Visible Girls, Invisible Spaces
A pair of new exhibitions in Edinburgh combine iconic images from the 1980s with an exploration of young people's environment in the modern day
There are few things in life more intrinsic to being human than a sense of 'identity'. It's not often that we get to sit back and reflect on what that means to us, what that has meant to us in the past, and what that could potentially mean for us in the future. One of the most palpably intriguing aspects of Visible Girls, Invisible Spaces – the paired exhibition heading into Summerhall in November – is its ability to make us look into ourselves and our own identity, through exploring the identity of others first. Anita Corbin is behind one half of this exhibition, while Historic Environment Scotland have created another complementary exhibition that has been inspired by Corbin's impressive photographic series.
Corbin's exhibition portrays pairs of young women in the early 1980s from a variety of backgrounds, but all of whom belong to identifiable 'tribes': punks, mods, skinheads, soul girls, Rastas and a few New Romantics are all photographed. As a 22-year-old photographer in the early 1980s, Corbin was driven to ensure that a generation of young women were represented in a photographic genre that was almost entirely dominated by men.
As the powerful photographs highlight, young women everywhere were defying the mainstream, flying the flag of their individuality in clearly defined groupings characterised by music, fashion, geography and sexual orientation. Corbin clearly wanted to capture the spirit of these women and the significance of their unity in a portrait series depicting pairs of friends, sisters and lovers in subcultures. As a viewer experiencing these photographs for the first time the sheer force of many of these women's gazes, their clear sense of 'this is me', is overwhelming. It's impossible to look at these astounding images and not think about your own identity, your own place in the world and what 'tribe' you, the viewer, belong to.
The photographs toured across the UK in the 1980s and made a reappearance in mainstream media in 2014, just at the time when Corbin herself was wondering what had happened to the young pairs of women she had photographed, whether their tribes still existed and even if they were still in contact. As a result of this intrigue, Corbin started to reach out and re-connect with the women she had snapped 33 years previously, which went on to form Visible Girls: Revisited.
Many of the pairs of women began to be photographed together again, but this time the photographs came with a story – the story of the lives of British women, their hopes, their experiences and their relationships. The trajectory of every one of them is a means for us all to consider our own identity and what it means to be a woman in the 21st century.
Interestingly, one of the women photographed states “you become invisible as you age” – and that is a haunting reminder to the viewer that, if these images of middle-aged women were hung without their younger counterparts, would anyone be interested? This idea of invisibility connects interestingly alongside the work of many of the young people in the sister exhibition, Invisible Spaces.
Inspired by Corbin's ability to delve into themes such as identity and belonging through photography, Historic Environment Scotland took on the task of developing a partner exhibition which runs concurrently with Visible Girls: Revisted. Curated by young people aged 18-26, the exhibition expands its trajectory to highlight ideas surrounding youth, friendships and belonging – all of which are a rich undercurrent within Corbin's photographs and stories – as well as ideas of culture and heritage. In contrast to the first exhibition, the young participants have not created portraits; instead they have documented the spaces, places and environments which matter to them.
The works re-imagine identity as being able to exist outwith a human form. Unlike Corbin's original portraits in the 1980s, the work of these young people provides multi-layered portraits despite often lacking the presence of any human figures. These portraits without faces represent the often unrecognised realm of identity, the spaces which are often hard to articulate as shaping, or having been shaped by, a 'tribe'. It is for these reasons that their exhibition is titled Invisible Spaces.
The parralels between the spaces in which Corbin photographed the young women over 30 years ago and the spaces documented by the young people within this exhibition is undeniable: could it be suggested that young people's tribes are not that different from those in the 1980s? Spaces such as bars, nightclubs and street corners are all similar to Corbin's original scenes. However, unlike the images in Visible Girls: Revisited, the spaces explored here are often very unique, subversive and with powerful undertones: underwater archaeological sites, hairdressers, urban dereliction and a women’s-only meeting space are just some of the more intriguing sites.
Some participants have wanted to document "safe spaces", while some wanted to explore their bedrooms as perceived safe spaces and as a springboard for investigating the theme of young people and mental health: an issue that was very much taboo in the 1980s, but that can now be explored through artistic practices. Similarly, themes such as the pervasiveness of social media, the rise in homelessness, the importance of community and elder relatives, and a critique of public sculpture have all come about through the creation of this exhibition. The participants have used a variety of methods to convey their chosen spaces including photography, video, audio, painting, and objects as well as other forms of interpretation.
Interestingly, when viewing the two exhibitions side-by-side it becomes clear that the subcultures which used to exist in the 1980s have transformed, evolved, or changed somehow. They don't necessarily express their identities through visible means such as fashion and music, but are expressed in the overlooked and secret spaces that young people inhabit: within their bedrooms, the streets heading towards their neighbourhood, or perhaps a phone box they use to call home. Identity seems to have evolved past stunning and over-the-top expressions of individualism, to a more complicated and almost hidden secret. Or perhaps it is simply that, unlike the young women being photographed in the 1980s, these young people are showing us the multi-dimensional layering of identification, of having a 'tribe': that there may be more going on than what is seen on the surface.
Unlike Corbin's photographs in the 1980s and her efforts to reunite the pairs of women with their pasts, the work by the young people will be easily connected with its history as Historic Environment Scotland will be digitising these artefacts and ensuring they have a place within their national archive – meaning that in 30 years we will easily be able to look back and explore the potential transformation of identities within these young people and have a better understanding of what it means to be young in the 21st century.