REVIEW: We Used to Talk About Love (AGNSW)

Pages from the exhibition catalogue
It can be beautiful, it can be nonsensical, trivial, or moving. Isolating, warming, haunting, truthful. Like love itself, the new photomedia exhibition at the AGNSW, We Used to Talk About Love, is a journey through the intimate (and often confusing) experiences of life. Without oversimplifying what can be seen as the single most human quality – as testified to by the likes of Jesus, Shakespeare, and every other top 40 musician – the exhibition attempts to structure a dialogue between complex views, venturing into the grey areas of desire, solitude, memory, and dissolution.
Untitled XXXII from Smudge (2010) 
Polly Borland 

Entering the exhibition, I was wary of vagueness or lack of structure. As a subject consistently discussed throughout history I questioned which perspectives would be privileged over others – I asked, how did “we [use] to talk about love”? and furthermore, how do we exhibit about love? Would it be a sorting exercise into the Greek categories of storge, philia, eros and agape, or would it draw on a stereotypical Hollywood love, an amping up of romance and drama but a consequentially alienating experience for us simple plebeians.
To my surprise and delight the structure of the exhibition was to its greatest strength, with the gallery refigured in collaboration with Minifie van Schaik Architects to create an intimate and unpredictable space – much like love itself. The placement of the entrance to the left side of the gallery allows for the vast main wall to accommodate Polly Borland’s twenty-four works from the series Smudge (2010). As the portraits come into view as gallery-goers descend the escalators, emotions of intrigue, provocation and disgust seem inevitable. Although not akin to my personal taste, the works ask genuinely provocative questions of sexuality, gender, and the role of photography in fixing or defying identity. With Borland’s work as the first impression of the exhibition, it becomes apparent that the We Used to Talk About Love concerns itself not with the Romeo & Juliets of this world, but of the awkward first dates, lingering memories and the constant challenge to articulate these experiences.
The exhibition is carefully structured into four sections: To Begin With The Flesh; Expressive Abstractions; An Archive of Feeling; and Filthy, Crushing, Ending. These four distinct perspectives create accessible lenses for approaching the artworks contained in each section (and let’s admit it, with the ambiguity that is symptomatic of contemporary art, a suggestion or two never hurt when wading through the deep, deep abyss of ‘Untitled’s).
Untitled (2011)

The first section, To Begin With The Flesh gets the obvious out there – love, it’s a physical thing. As mentioned with Borland’s works, questions of sexuality, desire and the body as a manifestation of love are explored. Contrasting to Borland’s portraits, Paul Knight’s large scale photographs of embracing couples in bed, each lit by light streaming through a nearby window, offer a more subtle take on the physical experience of love. The photographs are creased along the centre obscuring a total view of the embrace, however reiterate the tactility of folded bedsheets, harking back to the trope of this first section – physical touch.
Knight’s take on love is not as simple as this, however, with photographs from his Intimate Couples series (2008-2012), featuring two men at different stages of intercourse, hanging in a secluded, dimly lit alcove at the end of the entrance corridor.

This first section is concluded with a powerful video by Angelica Mesiti entitled Rapture (silent anthem) (2009), featuring tightly framed shots of people in a crowd at a music concert. The silent video commands your attention, with the slow motion shots of faces in ecstasy, hands raised high in unison, and expressions of gleaming adoration giving light to new suggestions of how love manifests through physicality. Keeping in mind that this work previously won the Blake Prize for religious art in 2009, its representation of love contrasts highly with those of Borland and Knight who preceded it – love here is not sexual, but still highly personal and physical.

And so in this manner of carefully juxtaposing works which deal with similar themes, the exhibition creates a complex dialogue of how we talk about love. The second room goes on to deal with the nature of isolation and solitude, with Darren Sylvester’s meditative photographs echoed in, and counteracted with, David Rozetsky’s cathartic video How to Feel (2011). The third section, An Archive of Feeling, set in a curved-shaped gallery, features works by Eliza Hutchinson and David Noonan – each dealing with notions of memory, nostalgia and longing through collage and references to contemporary culture. And finally, Filthy, Crushing, Ending, concludes the exhibition on a rather melancholic, reminiscent note with Tim Silver’s life sized pigment sculpture of Untitled (Rory grown up…) (2012-2013) slowly disintegrating under the pressure of dripping water.

Darren Sylvester, Your first love is your last love (2005) 

It may not seem obvious from the variety of works but upon reflection we can appreciate how photography ties the show together. As Natasha Bullock articulates in the show’s catalogue, “love is enacted, even performed. It is the tale and retelling of an experience that resides in the space between the word and its affect – in language.” We Used to Talk About Love is not a definitive canon of works, but it is an attempt to demonstrate a dialogue within a certain language – that of photography and visual communication. Given, some may find it a rather dark take on love (no overt happily ever afters here), I found it intriguing, offering a lot of food for thought and opportunities to ponder on which works resonated most with me and why. The reception of the show will inevitably vary depending on the mood of individual – a risk with choosing such a subjective topic to focus on. The overall works do not appease any one particular perspective on love, but offer avenues to further understand how love manifests and how we attempt to express it. My suggestions – go with an open heart, but more importantly, an open mind.

We Used to Talk About Love 
Until 21st April
Art Gallery of NSW