FREE SPEECH ZONE | Embarrassment of Riches: Picturing Global Wealth: A Review

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From the earliest stages of our adolescence, many people of the Western-minded community are socialized to understand wealth as being synonymous with contentment. The image-inundated culture of today’s youth is beginning to age and develop their own set of generational values, and it is clear that popular culture still worships the ideas of consumerism and class; moreover, as globalization furthers its hold on different communities of the world, it has become apparent that the economy and its fluctuations have begun to warp perceptions of economic value and self-worth.

In an attempt to investigate the global economy, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ (MIA) curator, David E. Little, has collected works from nine photographers across the world who capture and examine different cultures’ perceptions of wealth. The gallery, titled Embarrassment of Riches: Picturing Global Wealth, opened on September 17 and has since challenged audiences to consider the new economy’s affect on the emerging markets of Saudi Arabia and Russia; it’s abandonment of once-dominant economic superpowers of Japan and the US; and the political allegiances that have formed in China.

The Harrison Photography Gallery, which houses the though-provoking collaboration, is a relatively small space for containing such grand ideas. As such, many of the works on display feel cramped and inappropriately organized alongside each other. Though the gallery attempts to guide audiences through the room with abstracts like “Currencies”, “Spaces”, and “Ritual, Style and Fashion”, the viewer may feel overwhelmed and when confronting such a variety powerful images. Perhaps it was the Little’s intent to bombard spectators’ senses to convey feelings of confusion and excess; however, the crowded nature of the gallery detracts from the individual appreciation of the work of these talented photographers.

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As audiences make their way through the grand hallways of the MIA, they are immediately confronted by the work of Edward Burtynsky upon arriving at the Harrison Photography Gallery. Burtynsky’s photo, titled “Oil Fields #22”, successfully conveys the artist’s intent to represent our society’s destruction of nature in order to secure economic prosperity. Three silver oil pipes zig-zag their way across an otherwise tranquil Canadian landscape and the viewer is reminded of the environmental cost of consumption. The juxtaposition of these rigid, steel angles against a forest of green life provides an interesting dialogue to the viewers and it beckons them into the gallery to continue the conversation.

From the gallery’s main entrance, younger viewers may be inclined to skip over the works of Abelardo Morell’s representaition of currency and Luc Delahaye’s take on the Last Supper in favor of Andreas Gursky’s large-scale representation of a well-known German night-club designed by DJ Sven Väth. The photo, titled “Cocoon II”, captures the unusual and massive hive-like architecture of The Cocoon Club in a shot that feels oddly deadpan considering the meticulously-detailed, photoshopped crowd of party-goers in the bottom third of the frame. The audience, forced to dispassionately view the grossly excessive party scene of Frankfurt, not only confronts our youth’s obsession with material and sex, but is also reminded that our popular culture is one in which image-management simultaneously dominates and subverts our youth. The social critique is somewhat emphasized by Gursky’s decision to focus on the oddity of The Cocoon Club’s design as the hive-like structure stands foreboadingly above the torrent of bewildered youth. As W Magazine‘s Jenny Comita put it in her review: ” . . . one can’t help but to think of Rome before the fall.”

The highlights of the gallery are, oddly enough, tucked into the back corner of the room and obscured by a dividing wall. Minneapolis native Alec Soth, who is also currently featured in From Here to There at the Walker, employs his established, cinematic style in his photo: “Fondation Pierre Berge and Yves Saint Laurent, Moujik IV”. Soth’s subject, an English Bulldog, serves to construct a rich narrative for viewers as we are left to ponder how this lively canine interacts with this world of greed, gluttony, envy, and pride.

Tina Barney more precisely employs the same narrative style in her works: “The Daughters” and “The Orchids”. These images, both large-scale portraits of wealthy associates, engage viewers to ponder the raging currents of conflict that are just beneath the surfaces of the well-manicured life of fiscal security. The eponymous subjects of “The Daughters” are evidence of this tension; it is almost impossible to determine whether or not they were posed. They family is arranged in an immediate and candid manner that suggests a lack of direction in the family system and there is an almost overwhelming sense of distance in this portrait of ritualized affection. The same can be said of “The Orchids”; however, this portrait engages the illusion of material comfort more directly than “The Daughters”. As two men pose stiff and yet affectionately toward the viewer, the foreground and background are muddled with suffocating images of high fashion and poor taste. The orchid in the foreground, an unfocused smear of pinks and purples, seems to indicate the bourgeois ignorance of living beauty.

Though Little’s gallery is, at times, a bit suffocating by its sheer variety of 21 photographs and two videos, the exhibit is successful for its conversation regarding systems of wealth in the new economy and their cultural ramifications for future generations. In an interview by the Star Tribune’s Mary Abbe, Little said, “I wanted to find photographers who are dealing with wealth and prosperity in a different way. How do riches change culture, and what does it look like?” And after viewing the work of these nine artists, it’s clear that Little has contributed to this important cultural dialogue.