03 Nov, 2009

Kitsch, bling and deadpan satire

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Baltic, Gateshead

Martin Parr has said that he doesn’t take photographs, he collects them. This terrific show, spread over two floors at Baltic, takes the unusual but inspired approach of combining new work Parr has collected on film alongside the bits of bric-a-brac he collects on impulse.

The centrepiece is a luxurious new series of photographs in which Parr shifts his focus from Middle English mores to produce a devastatingly deadpan critique of the international jet set. Most of these pictures are laugh-out-loud funny, but what really marks them out is Parr’s ability to turn a candid snap into a perfect composition. Rows of red-faced revellers at the races invite comparison to William Powell Frith’s paintings of Derby day, though the expanses of straining satin owe something to the social satire of the late Beryl Cook.

Parr mimics the poise of a Renaissance panel in a shot of a woman being plied with cigarettes and Pimm’s, like the patron saint of inebriation surrounded by her attributes. A sequence shot in St Moritz presents merciless close-ups of collagen, fur and turkey necks. Yet Parr doesn’t depend on people to create a satisfying image; he is capable of framing an almost Miró-esque arrangement of peculiarly coloured cocktails and abandoned stilettos.

No less revealing than the photographs are Parr’s bits of memorabilia. One wall features an array of plates commemorating the 1984 miners’ strike alongside tableware bearing the image of Margaret Thatcher. The Osama bin Laden dartboard looks ridiculous until you consider that the US forces depicted the Iraqi regime as a deck of playing cards. Parr has a set of those, too. And it’s unnerving to see a pair of embroidered Afghan prayer mats celebrating the events of 9/11 as a triumph.

Parr’s hoard is, above all, a testament to the strange universality of kitsch, and proof that the late 20th/early 21st century will become known as the age of pointless plastic items made in China. Who might have guessed that a pair of Barack Obama “Yes, we can” trainers could already seem as quaint as a Sputnik ashtray? There can be little doubt that it’s Parr’s world, and we’re lucky to live in it.

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