths. Whilst indeed the stones remain, the beliefs that built them are long gone.
I think I've made this seem like a dark and depressing exhibition, but it really isn't. There's a fullness here that encompasses wonder, wit and happiness. Death is just a part of the photograph.