Muir Vidler, “Beach, St Maarten” (2009), C-Print, (all images courtesy Muir Vidler and Mindy Solomon Gallery unless otherwise noted)

Washington, DC — (E)merge Art fair opened September 22- 25 with 80 international and local galleries spread over two floors of the Capitol Skyline hotel in Washington, DC. As the name suggests the fair focused on showcasing emerging arts.

To set the tone, the hotel is situated in an area mid-gentrification, which added to the slightly edgy and unnerving feeling when walking past the empty glass and steel skeletons of newly constructed offices on the seven deserted blocks from the Metro stop. The Capitol Skyline hotel is a recent acquisition of collectors Don and Mera Rubell of the Rubell Family Collection in Miami, who are known for being major agents for gentrification in Miami’s art districts through similar such art partnerships.

The hotels sparse and spacious “old school” rooms provide the ideal backdrop for an array of mini-exhibitions featuring tenured art spaces such as White Columns (who fit in just about anywhere), Anita Beckers Gallery, Galerie Hilger and Monique Meloche to name a few. I was curious if anything would “stand out” among the many of exhibitors. I then came across a curious series of six standard size loose photographic prints simply pinned to the wall, by Edinburgh-born, London-based photojournalist Muir Vidler.

Mindy Solomon exhibiting work by Muir Vidler, (E)merge Art Fair (image by the author)

Six understated prints lined the left bedroom wall of Mindy Solomon Gallery (in relation to the larger photographs depicting a masked and otherwise naked performance artists urinating, hanging on the opposite wall).

Muir Vidler, “The Insect Tribe from Papua New Guinea, Wales” (2007), C-Print, Courtesy of Muir Vidler and Mindy Solomon Gallery

Despite their subdued appearance, these six prints by Muir Vidler are so curious in subject that I couldn’t tear myself away. Each scene depicts a far away place that is only vaguely recognizable in context. The subjects in each image are people so outlandish, and situations so extreme, that their juxtaposition to the landscape makes them bizarre. In “The Insect Tribe from Papua New Guinea, Wales Muir” depicts three figures in “tribal” dress sandwiched between a cardigan and jean-clad couple — together enjoying a cup of tea — an inherently British tradition.

Vidal has captured a moment that is incongruous and farcical, and the overt juxtaposition of these “Western” figures with the Insect Tribe people smacks of colonialism. As viewers we are placed opposite the Insect Tribe members staring upon the couple as they share a joke.  In this way Vidler creates a distance between the viewer and the “other.” The problem is I’m not sure who the other is anymore.

Vidler has photographed for numerous glossy magazines including Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, as well as for New York Times magazine and Der Speigel amongst others. The works on exhibition are however too provocative in subject to have mainstream magazine appeal and he differentiates this personal work showing it specifically in the art realm.

Muir Vidler, “Prostitute, Bogota” (2010), C-Print, Courtesy of Muir Vidler and Mindy Solomon Gallery

In “Prostitute,” Vidler photographs a woman half visible and sitting in a doorway. Her rotund cleavage and thighs, and delicately high-heeled feet are the only parts visible as her face turns away to look down the street. She is not real to us, made in to an object of our gaze and wonder. It becomes apparent that the images are purposeful in their intent to set up the viewer as voyeur. What is also clear is that the subjects appear to be in areas less “developed” than its documenter (in this case Bogota, Colombia) and therefore as documents of spectacle this raises questions of permission. This would also ordinarily raise an ethical eyebrow however showing them in the context of an art fair confuses their reading situating the images between documentary and art. The result is that Vidler throws in to question who in truth is the “other”, and as viewers we are forced to turn introspective.

It is unusual to find “documentary” photographs at an art fair. Not only this, Vidler is an established commercial photographer so showing what he calls his personal work in context of an emerging art fair recontextualizes its meaning. Perhaps a bedroom at the Capitol Skyline hotel in Washington DC is the perfect context to show works that challenge our perception and make us uncomfortable.

The (E)merge Art Fair took place September 22–25 at the Capitol Skyline Hotel (10 I Street, SW, Washington, DC).

Claire Breukel is a South Africa-born contemporary art curator and writer. Her interest is in contemporary art that falls outside of conventional modes of exhibition, and often affiliated with “developing”...