x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

New lines and different perspectives

Two Filipino photographic artists fill the space of The Empty Quarter gallery.

Visitors to The Empty Quarter gallery view drawings by Noelle Tan. Her work is on display with the artist Rachel Rillo's.
Visitors to The Empty Quarter gallery view drawings by Noelle Tan. Her work is on display with the artist Rachel Rillo's.

The belief that the mundane can be extraordinary or that beauty can be hidden in plain sight is not a new one. In the latest exhibition at the Empty Quarter gallery in DIFC, two Filipino photo artists present pictures of everyday scenes in stark and minimalist ways, both exploring the possibilities of different photographic techniques. Both artists shoot in black and white and use traditional photographic techniques to produce their pictures. Any editing or manipulation takes place only in a dark room.

Wires by Rachel Rillo is the product of a project that began three years ago while the artist was living in the US. It continued on her return to the Philippine capital, Manilla. The series of tightly cropped pictures shows groups of black wires set against a white sky - no buildings or anything else are in sight. Only a few inches in length and height, the images are intended to give the viewer an unusually intimate vision of the subject.

The variation comes in the patterns created by the wires: some move in parallel lines, others flow in vast coils or swirls that almost resemble calligraphy. They faithfully represent the chaos of the urban environment, but that is where their impact ends. In fact, making a collection out of this series of micro-images could be called ambitious at best and, at worst, self-indulgent. Wires would perhaps work better as a single work, collecting a number of Rillo's images. It is difficult to understand why the artist chose to print the pictures on such a tiny scale. The shapes and patterns of each image would undoubtedly be more striking if they were large enough to be properly visible.

Thankfully, Noelle Tan's twin series, Drawings and Untitled, offer slightly more engaging images and, crucially, more variation. Drawings is a series of photographs of landscapes, but most of the land has been removed. In the scorched white images, only a few objects remain - usually trees, buildings or parked vehicles in light grey shades. Almost all of the ground and sky are obliterated into white. Despite the sparse composition, the positioning of the pictures' few subjects enable the viewer to gain a reasonable grasp of the removed terrain.

The images are certainly interesting enough to make the viewer think differently about photography. Their lack of human figures and unnatural perspective give them a rather ghostly feel. Unfortunately, though, there is something rather unrewarding about the series. The images are relentlessly similar and while the idea may be interesting, ultimately what is left is just a series of light grey blurs on white backgrounds.

Also technically impressive is Untitled, a series of landscapes taken in darkness. This series, however, is anything but repetitive. In it, the artist works with the technical difficulties associated with shooting at night to draw unusual images of beauty from the everyday. Tan's images of the nocturnal world, captured entirely with analogue equipment, are as beautiful as they are technically accomplished. The film is exposed just long enough, for example, for the surfaces of streets and children's play areas to be touched by tiny glints of light.

In one of the shots a street lamp's glow is reflected in dark water, creating the image of a floating ball of energy. In another, painted white lines on a road just begin to emerge in the darkness. The series' strength is its clever ability to merge the real and the subliminal while remaining true to the subject and the techniques used to capture it. Rachel Rillo and Noelle Tan are exhibited until July 30 at The Empty Quarter gallery in DIFC.