Review: Gert and Uwe Tobias/Diane Arbus at Nottingham Contemporary

There is something deeply unsettling about Gert and Uwe Tobias’ exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary, and it isn’t merely the bizarre figures concocted within the mind of these Romanian twins on the walls of Galleries 1 and 2 at Nottingham Contemporary.  No, the macabre images, on a variety of media, may be stark and poignant, but the lack of any titles, any description, any text, leaves the message undiluted, and the interpretation of the “ghoulish enigma” is the task of the visitor, and it is this task that is ever so slightly disquieting.

For the images themselves, be it the expansive canvases, alight with vivid colours, displaying all manner of Gothic-inspired creatures, the intricate ceramic sculptures which are no less delightfully grotesque, or the abstract, haunting use of delicate strokes of white on black to give texture to a representation of a traditional witch, almost demand explanation.  The Tobias brothers’ work immerses the viewer into a world of nightmares, one in which upon every wall, a new, garish, haunting and alluring image presents itself.

From ghoulish fantasy to something altogether more real.  While admiring this part-retrospective of Diane Arbus’ work, I was reminded of the Jean-Luc Godard quote, “Photography is truth, cinema is truth 24 times a second,” and curiously enough, Diane Arbus’ images adoring the walls of Galleries 3 and 4 at Nottingham Contemporary seem more honest than most.  Her style, which she described as being a mid-point between documentary and fine art, reduces everyone, regardless of background, aesthetic beauty and position, to a solitary black and white square print.  We see numerous actions, scenarios, all captured in a playful and captivating manner, whether it be the gentle teasing of one child by another, or the sinister juxtaposition of the violent message “Bomb Hanoi” upon the lapel of an innocent-looking adolescent.

At once, Arbus tells a story, but for every detail inferred, equally vital information is omitted; biographical information is scarce, and Arbus’ delicate use of focus to conceal or highlight certain backdrops only adds to the mystery surrounding her subjects.  This delicate approach to identity, and the associated construction of it within the minds of the viewer – is a key motif within the work: whispered utterances suggesting the subject’s thoughts and current location were only barely perceptible above the thudding of worn soles onto wooden flooring.

Scanning the faces of the many adorning the walls – Arbus once commented that she wanted to “photograph everybody” – is a faintly voyeuristic, but entirely pleasurable experience.  She sought to provide a document of the everyman or everywoman occupying their personal space, and be it two adolescents dressed in their Sunday best, standing against a shabby, graffitied wall as in Teenage Couple on Hudson Street, or a contortionist in a rented room with his head facing one way and his legs the other, as in The Backwards Man in His Hotel Room, Arbus’ work is complex, captivating and overwhelmingly personal.

Alexander Britton