"I feel like I'm cheating if I say:I am a model. I am a teacher. I am a boxer. I am an artist. I am a chameleon. I feel I am nothing, even though I am all of that and more" - Joanne Salley.
That's the inscription on the wall as you enter The Photographers' Gallery Simon Fujiwara exhibition Joanne. When I read them my initial reaction was to cringe a little bit. It's a bit 'I am woman. Hear me roar' and it's incredibly self-regarding. Hardly a 'quality' we're short of at the moment.
But I tried to strip away, as much as I could, my own prejudices and, viewed purely as a comment on what it is to be judged as a person, squeezed into a narrow box, it made quite a lot of sense. I'm certainly in no doubt that women suffer this fate more than men. I felt a bit silly for being so cynical.
Simon Fujiwara is an artist I'd previously been unaware of. In his mid-30s he works in photography, painting, film, and sculpture. In Berlin he's exhibited the skin pigments of Angela Merkel magnified by one thousand and in Brussels he's hung grandfather clocks from the ceiling.
So he's done some odd stuff as you'd imagine from any artist today. But this show is more about the subject than the artist. In fact it's very much about making that which has been objectified the subject.
Joanne Salley was the winner of 1998's Miss Northern Ireland beauty pageant and Fujiwara's art teacher at the prestigious Harrow school for boys. She later on found herself at the centre of a damaging tabloid scandal after students discovered and circulated topless photographs of her that had been taken privately. Thanks to The Sun she became reduced, in the eyes of many, to the 'topless teacher'. Not the model, not the boxer, not the artist, and absolutely not the chameleon.
Five years on from this scandal Salley and Fujiwara reunited to produce a film that follows Joanne's attempts to build a more authentic public image of herself. To take back control of herself and how she's seen. Somewhat depressingly there is much talk of her 'brand'.
It's a nebulous, slight, show and though I applaud entirely its sentiments I'm not 100% sure it's completely successful in fulfilling its intentions. You enter to a series of lightbox displays (above) by fashion snapper Andreas Larsson. Salley certainly looks good in them but she's looking good on her own terms and is very much an active participant in this. They're empowering images and they look like they were fun to do.
The video tells of this heartening tale of renewal, letting go of the past, and starting again. It's let down by the inclusion of too many 'creative types' and, as such, starts to feel a little too much like work.
We see Salley in the gym, running, cycling, and boxing (of course) to a soundtrack of Nicki Minaj's verse from Kanye West's Monster. We see her pouring her heart out and getting emotional about the 'journey' she's been on. These bits are interesting and even genuinely touching in places. The footage of a chameleon running over her body and of Salley being splattered in mud lay on the visual metaphors way way too heavily.
It's a pity that Fujiwara and Salley (I'm seeing them as a team on this project) felt the need to resort to these tactics. Even sadder that they fell into the trap of utilising corporate jargon. Although none of that is as sad as what Salley had to go through at the behest of Rupert Murdoch and his vile rags who seemingly had no compunction about handling stolen goods (the memory stick with the topless pictures on).
For that alone I'd say the exhibition was a qualified success. Our bodies are part of what we are but they're not all we are. What we and, pertinently here, others do with both our bodies and minds is far more important. Fujiwara and Salley have made a thought provoking installation addressing these issues and it'd be better still if it didn't look like it'd been run through a couple of focus groups.