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In recent exhibitions, Nicola Loder’s photographic and video work has evinced an interest in the humanistic concerns of its subjects: large-scale, low-angle shots of heroic children collaged against a gallery wall; videos of intimate negotiations between strangers locked together for the first time. In her most recent work, Wild Thing, Loder complicated the expectation that this would be a strangely familiar foray into another’s subjectivity.
Eight ‘Photoshopped’ collages were hung on two walls of the front room of Melbourne’s Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP). Four bucolic panoramas, each four metres by seven centimetres, spanned one wall like historical timelines. Here, Arcadian fantasies of expansive, undulating landscapes blipped with trees were observed by two freshly shorn sheep. On the adjacent wall were four square collages of innumerable tourists happy-snapping their way through the five-star sites of piazze in Florence, Siena and Venice. Both series had been digitally recomposed: the panoramas were not only seamlessly and excessively elongated, but indexical details (such as other sheep) had been deleted for dramatic effect; the collages consisted of scores of photographs of small groups of people, taken at high-angle from atop tall campanile, all jumbled together for the impression of teeming throngs of humanity locked together in the squares.
A number of easy interpretations could be made about Wild Thing, but they just seemed, well, too easy. Apparently conceived during the hey-day of Dolly the Sheep, the cloning threat Number One, Wild Thing obviously questioned the reasoning behind cloning (using ‘Photoshop’ clone techniques) as the over-abundant human population depicted tried to clone their memories through tourist photography. Alternatively, there was the overt self-reflexivity of Loder’s ‘photography of photography’, the tiny tourists oblivious to her camera surveying their every move à la Thomas Struth’s museum photographs. Connect the digital manipulation of these images with the threatened surveillance of our every move on the Internet and you have the spectre of paranoia in the digital age.
Nonetheless, I felt a fascination towards Wild Thing, lured by the wealth of interpretations rather than by the rather negative takes on photography or metaphors of digital and genetic modification. Loder’s square collages, juxtaposed with the traditional horizontal landscape popularised in Australia by national icons like Arthur Streeton, suggested a different kind of panoramic form or mode of address, one based on layers of space rather than simply its elongation. Both formats rely on an abundance of minute and fine details, dominating the viewing space and provoking a viewer’s curiosity about the possibilities of what they can see—whether that be a bird hidden in a bush or a hideous outfit worn in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria. In this work of Loder’s, I found myself linking figures across the boundaries between collaged photographs, seeking details of social interaction between people in different photographs even though that sociality never actually existed. Figures seemed to face each other, or even be caught moving towards each other, across the flat, grey expanse of the piazza. The fact that this social interaction in a public space was fictional, because digitally manipulated, was quite obvious in the different tonalities of the flagstones and the varying directions of the shadows which were dependent on the different times at which the photographs had been taken.
Ultimately, I found myself negotiating between photography’s twin purposes of documentation and fiction: the possibility and, in Wild Thing’s case, the falsity of public sociality. This was an internal dialogue, different from Loder’s previously depicted dialogues and negotiations between people set to interact with each other on the spot. But it was a dialogue that asserted a desire, or maybe even a need, for sociality between otherwise atomised individuals in the public sphere. The caution of its constructedness, however, prevented it from becoming a lovey-dovey utopian desire of ‘why can’t we all just get along and communicate’—Loder suggests that broader reflection is needed before that desire can shift from represented metaphor to our present reality. Nevertheless, that desire raised hopeful possibilities as I stared through the broad windows of the CCP (curiously, about the same size and shape as Loder’s square collages) and out onto the teeming throngs pacing up and down busy Johnston Street.
See the catalogue essay for the exhibition by Stuart Koop, Wild Thing, Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne, 2003.