Jonathan Hobin has stunned me with two exhibits. His now famous In the Playroom series is a hauntingly funny critique of our modern media-scape – where children take the lead role in telling hard truths. More recently, he created a personal and intimate series of photos dealing with the death of his grandparents and his memories of their final days. He’s proven himself to be a versatile and accessible artist, confronting us with intelligent art photography that is a vehicle for his critical and piercing social commentary.
Hobin will be participating in this year’s edition of Festival X, Ottawa’s photography festival. He’ll have a show up at the Eastern campus of the Ottawa School of Art, with a vernissage tomorrow evening from 4-7pm (just in time for Nuit Blanche). He’s also part of the official festival panel on September 29th and will be giving an artist talk as part of Culture Days on September 30th.
I grabbed a few minutes this week to chat with Hobin about his show and what we can expect. You’ll find an excerpt transcribed below and you can tune into Apartment613 Live next Wednesday from 9-10pm on CHUO, 89.1FM for our full conversation. The full schedule for Festival X is online here.
Apartment613: Your show at Festival X is being billed as featuring some unknown or lesser-known photographs. Can you give an idea of what you’re planning to show and where you went with this show?
Jonathan Hobin: Firstly, the show is at the Ottawa School of Art, east end, at the Shankman Art Centre. It’s called Attic Urchins and is an opportunity for me to show some new work and some lesser-known pieces that have shown in places like the National Post or galleries outside the city. It’s been an opportunity for me to show some work that people in Ottawa might not have had the opportunity to see in person. As well as part of my series In the Playroom, I have a new piece called “Obama-nation” about the bail-out in the states.
Apartment613: For people who have seen In the Playroom (there was a great post on Apartment613), can you give us an overview of what you were trying to achieve with that series of photos?
Jonathan Hobin: Sure.
Apartment613: Maybe also describe the aesthetic of that series.
Jonathan Hobin: To sum it up, the actual work is kids in their play, recreating current events. So some of the darker elements – 9/11, prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, the death of JonBenét Ramsey – but also some with a bit more wit, such as the Siegfried and Roy tiger mauling and stuff like that. So all those newsworthy or questionably newsworthy events, that filter into our subconscious that kids end up seeing in various media. The idea is that just as they would normally incorporate things that they see and hear into their play – like war games or cowboys and Indians in the ’50s – they would incorporate these modern-day tales into their play. It’s been described as photographic tableau work, where kids almost become props themselves in the picture. [This is] sort of a darker humour, tragic moments. [There are] a wide range of emotions, focusing on the darker-side of childhood.
Apartment613: So the In the Playroom series is continuing? You’re created new work in the same spectrum?
Jonathan Hobin: I think the plan always was to create new work. I mean, with current events, there’s always a new tragedy.
Apartment613: It’s the nature of “current.”
Jonathan Hobin: Right – there’s always going to be new stories that inspire that sort of imagery. I took a break and I focused on work that was very different – Little lady/ Little man at the Ottawa Art Gallery – that was about the death of my grandparents. In the Playroom is a show that is making the rounds around the world. I have an exhibition of that during the Contact Photography Festival in Toronto coming up and so I wanted to create some new work, so “Obama-nation” is the first from a new chapter in the In the Playroom series.
Apartment613: So what are the boxes that you tick off on a current event that fits this frame that you’re talking about?
Jonathan Hobin: I think, first of all, they all happen within my lifetime, so I have my own personal response to it. I think that was important, rather than reflecting on something that happened before I was aware. Number two, it’s more about that weird sort of… there are those that focus on a repetitive imagery – we saw those planes flying into the building so many times – so that repeated image over and over and over is the perfect example of a news story that filters into our subconscious. The other thing is the way the story is described – certain media stories might be relatively insignificant, but whoever is in charge in the media has decided that a certain story has all the elements to form a narrative and sort of the sensationalizing of a story. Like the Siegfried and Roy tiger mauling: it’s an insignificant story, but the media chose to focus on that. That particular one is a comment on how the media chooses what an important story to cover is. It’s also just about how would a kid who’s seeing these stories appear in the media interpret that. It’s always something I find fascinating.
Apartment613: So when you’re confronting an issue like the Wall Street bailout, are you looking for the irony? When you’re looking at how to stage it and how to visualize it what do you think makes that picture work?
Jonathan Hobin: That picture is so new, I don’t know if it works. I think it does. I think that the elements that form the modern day fairy tale for me, which I think a lot of the In the Playroom is, is this idea that Obama became in people’s mind this saint-like figure that would save the western world. He was put on a pedestal. When you see the image, you’ll see that he’s dealt with almost like a saint-like figure in the picture and he’s handing out Monopoly money to these two other characters. One represents banking and the other one represents that automotive industry. It’s the irony of the saint-like figure that was going to transform the world handing out money left right and centre. I felt that there was enough of a narrative there that it warranted telling the story.