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Hidden depths

review

Kai-Olaf Hesse: Topography of the Titanic At Belfast Exposed, 23 Donegall Street, Belfast, until 12 September

The opening of this photographic exhibition, 'Topography of the Titanic', was supported by an insightful talk by Ian Jeffrey, former head of art history at Goldsmiths College. Jeffrey, who had flown over with only a few hours to assess Kai-Olaf Hesse's pictures, managed a thought-provoking and stimulating speech - certainly the equal of his subject.

The photographs were taken recently at the almost redundant 75ha Harland and Wolff shipyard, and show the physical and social geography of the place where, 91 years ago, the Titanic was completed. But on a more abstract level - played out with humour and empathy - they also cleverly convey the story of the ship itself. Belfast Exposed's neutral backdrop - worn chequerboard floor tiles and industrial aesthetic - is ideally suited to this particular show.

Grouped in threes and fours (often one large 1.2m2 photograph counterpointed by smaller images), this pictorial layout creates a clear narrative storyboard - what Jeffrey called 'a series of cantos, in the Ezra Pound sense'.

Jeffrey began by declaring: 'It has been a pleasure to have seen this exhibition - it is a work of visual poetics, a work of genius, ' adding intriguingly, 'though that is not necessarily a good thing.' Reflecting on the apparent resemblance to a collection of video stills, Jeffrey's caution referred to the fine line between 'traditional' documentary narrative structures and more Post-Modern and 'intuitive' video installations. He applauded Hesse's pictures for rising above simple intuitive interpretation.

He said: 'Many photographs are easily explained, but the past 30 years have been characterised by the lack of depth of the PostModern. These, however, are different, and I wonder how he's got away with it.' Then, canto by canto, visual chapter by chapter, he talked through what he had found.

Taking one 'set' at random: the sharp focus on a rusting slab, with industrial chimneys beyond, is a beautiful picture in its own right. But there is a resemblance to the Titanic itself in the way the image is composed, with those background chimneys reading as funnels. This is the chapter about the simple majesty of the ship; the following ones depict its rise and demise.

In the chapter about the mounting catastrophe of the Titanic, the story of 'navigation' was key to the ill-fated maiden voyage. Pictures of deserted traffic cones within the shipyard boundary - as Jeffrey put it, 'a modern-day symbol of navigation' - are juxtaposed with broken hazard tapes symbolising impending danger.

Just as photography 'is drawing with light', said Jeffrey, so the set of images of the draughtsmen's offices convey the many facets of 'drawing': a material product (the pictures of A1 tracing rolls); a process (the deserted offices); and a technical skill (the photographs of the gates to the drawing office use perspective to provide the classic axonometric angles). Further still, the desolation of the building interiors conjures up images of the evacuated Titanic itself.

Jeffrey concluded that this exhibition was 'an elaborate poetic conceit, re-enacted with commonplace materials, so that you believe that the ship can be made up again this exhibition says a lot, very softly'. Which is indeed the case - in these photographs of Hesse's there are hidden depths.

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