All white

We check out the very white new show down at the Empty Quarter. A big fuss about nothing, or truly original?

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You can’t see everything that’s going on here. The printed page of this magazine just doesn’t let you. Try as you might, it’s impossible to see the greying formations in Lou Raizin’s white-out landscapes. Right now the American photographer’s works appear like a mass of sheer and void-like emptiness, with an incongruous bench floating past.

But the real photographs, paired alongside works by Iranian photographer Mohammadreza Mirzaei for this new show at The Empty Quarter, are imbued with depths and a subtly planed horizon. As this quiet dual show at Dubai’s sole photography-only gallery is a superb celebration of subtlety, it does demand a good, long look.

In Humans, Mohammadreza Mirzaei presents a world of silent shadows. Again, it’s hard to see here just how much white is in these frames. Stretching upwards from a cast of tiny figures who stroll, sit and socialise, Marzaei is playing with his own privately concocted world. Individually photographed and put together on this white background, he can form, like a director, the loosest assemblage of a scene. Figures walk, they sit on benches and fly kites, all on a solid and stage-like black horizon. Where exactly that might be, however, remains vague.

While the gallery spiel might throw Shakespeare quotations in there to explain these scenes (‘all the worlds a stage’, and so on, and the suggestion that these are Mirzaei’s private ‘utopias’), they really are what they are: a shadow puppetry evocation of normality. We see only silhouettes, can unpick the odd chador in a scene, and sense a reflective atmosphere. What’s interesting, however, is that we have to look down to see these figures. At eye-level we’re faced with the dominating whiteness of the image. We can just discern the dimmed hollowness of our own eyes; blurred and reflected in the frame. If we wish to look into Mirzaei’s tiny worlds then we must first meet our own gaze and look down, away from ourselves.

It’s as if he’s asking with these scenes, how do we construct a narrative when we look at a photograph? One image will depict, perhaps, five quiet stories within its frame. They are aloof stories and offer us no insight into what is happening. We are as distant from these figures as they are from each other and, as a further step, Marzaei acknowledges the distance of each figure from their surroundings. The omnipresent whiteness and meditative atmosphere (the only lead we have into these ‘characters’) suggests the distance from all things that introspection and reflection offer. We can only ask, what does this white vastness look like to these onlookers?

Mirzaei’s pieces lack an initial oomph. The repetitiveness of the Humans series is even more isolating than the images themselves. But spend a bit of time with these pieces and there is an amiable and naive sense of awe about what Mirzaei does.

Lou Raizin’s pieces, by contrast, are like miniatures on the gallery wall. Delicately composed scenes depict (more) benches, along with sun-starved trees, ice-laden landscapes and lonely cottages. That all sounds quite twee and, were it not for the desolate drama of Raizin’s scenes, these could verge on Christmas card territory.

Yet it’s a peaceful and barren world that Raizin shows us. Like Mirzaei, there’s an engagement with habits of reflection in these works. Surrounded by an impenetrable white, broken only by the faintest suggestion of a landscape, Raizin’s ‘moments’ convey something of the introspection that the artist associates with these places. Visually, they are impressive. Fading, evocative colours play lightly on the print. They have the intricacy and diminished tones of bleached pressed flowers.

While Mirzaei asks how we can find a narrative in photography, Raizin seems to ask why should we bother. He seems more preoccupied in the emotional or reflective potential of place. His works pose questions about why a scene perhaps evokes melancholy, or reflectiveness. What is it about that pretty average bench that looks so damn lonesome, or that icy cabin that hums with isolated introspection? As said, these alpine scenes could be a little twee in their perfection, but even that follows the elemental thought that seems to run through Raizin’s collection: why? What is that constitutes twee-ness and how have we constructed that?

This is a notably more narrative show than that which The Empty Quarter has exhibited since it opened earlier this year. Credit is due to its team for presenting an exhibition that raises questions about narrative in photography. And, as the only gallery in Dubai that is dedicated to photography, getting questions out there on this level is exactly what it should be doing right now.
The Empty Quarter Gallery (04 323 1524) DIFC. Until June 15

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