Friday, 25 April 2008
A Moment with Mark Power, Churchill and A Stork's Nest
I went to an exhibition by the Magnum photographer Mark Power last Sunday afternoon. It was held in Churchill College which is one of those sixties additions to the Cambridge academic arena which sits on the edge of the town on a large site trying to look as if it doesn’t care if it belongs but is going to strive to be radical and deeply itself. This is how it was in the sixties and seventies when it first sprung from the ground but now its architecture makes it appear slightly more dated than the medieval colleges in the town. It does have a number of very interesting sculptures dotted about the grounds that lend it an air of sculpture park meets sixties low rise. 'Four Square Walk' by Barbara Hepworth, 'Mother and Child' by Dhruva Mistry RA, 'Gemini' by Denis Mitchell, 'Flight' by Peter Lyon, and 'Spiral' by Michael Gillespie, amongst others can be found there. They recently exhibited a large sculpture by the late Lynn Chadwick called Beast Alerted 1. Another sculpture by this well known artist was stolen from the grounds of a college in London, a huge bronze called The Watchers…well no one was watching and the bronze that would have needed a small crane to lift it was cut off at the base and spirited away in the course of the night.
No one noticed for a while apparently. I once had a rather decent sized coniasta bush dug up by thieves and I didn’t notice for a week until I wondered what didn’t seem quite right about my front garden (that was before I took to my wildlife garden approach). I suppose in public places the disappearance of a huge bronze set of figures might be passed over because a) they have just merged into the landscape and become lost as so everyday that they become unnoticed or b) no one takes ownership of it and presumes someone else has reported it missing or someone else has moved it for reasons legitimate but unknown.
I once worked as a Probation Officer and a very jolly professional burglar told me that removing household goods such as freezers, cookers, televisions, even once a bed, in plain sight without anyone noticing was simply a matter of confidence, a nod and a smile to neighbours who might spot you, a brown overall and a white van that looked the part. People never question the everyday, the usual and unremarkable because it is just that, not worth marking or flagging up in our memory. So a huge bronze stature by one of the country’s leading artists can be sawn off and transported away to be melted down for scrap as I expect second hand sculptures with a good pedigree are hard to shift other than to mad rich collectors and they only exist in bad thrillers I imagine.
This brings me back neatly to the exhibition by Mark Power. As I walked round I was again impressed by the ability of a good photographer to capture some element of the ordinary and everyday and literally mark it; give it significance that raises it to the level of remarkable. The theorists of the visual arts would of course have a fancy name for this such as ‘a signifier’ in order to ensure the esoteric mystification of the arts; we all like to have a language that keeps us in the private club of short-hand knowingness now and then. Of course the photographic image has the ability to freeze time, capture something that is always held in tension with transience; this moment captured serves to highlight the fact that everything is in some way transient. Mark Power is well known for his images of buildings and objects becoming something else (The Treasury, the Millennium Dome, the mammoth Airbus). In this exhibition, however I was drawn to his images collected over a period of years in Poland. They had something important to say about the nature of change and people caught and held in change. Poland is struggling with enormous unemployment and economic difficulties whilst it is haemorrhaging workers, many of them young, into other countries into the EU. The photographs seem to ooze a sense of how painful change can be, they manage to sidestep the cliché of Eastern European melancholy but at the same time there is what I can only pin down as a wistfulness which allows for feelings about things yearned for in the future but also something lost. The fact that the image suspends us in the now is what gives us something remarkable to observe if we watch carefully enough. Ask anyone to explain how they feel now, at this very second, and even in the act of explaining or writing what they feel the now has moved on and is changed by the act of interior introspection. A photograph is always now; the image of the naked child running towards the camera covered in Napalm is still running towards the camera. The stork nest balanced precariously on top of a naked tree trunk beside an icy pot-holed road through a sparse Polish village, as in this exhibition, will always be balanced there. It may have been swept away by high winds, the tree may have fallen but in that constant instant the home made of sticks is just managing to hold itself together up there; it cannot move beyond it. You can ask yourself questions about what led up to this moment, what will happen after, why is this here now but it will remain what it is anything else it becomes is endowed by the transient observer. I sometimes envy this medium, nothing I write can ever quite top that immediacy of the visual, we are essentially lead by the eye. Words can do other things, have other great virtues but the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words seems a fair rate of exchange but only if the picture is exceptional. A poor photograph and exceptional words might upset that rate; at least I hope it would. The adage also begs the question of how we access worth which is a whole different blog.
This is the link to Mark’s web site. He is doing some interesting work with a poet at present , if you go into his archive you can see the Polish photographs which are well worth a look and are due to be published some time this year. His inaugural speech when installed as Professor of Photography in Brighton is really worth reading if you are interested in photography. Enjoy!
I am off tonight to an artist friend’s private view of her exhibition where we can argue about the merits of photography versus acrylics and canvas and drink wine that she hauled back from her French studio in a local vineyard. She assures me that after the fourth glass of rough but extremely high alcohol content wine someone is bound to buy something!
* For the camera geeks amongst you Mark uses a Horseman FA 5X4. I am told that a photographer is always asked at any talk they give about the kind of camera they use. To date no one has asked me about the kind of pen or computer I use to write with, although one person did once ask me if I had a special chair I sat in.