Philip-Lorca diCorcia: East of Eden in the Heart of Mayfair

It may seem a tad odd that, as a self-professed foodie, my first article for Yuppee Magazine has very little to do with gastronomic delights. In fact, apart from a quick aside about the rather good wine (probably all the better for being complementary), I’m going to leave food by the wayside and meander into the murky terrain that is ‘art’.

I don’t normally write about galleries or exhibitions. Gosh, I don’t even really talk about them unless I absolutely have to and even then it goes something like this:

Irritatingly well-informed art enthusiast: “So, what did you think?”

Me (cue intensely thoughtful facial expression, obligatory hand on chin and head tilted at the precise angle that connotes unbounded intelligence): “Yah, very interesting.”

Absolute nightmare. However, when a friend invited me to the private viewing of Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s East of Eden exhibition at the David Zwirner gallery, I could hardly resist. John Steinbeck’s seminal novel of the same name is one of the most magnificent books I’ve ever read – a declaration that I have often rather heatedly defended against both friends and enemies alike. An East of Eden exhibition was so up my street; even if I couldn’t make head or tail of the art in question, it was comforting to know that I could fall back on the book.

So, armed with my contextual knowledge and two artistic-types faithfully by my side (chaps whom I had somehow managed to rustle up from the eclectic group of individuals that make up my friend-base) I wandered into the heart of Mayfair on a bustling Tuesday evening.

In the end, I needn’t have worried. David Zwirner is an unassuming art space; the building is of course crisp, clean and beautiful in a very Mayfair-esque way, with high ceilings and a winding staircase that leads on to a second, equally crisp and clean-cut, floor. At the same time, it remains happily non-intimidating, for want of a better term. The walls are very white, the lights are bright and the space is not so large that it is unmanageable and not so small that it is suffocating. Perfectly intimate, in fact.

We were greeted by smiling staff who handed us crisp, white, thick (thus rather fancy) pieces of paper with all the relevant information, and were welcomed into the gallery space with glasses of – well – crisp, white wine (I’m sure you are beginning to see a theme). The photographs on the walls, however, were a completely different story.

It was with some dismay that I heard that diCorcia had never himself read Steinbeck’s East of Eden. He had, however, seen the film and this was where he had perhaps got some of his inspiration, though this is merely my own conjecture.

The photographs themselves do, however, reference a number of the themes that Steinbeck’s novel contends with, many of which obviously originate from the Book of Genesis: light and darkness play out the age-old battle between good and evil, Eden and the fallen world, in Andrea (2008) where a blind, aged woman and her guide dog look into the edenic landscape of a garden whilst hopelessly banished to its withered borders.

The apple tree must, of course, be a central feature and in Upstate (2009) it overwhelms the onlooker with the intricacies of its branches and the myriad colours of it leaves. You will look upon it and wonder how Eve could have ever possibly resisted something so enticing; it is so complex that it begs you to look on for long, long minutes.

It is clear that diCorcia seeks to show the fall in the modern-day world, more specifically in America as the Bush era came to a close. A quick glance at my hefty piece of paper told me that diCorcia had started his East of Eden collection in 2008, “provoked by the collapse of everything, which seems to me a loss of innocence. People thought they could have anything. And then it just blew up in their faces.”

And where in some photographs this loss of innocence is subtly gestured towards, by the elderly or by the blind (because, of course, if Adam and Eve had never tasted of the Tree of Knowledge they would never have known of age, illness or death), in others it is much more overt. A stripper slithers head first down a pole in Epiphany (2009); my piece of paper tells me that she is the snake of the old testament but I feel this does the stripper a disservice.

In The Hamptons (2008), two dogs sit in a very well-to-do home, finely furnished and almost as crisp and white as the gallery itself, watching a pornographic film more attentively than your average labrador. And is it of any significance that these dogs are white in an exhibition which is concerned, albeit vaguely, with race as much as it is with gender, sexuality, age and death?

What is striking in all the photographs is their absolute perfection. They are the kind of photographs that make you realise the complete insignificance of your Instagram-ing capabilities. Sylmar, California (2008) is at first sight an oil painting. It is a valley that could not possibly exist in such a form except in ones imagination. And yet, there it is: a photograph that is unedited, untampered and undeniably a photograph for all that you are adamant it is a painting. I may not know a lot about art in all its mutations, but I can appreciate exceptional skill, talent, even genius, in something as beautiful as this.

After a good two hours of drinking wine and discussing art, I’d had my fill of playing the part of the cultural aristocrat and bumbled back home in a very good mood – the wonderful repercussion of an evening well spent. What I had learnt was that I needn’t hold my qualms about the art world so close to my chest; like food, you enjoy what you enjoy and disregard what you don’t.

On until 16 November 2013, diCorcia’s East of Eden exhibition is certainly one to visit, if only to make what you will of something that is so pertinent to our lives today. There will be pieces that you don’t understand – where you will ask yourself “why is this even here?” – but perhaps this lack of clarity, not only concerning diCorcia’s exhibition but with regards to art in general, is in itself an indicator of our fallen state. Or it may just be half the enjoyment of such an exhibition, where you wrestle with the big questions and the tiny details only to return to the voyeuristic dogs for one final chuckle.

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