Culture: Visual Arts

Juergen Teller: Woo at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts

Juergen Teller

The ability to please art critics while simultaneously developing a commercially successful career is not a reality that befalls many artists. However, the delicate line between unbridled creativity and restrained compromise has been skillfully trod by photographer Juergen Teller in a career that has spanned over 20 years and shows no signs of abating. Renowned for his promotional campaigns for fashion brands such as Marc Jacobs, Helmut Lang, Yves Saint Laurent, Vivienne Westwood and Celine, Teller has also received coveted art awards such as the Citibank Prize for Photography (2003), and has had his prolific body of work shown in numerous museums and art galleries worldwide, including the Museum of Modern Art (New York), the Fondation Cartier Pour l’art Contemporain (Paris), and during the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007. Despite having made London his home in 1986, however, it has been nearly a decade since the British capital hosted Teller’s work in a gallery environment.

Guided by the curatorial intent to depict a journey through Teller’s most celebrated and recent work, the Institute of Contemporary Arts is addressing this gap by taking over its entire gallery space with the exhibition ‘Juergen Teller: Woo’. The retrospective includes 66 photographs ranging from small, intimate narratives to large scale portraits taken using Teller’s distinctive use of light in an almost retro pre-digital simplicity, where a bright flash causes strong shadows. On display are the fashion and commercial photographs of the 1990s that made him famous, as well as more recent series of landscapes and intimate family portraits (including ‘Irene im Wald’ and ‘Keys to the House’) captured in the artist’s hometown in Germany and in his family home in Suffolk, and featuring his mother and his two children, Ed and Lola.

As expected, the exhibition includes Teller’s renowned portraits of celebrities in ostensibly unstudied and unglamorous situations and poses (a theme that, notwithstanding the veiled irony, has made his work accessible to large audiences). Typical of the work on display is an image of Victoria Beckham posing for a Marc Jacobs advertisement from 2007 in which the subject is devoid of humanity and becomes a metaphor of the commercial product by being inserted into a giant shopping bag with only her bare, high-heeled flopping legs visible. Other photos in this category include a large triptych of Vivienne Westwood reclining nude on a floral settee, singer Björk and her son in a natural pool in Iceland, a nude Lilly Cole amidst tropical foliage, and Charlotte Rampling naked as part of the Louis XV series (where Teller himself also appears naked).

Although critics of Teller’s work have often pointed out that the portraits of famous personalities in a seemingly spontaneous format is a disappointingly easy way to appeal to mass audiences, and that his purposefully lacklustre work lacks technique, for the ICA the intention of this exhibition is not to engage in such a debate. As the Institute’s executive director Gregor Muir stated when describing the exhibition, “Whether Juergen Teller’s photography is art, or whether he is an artist or photographer, or both, or none of the above, or anything connected with such thoughts, can only lead us astray. Teller’s work is about great images.” When asked how he would react if his work were to be described as sensationalist, Teller himself dismissed the issue by saying, “I wouldn’t engage in such conversations; I am just curious about life and things around me.”

Regardless of the many divergent opinions that classify Teller’s work, ultimately this is a rare exhibition that should not be missed.

Juergen Teller: Woo at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, 23 January – 17 March 2013

Words: João Paulo Nunes

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