Sybylle Bergemann
Aratoi until 9th December
Grant Sheehan
Ghosts in the Landscape
Hedspace until 3 November

Two Masterton galleries are currently exhibiting contrasting exhibitions of photography currently.  Sybelle Bergemann’s at Aratoi is a retrospective survey of her photography career with work from 1967 – 2006.  It is primarily concerned with the urban environment and its people.  Aratoi is the only New Zealand venue for this exhibition. It will later tour Australia.

Grant Sheehan’s work presents a romantic view of isolation and derilection within the New Zealand landscape. A  comparison of the two illustrates how art work presents the maker’s view of the world and their experience of it.

Bergemann’s exhibition divides into separate subject areas – portrait, fashion, documentary, the surreal and polaroid sketches but all are unified by a consistent world view and superb craftsmanship. Her photographs are undoubtedly beautiful but they also question the various modes she uses. ‘Marisa and Lianne Sellin’ (1981) is a ‘fashion’ photo (for beachwear perhaps) but Marisa’s fierce and challenging gaze at the viewer and the compositional tumble of the setting for the two figures creates a tension quite unlike most fashion photos.  Even the more conventional fashion shoots in Dakar, with their staged artificiality, are remarkable for the ‘traditional’ clothing worn and the reserved dignity, distance and unsmiling beauty of the models.

Sybylle Bergemann - "Marisa and Lianne Sellin"

Sybylle Bergemann – “Marisa and Lianne Sellin”

Her documentary work of Berlin its people and its monuments (to Marx and Lenin) has more direct comment and ambiguity. These series are photo essays about life and living in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Bergemann juxtaposes human subjects with the stark anonymity of Stalinist architecture and empty lifeless areas of wilderness. The figures and portraits in this context appear alienated, melancholy and introspective but still strong and resolute.  The series on momuments undermine the gravitas of the sculptures by showing them half finished or suspended in mid air so the viewer is not immediately aware as to whether they are being installed or demolished.

It should be born in mind that Bergemann’s photographs cover a lifetime and cannot be judged as making contemporary comment. The texts that accompany each of Bergemann’s series are crucial in providing a background that determines the way the images are interpreted.  These photographs gain significance through understanding information that is not contained within the photographs themselves.

This is what provides the contrast with Grant Sheehan’s work.  Sheehan’s photos are all there in front of the viewer.  No comment or irony is present, no prior knowledge is required of the viewer except to accept (or not) the romanticism of the photographer’s vision.  Sheehan’s photos fit into a tradition which  attributes cultural properties (like haunting, loneliness, isolation, deriliction ) to landscape. These have been fashionable conventions in the past but risk becoming romantic clichés if repeated too often.  While the book that these images are taken from might well be a popular coffee table item the photographs do not invite any new insight or thought that has not been fully explored by other photographers.

The gallery where the Sheehan images are shown deserves special mention.  David Hedley has done a superb job in outfitting a vacant space into a very efficient and well appointed gallery.  In the middle of Masterton’s business centre this space will provide a great complement to Aratoi with monthly changes of exhibition and the commitment to show only high quality exhibitors.  It will be interesting to see what direction the gallery takes when it moves beyond the direct connection with books, that the first two exhibitions have had.