Sharp images of the most trivial details, strident colours assisted by a ruthless flash and all in dazzling laser copies. This is the Common Sense series by Martin Parr, a kind of photography that has made him the paradigm of kitsch, an aesthetic that gulps down everything only to throw it up again in a living room. A photographer who verges on anonymity because he invades everything and is at the same time star whose work we recognise a mile away.
That said, the retrospective at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie de Paris surprises us with another Martin Parr. The curious beginner who started out in the seventies in grainy black and white, with distant and austere yet harmonious framings. The bitterest Parr, in series like The Last Resort, the common people on holiday at a complex in the process of being demolished, or One Day Trip, depicting the English swarming over to France just to buy cheaper booze, then emptying the supermarket shelves and fighting over it. An exhibition that reveals the gestation and evolution of a style now all too pigeonholed and above all a monument to the coherence – that rara avis of contemporary art – of an artist who in spite of the changes has always sought to enjoy himself.
A master of the social documentary, Martin Parr trails the human animal in our most vulgar gestures to capture the instant that caricatures us, that makes us extraordinary. This is why he can claim to be the best friend of the worst of humanity, and in particular of the British society to which he belongs, classist and elitist, but with a great sense of humour and very little sense of the ridiculous. The ambiguity of Parr’s feelings about his country is immortalised in his documentary Think of England, a journey in search of the specifically British on which we discover that the cliché hides more than a grain of truth: beer-bellied pubgoers, hooligans, sunburned beachgoers, and grannies pitted against one another in pie, jam and hat competitions.
A Tacky Society
The British sense of humour is acid and discordant, and has us laughing out loud half in horror. Because the harsh reality that Parr uncovers is one of mass tourism, shopping for clothes and rampant consumerism, from the fashion victim to junk food, from McDonald’s culture to the aesthetic of the vernissage. Open mouths, rows of teeth, lipstick traces and lashings of ketchup. This is how he presents the carnivorous nature of a society that rushes to grab the savoury snack as it does fame: red raw but not touching. An incisive vision in which the extremes touch, abundance becomes boring and excess a lie. Chic is the same as kitsch and vice-versa; and if everything is false then nothing has any value, not even common sense.
This is Made in Parr, thirty years of alertly, accurately underscoring the risible folly of human decadence, the ridiculousness of all that’s taken too seriously. A merciless insatiable pecking, pervaded by an enduring passion for collecting that goes all the way back to his graduation project, the installation Home, Sweet Home. Porcelain animals, floral print oilcloth covers, polyester sofas and every possible variant of the figurative souvenir: postcards, decorative plates, ashtrays, clocks… Parr analyses here the popular use of photography, where the author doesn’t matter, as in the typical commercial studio portrait or the tacky souvenir. To this end he places himself in front of the camera in Self-portraits, so the only aura is around the person portrayed. A coherent progression, but not free from dilemmas. More or less simultaneously, Parr, who has gone from independence to the Establishment and been taken up by the Magnum agency and the Phaidon publishing house, even curating the latest Rencontres Internationales d’Arles, also has exhibitions at Bon Marché in Paris – A sort of chic Parisian version of El Corte Inglés – and in the Atrium of the mobile phone company Alcatel. ‘I’m a hypocrite,’ he confesses, since he makes a living from what he decries, a clear example of the postmodern filiation of the author. He doesn’t add comments; the scenes don’t go beyond what they show if it weren’t for the fact that the questions he poses are rhetorical. The critique of consumer society leads him to show what society consumes. And although with the kitsch and the comedy Parr may be a long way from aesthetics and ethics, it is clear that he will never be able to elude either of these.