Nick Waplington, "Sit Up Straight, Eat from the Plate, Vegetables Meat, Pudding for a Treat," Jan. 12-Feb. 11, 2006, at Roebling Hall, 606 West 26th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001
Ever reluctant towards the market, always confounding his successes in the photography world with ever more obtuse tangents, but still influential with a cult following that constitutes a who’s who of idiosyncratic icons from the worlds of fashion, film, music and fine art, the British photographer Nick Waplington (b. 1965) is definitely what you’d call an artist’s artist. And if the British penchant for privacy has made Waplington one of the art-world’s best-kept secrets, that’s all the more reason to enjoy the exceptionally rare occasion of his current show at Roebling Hall in Chelsea.
Titled with distinctly British schoolboy élan, Waplington’s new show, "Sit Up Straight, Eat from the Plate, Vegetables Meat, Pudding for a Treat," offers an enigmatic romp through more than 20 years worth of pictures, from since he first held a camera in his teens until the present. A hilarious meditation on the sublime folly of being, Waplington’s photographs survey human lust (a couple rutting on a rock, in Fucking in the New Year Buzio’s Brazil, 1999) and human despair (a compact car filled with a white cloud, a tube running from the exhaust to the window), the incongruities of urban life (a Muslim street market outside a synagogue, in Bethnal Green Road, 2004) and the muscular apparatus of the carceral state (an all-but-infinite rank of police motorcycles parked at the curb, in Yitzak Rabin Visits the New York Times at the Same Time as Me, 1990s).
It seems like Waplington has traveled a lot of ground running from the instant success of his first book, The Living Room (Aperture, 1991), a relaxed chronicle of the lives of two working-class British families (that contained essays by Richard Avedon and John Berger). Throughout the improbable worlds he’s traveled, a mesmeric sprawl that spans Europe and America, Waplington’s itinerary is governed no less by wondrous exotica than by the sense of constant questioning, a mythic kind of seeking that ultimately contains his wild and wooly tangents in a single ineffable gaze.
At his book signing this week, Waplington quipped, "Photography is the kind of art you can make on the go. For someone like me, with itchy feet, it makes wanderlust possible." But if you examine his latest book of photographs, titled You Love Life (Trolley, UK), from which the current exhibition is selected, you understand Waplington’s method. When he delivers the mundane it is consistently tethered to meaning, and even his unflinching affection for material most would find disgusting or vulgar (I guess we can’t use the word "shocking" anymore) is rather an esthetic of commonality by which the artist examines disorder for whatever metaphors it can uncover for the nature of the human condition.
As Waplington writes in the brief preface to his new book, the title You Love Life is based on a kind of linguistic confusion found in statements posted on an Al-Qaeda website after the 2003 Madrid train bombing, "You love life as much as we love death," and George W. Bush’s subsequent rephrasing of it as, "You choose life while we choose death." "I couldn’t get these two statements out of my head," Waplington says, "and the subtle but profound differences which exist between them."
With just that in mind, Waplington set off to look through his own work (as far back as an early fan-boy shot of Morrissey) to understand "why I took these pictures in the first place." For an artist who is equal parts humanist and social anarchist it’s the kind of riddle that could drive you mad. Luckily for us, Waplington was already crazy.
CARLO MCCORMICK is senior editor at Paper Magazine.