Josephine Pryde: Scale

This feature on Josephine Pryde’s Scale series appeared in Metropolis M:

Seductive and discomfiting in equal measure, the work of British photographer Josephine Pryde holds pride of place amid some 1,500 new acquisitions – an embarrassment of riches – that have accrued the Stedelijk’s collection during Ann Goldstein’s time as the museum’s artistic director. Goldstein considers Pryde, with her ‘unique and complex relationship to conceptual art, historical photographic practices, and feminism’, to be one of the most significant artists working today. For some years she has been closely following the artist’s work, which she acquired for the Museum of Modern Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles, before moving to Amsterdam. She feels very strongly about it: ‘Her work is powerful, critical and provocative – and also illusive in a most intelligent and visually stunning way,’ says Goldstein.

One of Josephine Pryde’s alluring large-scale colour photographs, Do You Want Children from the 2010 Reena Spaulings’ show Therapie Thank You, was purchased soon after Goldstein took up her position at the Stedelijk Museum in 2010. A photographic diptych, it juxtaposes two closely cropped images featuring folds of Issey Miyake plissé fabrics, bulging to one side in such a way as to hint at a pregnant belly, in keeping with the title of the individual work and of the series as a whole with its veiled allusion to ‘retail therapy’. Building on this, earlier this year Goldstein went on to acquire Pryde’s entire 2012 Scale series, which may be said to be the outgoing director’s parting ‘gift’ to the Stedelijk Museum.

Judging by the sheer scale of her acquisitions for the Stedelijk, Goldstein is not averse to retail therapy herself. This comes across in her attitude towards this particular body of work. As she puts it, ‘I heard about Scale before I saw it, and already knew I wanted to acquire it, even before I saw the entire body of work in [Pryde’s] 2012 survey exhibition at the Kunsthalle Bern.’ Comprising 36 photographs of guinea pigs, the series was first presented (alongside three photographs from the Therapie Thank You series) and indeed produced at the Kunstverein Düsseldorf for ‘Miss Austen Enjoys Photography’, the inaugural show of its new director and one of Pryde’s most perceptive critics, Hans-Jürgen Hafner. It travelled on to the Kunsthalle Bern for Pryde’s survey exhibition, (re)titled ‘Miss Austen Still Enjoys Photography’.

Pryde, who carefully considers the architectural and institutional setting in which her work is displayed as part of her practice, seized the opportunity Hafner’s invitation offered her to test new ways of working with or inside an institution. She asked the Kunstverein to act ‘as a kind of production company on a shoot. To scale my photo shoot up,’ she explains. For Pryde, ‘there are all sorts of relationships of scale’ in this work, justifying its title.

The photographs were shot over two days on the Kunstverein premises, in between exhibitions, using hired daylight lighting so as not to risk scaring the animals with flash photography. An animal trainer was on hand and the installation team took every possible precaution to ensure the guinea pigs’ comfort. The main challenge, for Pryde, was not so much working with non-human subjects (she has done so before), as the turnaround of the work: ‘The shoot, the editing, the printing and the framing were all done in Düsseldorf in the space of just over two weeks before the opening.’

The 36 photographs, a number she eventually arrived at through the editing process, working mostly on her own at that stage, are either colour or black-and-white images that come in two different sizes, large or small. The smaller-scale ones (eight in total), appear against a background of coloured mattes in duck-egg blue, russet, pale yellow, white and mauve. The relation of black-and-white to colour, of large to small format is non-systematic, according to Pryde. It could be said to obey the more supple principles of variation and repetition, dictated by the serial approach that Pryde adopts in most of her work, which invites comparisons with Minimalism in this respect.

What makes each photograph in the series ‘so distinctive and remarkable’, in the words of Goldstein, has as much to do with the way it is staged and composed, the range of props and of photographic, often experimental techniques deployed, as with the physical variety of their animal subjects, photographed on their own, in pairs, in groups, as well as with a ginger cat who towers over the guinea pigs in yet another relationship of scale.

What makes these photographs so ‘creepy’, to borrow a term Hafner uses to describe Pryde’s work in a 2011 Spike review, is the implicit parallel they establish between pets and human models by drawing on the methods of glamour and fashion photography. In some of the portraits, the guinea pigs appear alongside fabrics that recall those in the Therapie Thank You series, just as ribbons, silk ties, Mylar and other such props reference the fashion industry. The same holds true of the city names (more often than not inverted) that appear in some of the photos on transparent scraps of plastic: Paris, Berlin, Tokyo and New York.

Rather than seeing the guinea pigs simply as stand-ins for ‘us humans’, though she acknowledges this is certainly part of it, the artist was thinking of the animals as pets, ones that are often bought with children in mind. Pryde, who divides her time between London and Berlin, where she teaches ‘Contemporary Photography’ at the Universität der Künste, points out that guinea pigs do not have the same connotation of ‘test subjects’ in German (the idiomatic equivalent, Versuchskaninchen, literally means ‘test rabbit’) as they do in English. The etymology of guinea pig links it with the so-called ‘Guineamen’, the slave-trading ships aboard which the animals would first have been brought over to Europe in the sixteenth century as exotic pets.

The New Photography 2013 exhibition, currently on at MoMA, where Pryde’s work is showcased alongside that of eight other experimental artist photographers who ‘turn pictures into questions’, stresses the guinea pig’s historical links to the international slave trade in the description of the selection of Scale works on view. The complete series, Scale I-XXXVI, is an edition of three with two additional artist prints, but the Stedelijk is currently the only museum to own the entire series. For Goldstein, the subject of this photographic series tallies with the serial nature of Pryde’s work, given how ‘prone to reproduction and multitude’ guinea pigs are. She felt ‘it would be very special for the museum to own the complete body of the work – to really feel the power of its volume’.

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