honest portraits of coming of age, on bike tracks and park benches
'Gravitas,' a new group photo show, offers 13 thought-provoking perspectives on growing up.
Spencer Murphy, from the series One Bad Wheel
"We are constantly bombarded with press headlines and statistics with some concern about 'troubled' youth," says Christiane Monarchi, the curator of the new exhibition Gravitas, on show this week at the London Art Fair. Our generation is supposedly more digitally active but less emotionally connected than any other; we're more sexually liberated but having less sex; we're drinking less or drinking too much, depending on which news sites you read. And while our generation is also more intent on self-documentation than perhaps any before it, it's harder than ever to make accurate images of adolescence, Monarchi argues. "It's become difficult and often inappropriate to photograph [young people] and consider the visual manifestation of their physical and mental development," she says.
But each of the 13 photographers in Gravitas has found a unique way to portray coming of age. The show includes artist Melanie Manchot's Super8 film "11/18," for which she documented the same girl for one minute every month from age 11 to 18. Photographer Sian Davey captures her step-daughter's friends rolling cigarettes and gossiping unselfconsciously on a park picnic bench. And Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert photographs a freckled 14-year-old earnestly channeling a historic monk at a Scottish games festival. From 13 different angles, the show examines and elevates all the everyday moments that amount to "growing up." Christiane tells us about how she found such a cool mix of artists.
What does the show's title, "Gravitas," mean to you?
In Ancient Rome, "gravitas" was one of the key personal virtues to aspire to; this refinement of one's personality was seen to communicate maturity, a time to take up their place as respected adults in society. The word "gravitas" is still used today to describe this seriousness of demeanour, but what does it look like now for an adolescent taking up an "adult" place in society?
Developmental psychologists (notably E. Erikson) have long-held theories about the types of crises that the childhood identity should move through and resolve before reaching maturity, historically defined at around 18 years of age. Is that still relevant today, and what does this identity formation and crisis resolution look like given all the various factors that come into play with adolescent development — from peers, family and community bonds, the increasing centrifuge of social media and digital sphere, sexual and gender development and perceived pathologies of behavior and body image? There's a lot in the mix, but that's where we are in 2017.
There is also a subtext here about "gravitas," as this and all of the ancient Roman virtues only applied to men at the time, however there are still hurdles today for women to show the appropriately serious demeanor to make it in certain professions (see last summer's UK press coverage of an ex-Lord Chancellor lambasting the new and first-ever female Lord Chancellor Liz Truss for not having enough "gravitas" for the role despite her numerous qualifications). It is one point of departure for me to include in this exhibition works by several artists focusing on young women, particularly Melanie Manchot's compelling moving image work "11/18."
How did you go about selecting photographers? Were you conscious of representing a range of ages and different experiences?
Through my work on Photomonitor I've gotten to know a lot of artists — particularly in the UK and Ireland where this online platform is focused — who also share an interest in childhood and adolescence in their photographic and lens-based work. In Gravitas, where possible I wanted to premiere new work here in London, which I'm pleased to do with several artists including Wendy McMurdo, Frances Kearney, Sian Davey, Spencer Murphy, and Sophie Green. Also, I spend a lot of time with students and at university degree shows, and was happy to meet several artists working autobiographically about this important time that they have just emerged from, for example Bronte Cordes and Madison Blackwood.
Did you have a clear idea of what you wanted the images, as a group, to convey about young people today?
I've proposed this exhibition to be a quiet, reflective space — the unifying theme being the idea of moving physically through a duration of adolescence punctuated by the stories brought by these 13 artists. These are, for the most part, the stories of the ordinary business of growing up today. In this way, I do have a clear idea of what I'd like this group of works to convey: the space to consider the multifaceted beauty of adolescence experienced in an existential way, and considering what kind of adults are quietly forming themselves all around us. Each visitor may resonate with a particular project, but there are universal themes throughout: family, community, role models, play, loss, and the pure fascination of watching and arresting that fragile time between child and adulthood where nothing much may be visible at all but everything is changing, ready to join the "adult" world.
You've mentioned that you'd like to expand the show into a larger body of work. Are there any other specific perspectives or artists you'd want to include?
I really want to include teenage photographers in my next iteration of this exhibition. This is the missing puzzle piece for me. There may be many reasons why it is hard to find young artists under 18, as probably they have yet to enter art school, the gallery network, the press. But it's a challenge I'd like to undertake.
"Gravitas" is on show from January 18 to 22 at the London Art Fair.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography courtesy Christiane Monarchi