Earlier this week I went to see the new exhibition at Open Eye gallery in Liverpool. The gallery describes the show as an audio, visual survey of the history and changes that have taken place within the oldest Chinese community in Europe; it is curated by exhibition coordinator Jill Carruthers. Ebb and Flow presents a mixture of fine art photography, archive material, photojournalism and sound recordings.
The exhibition takes a reverse chronological approach, starting with newly commissioned work by artist Jamie Lau. Lau’s photographs show the glow of street signs at night, demonstrating his skillful handling of chiaroscuro, perhaps partly due to his mixed media practice, which also includes sculpture. Lau we are told is an outsider to the community (and the city – he is based in London). His work seems a bit detached – very beautiful and painterly, with shades of Edward Hopper or Ed Rusha.
Lau’s work is evocative of Chinatown as a place, but it doesn’t focus on the individuals and the personalities of the community. The other fine art photographer in the exhibition, however, does just this. Martin Parr has documented many aspects of Merseyside life during his forty-year career. His images in this exhibition are typical of his ‘intimate, satirical and anthropological’ style, resulting in work that is a bit kitsch, a bit funny; strong images that potentially say more about Parr than his subjects – so distinctive is his lens.
A very different anthropological approach is practiced by The Sound Agents. They collect aural histories, ephemera and archive material to preserve the personal stories of a community that dates back to 1834 and eighty years later is the city’s largest non-white ethnic group. In this exhibition, the outcomes of their research serve as useful context, rather than contributing critically.
The final section of the exhibition, on the top floor, comprises images by photojournalist Bert Hardy. What elevates this group of photographs is the note in the interpretation that they were not published by his employer, Picture Post, in the 1940s because they revealed the hardship of the Chinese seamen – who were paid less than their white British counterparts – and would have caused a scandal. It’s interesting to put this last, so we don’t read all the work as being defined by this inauspicious foundation.
What this exhibition demonstrates is how important the community is to the character and history of modern Liverpool. No one element of this exhibition can tell the whole account of the Chinese residents of the city, however, the different strands of the show complement each other well. The only thing that could be considered missing is fine art or critical content generated by the community itself.