Under The Influence’ explores the blurring of boundaries between fact and fiction, the real and the fake, transforming or subverting what we understand through images and iconography, questioning what we see at face value. In recent years Hawgood has used the religious ritual as a starting point for his explorations, and this series encapsulates in particular performative gestures and objects relating to exorcism ceremonies, held in predominantly African communities in London’s evangelical churches.
At first glance his images are hyper-stylised still life, almost sterile in their depiction of these objects and actions and the peculiar use of advertising in one specific church. Anointing water in a spray bottle, a microphone held by a preacher, ice cubes and a wrist support, are set against backdrops of saccharine colours of the ad-man’s world of consumer culture, designed to lure us in on the sell. But what are we being sold? Advertising sells us the dream and lies to us through a simulated reality, is it at all disturbing or surprising that religion should harness these tactics too?
Hawgood presents the images combined with light sources as 3D physical objects, like some alternative Apple advert on a bus shelter. There is a sense of controlled precision, and the straight forward documentary image gives way to something altogether more sophisticated and surreal. The work is carefully composed, with its design and bright lighting referring to a constructed set where nothing has been left to chance, and feels far removed from an actual church backdrop.
His previous work from 2011 ‘The Conversation’ depicted intimate portraits of women in Texas who had responded to an ad Hawgood had placed for people speaking in tongues. Again the highly staged environment questions whether it is actually real people, which in this case it was. As Hawgood explains: “I used lighting to denote control and challenge notions of truth by disrupting a more traditional documentary aesthetic. By conflating photographic genres (the documentary, the portrait etc.) merging them, or perhaps upsetting the lines that separate them, ambiguity was created. It makes it difficult to determine fact from fiction and what is real, whether there is integrity in what I depict, and the degree to which content has been manipulated.” We are left questioning whether these exorcisms themselves are real or fake, and what it is we are being questioned to believe?
Conversely the black and white images presented on vinyls on the wall give a more filmic view of the protagonists in this story, although just carefully composed. He is probing their inner personal reactions, while from the outside looking in we interpret the workings of what we believe by questioning the authenticity of what we see. The slick and sophisticated imagery somehow parallels the emotional intensity and religious fervor involved in the performances. The hyper-stylized staged image saturated in technology is giving way to the hyperreal - an inability of consciousness to distinguish reality from a simulation of reality. It is this stasis of hyperreality which keeps us looking.
In his thesis he developed ideas relating to ‘ the Therapeutic Real’, a particular kind of realism invented by Hawgood, which explores the emotional response to re-enacting situations as a way to understand realism, and the problematic role of photography in helping us know what is real and what is not. In an age where the captivating hold religion can have on society is being criticised as much as the stanglehold that advertising monopolises and brainwashes, the lines are indeed blurred, between the real and the staged, what we see, and what we believe.