The Opera

The Gallery of Photography is a wonderful resource to have in my adopted home town of Dublin. The purpose-built gallery is slap-bang in the middle of the city, has a great bookshop and is – best of all – free in. And never have I been so glad about the latter than at my last visit to the Gallery.
The Opera by Varvara Shavrova is a project about the Peking Opera. That misleading name describes the traditional Chinese stage entertainment that is characterised by stylised performance, heavy make-up and elaborate costumes. The latter two alone make for compelling photography. Or so I thought when I went in to view the exhibition that is running until the 26th of February.
The project The Opera focuses on the transformation of man into woman and woman into man as the bulk of the shots are documenting the making up of a male actor into a female character and the taking off of the make up of an actress who plays a male character. Shavrova basically took time-lapse images of the whole process and displays them in different formats – there is a series of photographs of the male actor being made up, displayed in simple white frames hung closely together. 
Projected against the wall in the small gallery space on the first floor of the gallery is a time lapse clip of the female actor having her make-up removed. This is actually quite interesting, but the artist has overlaid the images with some kind of antiquing filter, and the artificial (?) spots, smudges and scratches on the images interfere with the contents. The question is simply: why? Why is that very informative and interesting sequence of images being obscured with spots and scratches that are meant to make the pictures look antique? It seemed unnecessary and gimmicky.
Then there is a video sequence of the male actor that in detail shows the process of being dressed and made up as a female character. The video is accompanied by a piece of music that was especially commissioned for the clip. Considering that music appeals to the emotions of the audience so much, the choice of soundtrack/music is quite important – and in this case does not work at all. Composer Benoit Granier combines traditional Chinese elements with electronic music. That is all very well – but somehow the music evokes an eerie feel. It is more suited to a subtle horror film than a fairly neutral documentary project. The effect, however, is, that the cross-dressing issue of The Opera suddenly gets an underlying feeling of sinister strangeness. Surely, that can’t be what the artist(s) had in mind?
Chinese Streetkitchen – by me, not by Shavrova
Lastly, there is a group of three images that are displayed on lightboxes and with accompanying sound. This for me could have been the most successful part of the exhibition – except I could not see the connection between The Opera and a Chinese soup kitchen (accompanied by soundtrack of cackling hens). If this was Shavrova’s attempt at giving her project context, then for me that was not enough. And why does she not show the actual context of the Peking Opera – the colourful costumes, the masks, the (spare) stage set-ups, the audience, the actors? Is she over-familiar with that? Her audience probably is not and would benefit from some input –  apart from the fact that some context shots would have added some more colour to this otherwise strangely colourless body of work.
What stood out for me really was that it used a number of different display options that were interesting. But the quality of the shots made me wonder whether these had actually been taken as stills or were they screenshots from video footage. With rather unflexible and conventional tastes in photography, I would have preferred less video and more stills – which in my opinion would suit the gallery of PHOTOgraphy (not VIDEOgraphy) better, too. But who minds, if a gallery is free in…
Varvara Shavrova – The Opera
until February 26, 2012

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