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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Global Photo Expo Mired in Cliche




For documentary photographer Martin Parr, pleasing the eye is not on the agenda. His global photo exhibit "Common Sense," a British Council-assisted initiative currently showing in Zambia, Tokyo, Moscow and 40 other locations worldwide, is chock-full of lurid specters of people trying to have a good time. A typical subject is the red-faced vacationer, with fat rolling over garish swimming trunks and lager can or greasy hot dog in hand.


The collage of 300-odd photos hung at Moscow's Dom Kino is certainly striking: Using ring flash (which allows him to shoot from a distance of only five or 10 centimeters) and a straightforward 35mm lens, Parr achieves very sharp images, flushed with color f so much color that rather than bringing the images to life it suffocates them.


This technique renders everything grotesque. Fag-ends in an ashtray or a half-finished plate of fries all succeed in turning the viewer's stomach. Shooting so close, Parr only frames a part of his subject, which contributes to a startling effect. Even the human body in its traditionally cherished aspects f a female cleavage or a male biceps f communicates a nauseating sense of vertigo or seasickness.


Parr, a social satirist, targets his lens at consumerism and depravity. The title "Common Sense" emerges as an ironic comment on people living against their best interest: stuffing hot dogs, smoking, tattooing themselves, engaging in casual or paid sex. He often traps the consumer at the moment of consumption, as cigarette lies waiting on hairy ear, or dripping sausage is raised to meet moist, lipstick-coated mouth. The viewer/consumer's eye zaps between the images, as between TV channels, unable to focus on one alone.


Food and sex dominate the exhibit, backing the claim, often made about Parr, that he engages in a type of voyeurism or social pornography. This might work if Parr, one of 10 photographers commissioned last year by Photo 98 to document aspects of European identity, was really saying something about cultural identity. But "Common Sense," despite its claims to things global, fails to make it clear which culture or identity is actually being satirized.


The exhibit is in fact disappointingly parochial in content. Red telephone boxes, sex shop dross, Oriental Beauties advertising their services, '99 Flakes from a London ice-cream van and fry-ups rub shoulders with the occasional U.S. flag or dollar bill thrown in for variety. The exhibition organizers claim British citizen Parr traipsed the world for material. But, for all the viewer can tell, the vast majority may as well have been shot between London's Soho and the South Coast. In his commentary, Parr boldly claims that "in a world in which we all travel on BMWs and eat at McDonald's, consumerism effaces individuality and stereotypes become the only mark of difference."


But if this is an exhibit of global clich?s, where are the matryoshki dolls, the Peking ducks, the calamari and the Superga gym shoes? As exhibition designer Anastasia Smirnova admits in her notes to the exhibit, it is hard for Russians to be able "to immediately recognize the stereotypes." An exhibition intended as a hymn to bad taste and vulgarity reflects, in Smirnova's view, "a cozy world of prosperity, tasty things, comfort, confidence in tomorrow and even everyday wisdom."


But perhaps the biggest failure of "Common Sense," beyond that of its exaggerated international ambitions, is that, for all the clich?s it portrays, it can't escape being a clich? itself. The photos of crumpled-up spaghetti cans and butter packets that constitute Parr's tired attack on commercialism seem so dated as to hail from a different age. At least when Andy Warhol did this it was novel. Trapping the images on Magnum's superb color prints, Parr has merely succeeded in ensuring that his pop art images last a little longer.


"Common Sense" runs until April 12 at the House of Cinema (Dom Kino), 13 Vasilyevskaya Ulitsa, from noon to 5 p.m. Tel. 251-4065. Metro: Mayakovskaya.