Wundercamera is an exhibition about exhibitions. Fifteen contemporary artists have held the mirror up to their own industry and taken galleries and museums as their inspiration. The usual home of art is now art in its own right. The large main room and smaller adjoining nook contain over 100 images that illustrate every aspect of the exhibition process, from installation and curation, to how the audiences interact within these environments. On opening night the smell of fresh paint still lingers in the air, but curiously this adds to the experience, as it perfectly reflects the busy goings-on in many of the pieces, especially Stuart Leech's time lapse video of an exhibition being installed at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.
Thankfully for a show that takes curation as its subject matter, the exhibition is brilliantly and skillfully arranged. The individual projects have been carefully placed to create intriguing juxtapositions and conceptual connections between the varied work. The architectural features of the historic room (once home to the Ealing Public Library) are also utilised to direct the audience experience, making them interact with this exhibition just like those within the photographs. Traer Scott's photographs focus on audience response, showing visitors reflected in the glass cases of taxidermy exhibits. The reflections play with the sense of space, condensing the living and the inanimate into one, and the resulting montages humorously reveal similarities between the human and animal behaviours. In Gorilla (2009) a small boy lifts his t-shirt to reveal his stomach, mimicking the chest-beating gorilla behind him (in reality, in front of him). Superimposed together, the pair look almost like a cross-species parent and child. The ten photographs from Scott's Natural History project are placed either side of a glazed door, so as the visitor crosses from one side to the other, they themselves experience the illusionary effect of reflections.
Taxidermy is a major recurring theme in this exhibition. Being so often repeated it could easily have been boring, but the varied approaches to the subject and the physical distance kept between them ensures that the different projects stay fresh and interesting. In contrast to Scott's work, which embraces and emphasises the artifice of the museum setting, Karl Grimes shoots his own stuffed creatures as if they are still alive and free. The American Museum of Natural History has been entirely cropped out of the photographs in Stuffed Histories, leaving only luminous hyper-real scenes of animals in what appears to be their natural habitats. The scenes are so vivid you can almost hear the wind rustling through the savannah grasses in Gemboks (1998). The camera has the curious ability to make the fake appear real, and this concept is echoed in Hiroshi Sugimoto's work hanging opposite. Sugimoto captured his photographs in Madame Tussaud's, the spiritual home of fakery. Wholly unconvincing when viewed in the flesh (or in the wax, to be more accurate), the recreations of infamous murderers at work are chillingly believable when photographed, looking more like actors than mannequins.
Wundercamera is also an exploration of photography as a medium. Its unique ability to reframe and recontextualise the world is used to great effect in Louise Lawler's work. In Looks Like a… Painting (2004) a new abstract artwork has been created from carefully chosen camera angles that crop and anonymise existing artworks hanging in a gallery. In this real-world collage it is the line, form and colour that is important, rather than the subject matter. Matt Stuart also uses clever cropping, along with great timing to create a witty portrayal of how visitors interact in, around and under contemporary art. This is observational photography at its best, exploiting the happy coincidence to its full. In Tate Modern #07 (2005) the head of a visitor blends seamlessly into the abstract painting behind it, whilst in Tate Modern #02 (2005) four teenagers lean on the gallery wall as they take notes, mirroring the four tiny figures atop the sculpture beside them. These shots are far more uplifting than Richard Ross' decaying taxidermy exhibits that seem not to have entertained visitors for many years. Depressing they might be, but these photographs are some of the best on show here.
PM Gallery is a relatively modern extension to the Pitzhanger Manor House (beautiful in its own right and well worth a dedicated visit). Concluding the exhibition, the main building houses an installation of photographs taken at Sir John Soane's Museum in Lincolns Inn Fields. But it's a final image from Vid Ingelevics' Camera Obscured series that completes the self-referential circle. University Museum Toronto on Copy Stand, The Royal Ontario Museum is a photograph of a photograph. It's a photograph of a photograph of an exhibition in a photography exhibition about exhibitions – the perfect embodiment of the "hall of mirrors" effect.
Do not be dissuaded by the Zone 3 location. Wundercamera is a unique exhibition in a beautiful building, and it should definitely feature on your winter "To Do" List.