The Toronto Star

May 13, 2006

Photographer loves a man in uniform
Marco Bohr's current show is timely given the wartime mentality that's prevalent today
Accounts of the shooting death last week of constable John Atkinson noted that the 14-year-veteran Windsor policeman was not in uniform when he was gunned down near a Mac's Milk store.Whether wearing a uniform might have saved his life will never be known. (Atkinson was shot after reportedly showing his police badge.) What is believed, particularly on the part of the media, is that the lack of a uniform sent out all sorts of signals, to his assailants, to his colleagues and to the rest of us.
In a Hockey Night in Canada broadcast earlier this week, Don Cherry offered a curative message of sorts by suggesting that Atkinson had the rugged looks to fit into another type of uniform — a hockey sweater. As usual, Grapes knew what he was doing. Clearly we remain a society comforted and bucked up by the sight of a uniform despite our frequent yelps about individual style. We long for what any uniform means: safety in numbers, a comforting conformity and being part of a winning team.
That's just one of the messages being signalled by "Uniforms," the exhibition by photographer Marco Bohr at The Japan Foundation starting Thursday. The uniform has far more positive connotations than anyone might have imagined, particularly given the growing distaste in many quarters for militarism of any kind. "I don't look at uniforms in any negative way," Bohr said in a recent phone call. "I don't think it is necessarily such a bad thing that people feel that they are part of a group and want to respect this group by the clothes they wear."
Another message from "Uniforms," is the aesthetic appeal of uniformly alike outfits. Uniforms perfect and define us in one way or another, for one reason or another, even if that means the terrifyingly iconic black leather jackets of Hitler's SS guard. The gear worn by real working cowboys in the waning years of Old West — the hand-tooled leather boots, the big belt buckle, even the flashy broad-brimmed hat — was influenced to an extraordinary degree by the Hollywood designer gear worn by silent film actor cowpokes so envied by the real cowpunchers going to the flicks during a night off work.
"I'm looking at the uniform as an aesthetic thing," said Bohr. "What I find attractive about uniforms is the idea of repetition. In a few months I'm going to Viet Nam where there are large factories with women producing Nikes and things, where everyone has to wear a uniform. (Toronto photographer) Edward Burtynsky is an idol of mine, with all the repetitions you find in his landscapes and with the people in his work." The loudest message from "Uniforms," might be how absolutely timely the exhibition is. The wartime mentality prevalent today has historically rekindled society's interest in the uniform. New-fangled practices from branding to mass marketing have further ratcheted up this rekindled need to associate with the uniform — think of the multi-billion dollar sports paraphernalia industry.
The somewhat baggy uniform shown in Bohr's Park Clearer (2004) certainly wouldn't have passed muster in Russia about a century ago. Then an entire society was so besotted with the sight of a man in uniform that Karl Baedeker, in one of his travel guides in 1914, reflected about St. Petersburg that "nearly one-tenth of the male population wears some kind of uniform." Yet the young, uniformed female park cleaner isn't that different from her uniformed Czarist predecessors with their array of gold medallions pinned to their heroic chests. She's clearly at ease in her otherwise nondescript outfit with its nondescript earthy colour. Her shoulders are set back but resting comfortably. She's proud, too. Her arms are held at attention straight at her side, thumbs pointing ground-ward. Her heels are aligned together.
"The Japanese as a people are known to travel in groups," says Bohr. "It's very comforting to watch them. It's something I respect and kind of admire." Dividing his time between Toronto and London where he's studying at the Royal College of Art, Bohr is well placed to know how the sight of the uniform plays out differently in different societies. In Germany, where he grew up — Bohr was born in Wiesbaden in 1978 — uniforms were generally greeted with hostility. In Japan, where he lived for a year supported by a du Maurier Visual Arts Grant, "you are represented by what you wear," he went on. "Japan has dealt with its past different than Germany," he added. "The imperialist past in Japan is not a big a taboo as it is in Germany. In Japan the uniform is still quite a status symbol. In Germany it either means the police or the lower classes."
Trained at Ryerson University and at Napier University in Edinburgh, Bohr first presented his uniform series at the Days Photo Gallery in Tokyo in 2004. "In Japan, most people are proud to be part of something," he went on. "When I was living there, I felt very strongly that people wearing uniforms were very proud, especially when they were working for a big company such as Sony. People were proud of being affiliated with that company. Team spirit is embedded in the culture.
"But in the work, the uniforms I comment on are uniforms of leisure and of sports. Actually I'm not interested in what people are wearing or what brand (of clothes) they're wearing. Clothing represents someone — that's what I'm interested in. We're all in our own uniforms. I'm wearing a certain uniform because I'm an artist. That's my uniform." - Peter Goddard
"Uniforms" by Marco Bohr is at The Japan Foundation, 131 Bloor St. W. Suite 213, until June 23.
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