Looking at the wealth of documentary evidence that has gone into compiling Nicola Green’s In Seven Days, an exhibition on Barack Obama researched over a week on the campaign trail back in 2008, it’s hard not to be struck by just how much attention is given to Western leaders across our media.
Is Obama the most photographed man who ever walked the Earth? How must it feel to be confronted with images of, opinions on your looks, clothes, gait, wit, intelligence and humanity by people who have never met you, and will never meet? To see photography of yourself you never knew were taken; photography you may not even recognise? Obama’s election campaigns have arguably represented the most valuable and skilled mobilisation of social media, but its use of graphic design and iconography is also revealed by the material Green has collected.
The artist collected photographs, media reports, drawings, memorabilia, campaign material and scribbled impressions of watching Obama from close quarters and quick, snatched handshakes. It builds up a narrative all of its own about the President of the most powerful nation on Earth – to reduce it all into a fairly coherent set of silkscreen prints is impressive.
The prints are compelling and powerful – the images of Obama’s athletic figure and the reaching, outstretched hands of supporters and the contrasting, impertinent reach of cameras pointed in Obama’s direction are bold and simple. The prints represent seven days by theme: Light, Struggle, Hope, Change, Fear, Sacrifice/Embrace and Peace – each one is partnered by a wealth of source material.
It’s interesting to go back and forth between the sources – presented almost as collage here – and the end result. In fact, the presentation of the research makes the exhibition as a whole much more interesting than if the images had been presented alone. They reveal much of America’s social and economic history – the route to the first black President via Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther-King, Muhammed Ali and more.
Beyond that they reveal Obama’s transformation into a cultural icon, much more so than even Kennedy or Clinton. Articles on Obama are featured from music magazine, lifestyle magazines, celebrity magazines and more. Photographs emphasise his athletic torso, a winning smile (along with his ‘bony hands’ one of the key elements of his physical make-up, Green notes), his penchant for vaguely messianic poses and his effect on a Democratic faithful that had little to cheer about in the previous eight years.
The image of Obama, on the stump with sleeves rolled up – ready for business – is the strongest among Green’s own photographs and it’s no surprise that it forms one of the prints. Just how interesting the prints would be, devoid of context, their respective boxed time capsules of ephemera, is interesting to ponder however.
Despite following Green’s journey, her artistic process and notes that flesh out the background to the campaign Obama remains an elusive figure; represented in so many ways, claimed by so many groups, surrounded by so many analogues and avatars that it becomes impossible to discern what is real and what is artifice. In Seven Days is therefore, when it comes to its subject, curiously unenlightening, but the immersion in a vision of a man through a million media lenses is, nevertheless, fascinating and the journey rewarding.
In Seven Days… by Nicola Green
Walker Art Gallery
Until 14 April