The exhibition Souveniers at Museum für Gestaltung in Zurich is a photographic satire and a characterisation of the artist himself. Apart from different bodies of Martin Parr’s work, it presents his collection of memorabilia and films about and by him.

Outside of the Museum für Gestaltung in Zurich, I sit in a small park, which is equipped with more than a dozen benches and the same amount of trash bins, a fountain with contemporary sculptures of men, another fountain which constantly brings fresh drinking water to the surface, for anybody to sip from or refill their bottles. A tram passes every six minutes and, of course, there are dispensers for dog-poo bags.

Maybe it is the dialogue between the city of Zurich and the exhibition which fascinates: inside the museum, Martin Parr’s Souveniers puts the imperfect on display. There’s a huge photo of a woman’s smile, her teeth exposed, with traces of her red lipstick on them. There are large photos or English men and women on a run-down beach close to Liverpool. Another beach series from Belgium shows people who are sunburnt to the extent that they’re the colour of cooked hummer. Another room shows a series titled Bored Couples – snapshots of a woman and a man, sitting or dancing together, being portrayed as though they did not have any connection at all.

This is maybe, the most ironic series of Parr’s work, because it gives the best example of his approach: if he had pushed the trigger of his camera just split seconds earlier or later, an entirely different picture would have been taken. The moments he chooses to put on display certainly existed, but they might have nothing to do with the reality of the people pictured or with what we easily interpret – in this case, them being bored. Through his work, Parr depicts a society from his own point of view.

But this work is not documentary photography. It is questionable if the work even portrays its protagonists, as a portrait would have a closer connection to the character or reality of who is portrayed. The show plays with clichés, banalities and extremes.

When entering the video room, a BBC documentary shows Parr’s subjects being confronted with the photos taken of them to let them know what the nice man with a camera has turned them into. Some get the humour, some don’t. Almost all, I believe, feel fooled by Parr’s (unhidden) hidden camera. The exhibition also shows Parr, a man in his fifties, who does not hide to take his photos. He engages his subjects in a conversation. He walks, talks, sometimes arranges a few people and – every once in a while – puts a camera to his face and takes a photo. What Parr’s exhibition does is put portraits of dozens or people on display, while really drawing a characterisation of himself – him the collector, the social critic, the satirist. And it portrays him well.

Size: There are 12 series of works, a large number of objects from Parr’s collection as well as three videos: Think of England (1999, 49’, BBC), Martin Parr’s Black Country Stories: Teddy Gray’s Sweet Factory (2011, 20’, Parr), and Hot Spots: Martin Parr in the American South (2012, 30’, One Production Place).

Why you should see it: Taken as a whole, the exhibition gives stunning insight into not only the artist’s approach, but also an ironic critique of European societies. This is important and very well done, but also it is very funny.

This gets you in: 12 CHF, 8 CHF (reduced rate)

More information:

Publication: Du – Think of Switzerland

Runs until: 05.01.2014

 Video trailer:


One Response to “So Very British: Martin Parr in Zurich”

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