What do you look for in a postcard? You’ll probably be after clear skies, azure seas and spectacular scenery to make those work colleagues green with jealousy. Abandoned houses and the sight of a plane crash would probably not be your first choice
Those subjects, however, make up Sightseeing, an exhibition of postcards by 15 artists featuring what is described as ‘tourism anti-sites,’ currently showing at Peninsula Art gallery, Plymouth University.
By subverting traditional postcard subjects, this collection of German and New Zealand photography explores how the tourist and landscape photography industries work together to create the ‘myth of place’ – just think of those technicolour ‘100 places to visit before you die’ books selling us the fantasy of paradise on Earth before our time is up.
It’s a book title that takes on a terrible new meaning when viewing images of Auschwitz by Schoenfeld and Hoffman in Send me a postcard 2003 – a work that examines ‘tragic tourism’. Their photographs of coaches and information centres on the restored site shows the uneasy truce achieved when our desire not to forget inevitably leads to the commodification of that which we must remember.
Exposing the truth behind the holiday fancy is the purpose behind Eva Leitolf’s work. Ferry Crossing Melilla to Almeria, Mediterranean, 2009, features a sunset taken from a boat. Fairly standard postcard stuff, perhaps. On closer inspection, however, there is something unsettling about the single plastic sunlounger turned away from the sea, the barely visible lifeboat at the edge of the postcard and the unspectactular, sour sky.
The words on the back of the postcard recontextualize the image, contrasting the 19.20 euro ferry journey from Morocco and Spain made by the photographer with the fact that almost 8,200 refugees have drowned in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic while on their way to Spain.
Photographs of Other lands also feature in the exhibition, curated by Hanna Scott. Antarctica, an area that few will ever visit, but which is constructed for us through sanitised ‘tourist experiences’ feature in Anne Noble’s Ice Blink – Antarctic photographs. Visitors wearing t-shirts view icy panoramas and forlorn penguins trapped in concrete worlds are pictured caught in the glare of spotlights – the whole South Pole reduced to an easily digestible day trip.
But it isn’t all about grim reality. The exhibition is also about turning your back on the tourist-industry ideas of beauty and finding it in the everyday. Grit Schwerdtfeger’s series of images features Therme, an abstract landscape of melting ice and water situated near to a major road. Even Frank Breuer’s pictures of warehouses distinguished only by different coloured oblongs of colour and typeface that stamp their brand on the barren landscape are oddly compelling.
The postcard is cheap and ubiquitous, a fact reinforced by the way each series of photos are displayed in repeating Pop Art style across the walls of the Peninsula Art gallery. But these are not stock images. And not the sort of postcards you’d want to send with the stock sentiment ‘wish you were here’.
• Sightseeing is on at the Peninsula Art gallery until Saturday, October 23
(image: © Mark Adams Otakau (Otago) Harbour)