Rankin – Alive: In the Face of Death

Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. 

I wanted to start this exhibition review by mentioning how I came to be fascinated by photographer, Rankin and through blowing the cobwebs off the depths of my memory, I recall it being ignited by an image that made it up onto the walls of every place I lived in throughout University. I appear to have misplaced it somewhere between Manchester and home but my copy of his Vivienne Westwood portrait (pictured below) amuses and impresses me with every chance I get to see it.

It was from here that I became interested in Rankin as a photographic artist (alot of the time in envious awe) and hooked on his signature celebrity portraits, turning his lens towards almost every accountable member of the glitterati. Always off-the-wall but never quite allowing the viewer to fathom their air of mystery. Naturally when the Walker Art Gallery in my home city showcases his latest brainchild, I was going to be there with bells on and what better way to get back in the blogging saddle than to review it?

Rankin’s work, to me, is suspended somewhere above the tongue-in-cheek sugar of Terry Richardson, the grungy spice of Hedi Slimane and the everything nice of a glossy Alexi Lubomirski shoot, in an idiosyncratic mixture of the trio. His editorials are equally as easy on the eye as the next guys but it is Rankin’s more lateral work that captures me, so the concept behind his latest collection entitled, Alive: In the Face of Death, really got me going. The exhibition, which is to be part of Liverpool‘s, LOOK/13 International Photography Festival, grabs the subject of human mortality by its usually unchallenged throat. It bravely probes the disturbing notion of otherwise aesthetically healthy people physically and internally fending off death on account of horrific illnesses beyond the eyes recognition. Encouraging spectators to confront their own perception of the unspoken ‘D word’, Rankin photographs public as well as popular media figures who have been defeated by terminal diseases, those struggling with them on a daily basis and those who have reigned victorious over unfavourable odds – alive in the face of death. Perhaps the most moving is the narrative of Louise (pictured below), a 42-year-old woman admired by Rankin and his audience for her battle against bone cancer but who passed away just three days after attending the exhibition launch.


Responsibility may lie in the organisation of the nondescript exhibition space but the showcase didn’t pack the punch I had hoped it might. Spaced out over two rooms and displayed according to convention, the pieces didn’t receive the offbeat treatment that would have catalysed their poignant content and subject matter. Alot like watching a horror film with the lights on. Artistic manipulation may have been purposefully avoided in accordance to the senstitive issue at hand but lets face it, we all respond better to a dose of the good old emotional appeal. We have Hollywood to thank for that.

I suppose this review is turning out to be a backhanded compliment though as, despite its lackluster physical display, there were a number of unforgettable pieces in the collection. When observing Rankin’s Life Masks, I began to feel that sense of marvel and deep-seated emotion that I had forecast. This particular component of the exhibition displays a whole series of images which, using famous faces, modernises the process of the victorian death mask. The photographs portray close up shots of celebrity faces including Joanna Lumley, Holly Willoughby, Marlon Brando and David Gandy (pictured above) in mask form with corpse-like expression and a haunting monochrome palette. To see these habitually glamorous people in such a state reminds us that death unites us all, showing mercy upon nobody. For me this piece is at the very heart of the entire show, truly capturing the proposed conceptual intellection and comforting its audience with the assertion that with death, comes life in an intrinsic paradox. Death cannot and should not be disregarded and rather is better dealt with via a positive, determined mindset as was done by many of the muses photographed by Rankin for the collection.

So, an exciting and refreshing concept but which was very unfortunately left lacking in the controversial, audacious collection that I had conjured in my anticipation. Maybe Im just one step too morbid. That seems likely. Rankin says we are all too hungry for gore and have been desensitised to it. Maybe I’m a victim of this. I enjoyed the exhibition nonetheless and stay loyal in my fascinations with him as an artist. From what I have read, the reviews present a pretty equal split so go and check it out for yourself; its there until mid-September and certainly worth a viewing.

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