FOUND, at the New Art Gallery Walsall, features seven artists, all of whom present photographs, postcards, and magazines - gleaned from the depths of the internet, flea-markets, or archival collections. The overall aim is to investigate the histories and narratives of other people's images, dealing with the broader themes of loss, memory and mass cultural experiences. For me, this was a fascinating premise, and provided much food for thought. The exhibition's themes all point towards the larger construct of 'collective memory' - how history and memory are communally presented, understood and constructed.
The work of two artists, Ruth Claxton and Paul Chiappe, was particularly striking. Chiappe produced meticulous pencil drawings of class photos, yearbooks and plays - important moments from strangers' lives. His drawings, which are often mistaken for photographs, blur the boundaries between fiction and reality. In their essence, they form an example of mistaken identity (photograph/drawing, truth/construction), representing the paradox of the rise of self-conscious attempts to preserve memory (photographs, memorials and anniversaries), yet also the way that spontaneous, social-remembrance has ceased to function in our digital age. Claxton presented a whole wall of postcards (photographs of old-master paintings) where the 'top surface' of the image had been manipulated. This seemed to be what the whole exhibition was about: the top surface of memory. We can change the narrative, destroy the archives, lose all trace of past-actions, but this can only ever touch the 'top surface' of events.
My only qualm about both of these works, was to what extent they constituted 'found' objects. This word implies a process of chance happenings and discoveries, yet their visual imagery struck me as carefully selected and thought through. Artists such as Vesna Pavlovic and Erik Kessels dealt with the 'found' brief more directly; both investigating discarded photographs. Pavlovic displayed slides from a family's travels across America, and Kessels displayed a room full of 'enlarged botched vernacular photographs', where amateur photographers had concealed part of the image with their finger. As Kessels stated, he aimed to represent 'the impulse to mark our lives and immortalise the past' - further representing the idea that by preserving our memories, we gradually and imperceptibly destroy them. If an image exists in reality, what need is there to preserve it in the mind?
Julie Cockburn, Ellen Gallagher and John Stezaker all seemed to approach the brief from a similar standpoint; their work spoke to social conceptions of beauty. Stezaker presented montages of Hollywood stars, their faces forming 'exotic artefacts of an obsolete culture.' Cockburn likewise transformed a set of 1940s/50s studio portrait photographs, all embellished by hand, and Gallagher presented African-American beauty images, which she had again painstakingly transmuted and modified.
The combined effect of FOUND's artwork, like collective memory itself, produced a whole that was so much more than the sum of its parts. Through an active processes of representation and involvement, their work ensured that the narratives of others were kept alive. This was not through a traditional archival process, in which items are carefully sorted and categorised, but this was memory within society; collective performances, in which the artist, subject and viewer all played their individual parts.