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Monday, 14 March 2016

Dodgy Decor, Dicey Art, And Done Deals: Noel Bowler's Union

Union by Noel Bowler is a thing. It arrived in its own cardboard cover, well a cover with 'Union' and 'Full Member' stamped on the front. It's a small detail but it's one that sets you up for the book inside.

Open the outer cover and the wrapping fun continues. The book is beautifully wrapped in brown paper, all tied up with a piece of twine that also has a 'Full Member' tag on it.

And funnily enough, in this world of bijou little photobooks, it's these kinds of details that make a difference, can make you want to look further and deeper, or make you want to look in the first place; there's a basic understanding that a book is something tactile and can be a pleasure to touch (but not in a bad way, not in a dirty way!), and if that's the case, then so can the wrapping. We all like getting presents after all, and half the pleasure is in the presentation.

The book itself is a series of images of the interiors of trade unions. As Ken Grant says in the introductory essay, the work is attuned to that of Jacqueline Hassink's Tables of Power, a book where Hassink's pictures of corporate tables reveal 'photography's ability to glean traces of policy, philosophy, or even fabric from an empty room'.

There are tables in Union too, but  the rooms are smaller and the possibility of elevation is not there. So things are cosier in the sense of scale. The decor is different too; box architecture furniture meets ceiling tiles and strip lighting (most of the time).

The exceptions to this functional decor are interesting. A Russian room filled with beautiful tables and chairs that seem built for studying, the power chair in a private office in a US union room, and the brickwork and round table of Britain's RMT union.

The artwork in these offices and committee rooms is fascinating too. The photographs of previous RMT chairmen (I'm guessing) looks down on the above-mentioned round table, hierarchies of history imposed from the wall. Elsewhere, it's a mix of budget-busting pomp, social realism, historical forelock-tugging and pure functionality;a giant mural,  a painting of 911 firemen, pictures of the former leaders, or a dull photograph of a sailing ship

There are all kinds of unions represented here, with power structures that work in all kinds of ways, structures that, as with Hassink's Table of Power, you can guess at. And there are guesses to be made.

Buy Union here.

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