In an episode of the popular Australian TV comedy Kath and Kim, one of the lead characters declares, ‘I don’t want to be rich, I just want to be effluent!’ It is a hilarious parody of broad Australian accents and middle-class aspirations.
In his playfully titled Common sense series, British photographer Martin Parr confronts and amuses us in a similar way. Each image in the series is an isolated detail revealing one ghastly aspect of excessive consumerism and consumption after another. The images jostle for our attention like billboards on the side of a freeway, employing many of the tactics of advertising, using large-scale, saturated colour and shock value to attract our gaze.
In his photographs of food, Martin Parr pointedly examines the gross indulgence that is encouraged by manufacturers and their advertisers. Shown here as just another commodity, generic and mass-produced food becomes obscene in its abundance. Common sense 27 shows a tray of iced cupcakes that have been decorated as pigs. Each cake is coloured a brilliant pink, embellished with additional candy icing to create eyes, snouts and large, jutting ears. They sit in individual frilled patty pans on a gold embossed doily. The cakes appear identical initially but on closer inspection show individual traits, each one appears to have a unique facial expression and personality. There is a sense of the ridiculous, as rows of beady eyes peer out from their glorified, gold tray. In Common sense 76 a person is shown biting down on a hamburger. The image is cropped very closely, so that the person’s face is only half visible, and the focus is entirely on the massive burger, the wrapper and the bright blue sparkly nail polish on the fingers that grip the super-sized bun. When seen in such lurid detail, the overblown details on the person’s hands, such as the ring with blue stone, a Band-Aid, and the imperfect application of the gaudy nail polish, become repulsive images of the ordinary.
Parr’s photographs are at first glance bright and cheerful details of everyday life but the use of extreme close-up, sharp focus and strong lighting reveal the insidious artificiality of the subjects. Common sense 7 shows a close-up of a woman’s feet enclosed in pink, fluffy slippers. But her exposed toes have chipped and dirty nails, the soles of the slippers are worn and she is standing on a brown carpet. The badly manicured feet and carpet act as an uncomfortable contrast to the garish slippers, which seem both excessive and amusing. Equally comical is the dramatic close-up of a woman’s cleavage in Common sense 67. We know her as Jane from Wisconsin, as indicated by the nametag that she is wearing. The shiny blue satin of her dress creates a play of light that accentuates the curve of her breasts, and the extreme closeness of the image amplifies a sense of intrusion, although it’s not clear who is intruding on whom.
The Common sense series is a major body of work within Parr’s ongoing exploration of globalisation, mass tourism, class culture and consumerism. In common with much of his work, this series presents images critical of the contemporary culture with a distinctive sense of irony and British humour. There is something uncomfortable in all these photographs. We laugh at them while being slightly embarrassed by their familiarity and are acutely aware of the gulf between a dream of glamour and the sad synthetic reality.
Susan van Wyk, Curator, Photography, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2006).