The V&A has quietly been developing a geographical strand of photography shows. A while ago, an excellent look at new photography and video from China; a recent, rather more mixed one from South Africa, and now Light From the Middle East: New Photography. This one is a bit different in that it represents a new collecting strand that the V&A will pursue in tandem with the British Museum. In contrast to the earlier exhibitions, all the pictures have been purchased.
Much of the logic behind this is incomprehensible. Surely there are serious questions to be asked as to why the National Collection of the Art of Photography should saddle itself with a new and random speciality in the Middle East; if it were obvious that the pictures were far ahead of anything being made elsewhere, there would be no doubt. But they aren’t. Of course a quick look at the money will provide the answers. The curators have found it possible to finance this show, and so here it is. There is no sense in criticising the policy. It’s not policy. It’s merely pragmatism.
In Shadi Ghadirian’s fine series “Qajar”, women are posed in remade 19th-century Orientalist style in front of a very theatrical studio backdrop. A contemporary prop (a bike, dark glasses, a can of fizzy pop) in each is enough to make us realise the conflicting tensions these women must constantly resolve in their daily lives. Youssef Nabil photographs Yemeni sailors who have settled in South Shields, in England’s northeast, and hand-colours them so that the photographs match the sitters in having something of the quality of surviving from another time.
Big questions lurk in the background of the show. Diaspora, invasion and occupation, the aftermath of war, revolution, identity, civil rights ... Many of the sets of photographs would be very powerful if we could see them in their entirety. But those weighty topics are not properly covered. We have a sampler platter, appetising enough but insubstantial. The exhibition uncomfortably diminishes the challenges facing the region. Political, social and historical contexts recede, and we are left with an exposition of the different things that can be done to photographs, and the different ways they can be used.
There are many interesting pictures here, but the exhibition suffers from knowingness. Too many pictures are no more than a critique of pictures that went before. There is an art-world archness about it, a spurious sophistication, which is clunky and ponderous. For all the heat and friction in Middle Eastern politics, this exhibition manages to be prissy.
Frightening urgent energy has been the region’s recent defining characteristic. Yet here is a show with no tweeted pictures, nothing from social media. In 2012? How can you hope to show anything of the power of photography in the Middle East without including the citizen-journalism, the blogging, that has been fundamental to the shifts in power there? Failure even to consider social media and the instantaneous transmission of digital imagery marks this exhibition as deeply conservative. So does a weighting towards Iranian artists, who make up a third of the show. Iranian art has been heavily adopted and promoted of late. On this evidence, it needs to go some way to justify that attention.
The show doesn’t necessarily look conservative. We have plenty of digital manipulation. In pictures by Amirali Ghasemi the visible flesh of people attending western-looking parties in Tehran is removed by software, partly to protect them from being recognised, partly to forestall the censorship that would occur if the pictures were published. It’s a marginally interesting effect, leaving flat white spaces that confound our sense of perspective. But it’s also quite trivial. Defending the right to party is not the extent of the region’s cumulative revolutions and would-be revolutions.
Ahmed Mater’s view of the Ka’ba is more like it: seemingly a near-abstract view of the crowds performing the ritual act of turning around the holy centre of the sanctuary at Mecca, it is in reality a study of iron filings taking their order around a magnet in the shape of a black cube. This is made in photogravure and is one of the few images in the show to strive for beauty as well as effect. Elsewhere, we have the now-standard burnt prints and negatives, elaborate performances made for the camera, and so on: photography as a set of gestures aimed mainly at showing how sophisticated the photographer is.
Some rise above that. Tal Shochat makes pictures of fruit trees treated as though they were product-shots, carefully isolated in their fields by a dark cloth background after scrubbing individual fruit and leaves, and then lit as though in controlled studio conditions. It’s not an original procedure; the British photographer David Buckland explored something similar in the early 1980s. But it works in Tal Shochat’s context. Growing fruit is like kneading dough, one of the oldest cultural gestures we have. To photograph it with a bit of reverence is sensible, particularly in Israel, where fruit is a political fact as well as a farm product.
Those familiar with the work of the established artists here will hanker for more. Taysir Batniji’s watchtowers on the West Bank had to be photographed on his behalf because he was not allowed to get there to do it himself. Walid Raad is here, unfortunately represented by a picture that is incomprehensible on its own. Nermine Hammam’s portraits of vulnerable young Egyptian conscripts have already been well circulated.
Jananne al-Ani’s video “Shadow Sites II” is a compilation of aerial views, mainly of desert. Each segment is zoomed constantly; the effect is of slow controlled twisting above the sketchy marks of civilisation. We see – and are almost hypnotised by – mysterious but just-about legible marks of occupation of the land. It’s a strongly moving piece.
Abbas’s incredible photojournalistic record of the revolution in Tehran is here, too. Abbas’s pictures are more than 30 years old, a curious inclusion under the subtitle New Photography. Yet they are among the highlights of an unsatisfactory show. Another is a photograph of a contemporary bridge in Saudi Arabia by Abdulnasser Gharem. People sheltered from a flash flood on this bridge, which was washed away. The artist has simply painted the word “siraat” on it again and again, which means “the way”. Among so much art that’s about being an artist, these are the pieces with the confidence to be about the world.
‘Light From the Middle East: New Photography’, V&A, London, until April 7 2013, www.vam.ac.uk