WWith detailed studies of crumbling, iron-blooded rock, printed on a monumental scale, Ingrid Pollard guides our thoughts to the bigger picture. The title of her show, Carbon Slowly Turning, could describe the motion of the spinning Earth, with you, me, the trees and other carbon-based life on it.
But Pollard’s urge to revisit and remix art created over four decades also reminds me of a compost pile — in a good way. The show concludes with some of her oldest work—bodyshots from 1991 articulating the lesbian experience—alongside her most recent, which looks at pride, propaganda and national identity. It’s as if Pollard is constantly turning over her pile of leaves, pulling old material through new material, to see what mycelium it might generate.
Pollard is first and foremost a photographer, and as with Wolfgang Tillmans, he is interested in the qualities of the photograph as an object, and how modes of presentation can change the way we read an image. Opposite the entrance hangs a row of silvery photographs of a wind-scoured part of the British coast: The Boy Who Watches Ships Go By. Here, weathered bleached wood sticks out of pebbles like old bone; the hull of a boat reveals its scraped age above the clapboard; a lighthouse is spied over islands of silt. Hand-coloured, smudged, painterly printed on canvas, the photos appeal to melancholic nostalgia.
The viewer here is Pollard, who stares through the viewfinder, examining the prints in the darkroom closely. But as two snippets of 18th-century text above the photos indicate, the viewer is also an African child, long dead, who once played the violin as “Captain’s boy” on a boat loaded with human cargo, traveling between The Gambia and Jamaica.
Glimpses of the artist’s portraits in Hastings (Seaside Series, 1989), are framed with stone sticks and souvenirs, above bits of text referring to the last successful invasion of Britain, and other forms of intrusion (“…and what part of Africa where are you from?”) Pollard is interested in the aesthetics of the coast, but she is also interested in Britain’s long sea front as a place of departure and arrival, whether you come as a tourist, intruder, to enslaved servant or migrant.
The standout work here is Seventeen of Sixty Eight (2019), which artfully combines conceptual research with Pollard’s interest in how visual information is displayed and disseminated. Through objects and images of all kinds – colorless images embossed on white paper, facsimiles of edited book pages, metal tokens, stained glass, pub signs – she portrays the deeply entrenched history of African bodies in Britain. The locations in her photos are inconspicuous – country inns, suburban alleys, stretches of countryside – yet they all bear a title that refers to a ‘Black Boy’. Someone – or an incident – touched each place in a way that left a memory of a person (though not their name) as a marker.
Among these artifacts and images is a lone photograph of a grotesque blackface “minstrel” puppet. A neat white box stands on a neat white plinth between the signage and sculptures in the center of the gallery. Click the doors open and the music jumps from within: a video where the minstrel doll dances only before your eyes. Close them again and like a jack-in-the-box it is hidden from view. As always with Pollard, the display mode is very special: there is something obscene about this whole device.
The title – Seventeen or Sixty Eight – remains unexplained, although it tells us that we are only seeing a fragment of a larger image. An earlier version was shown at Baltic in Gateshead, after Pollard was selected for the Baltic Artists’ award 2019. For the 69-year-old artist, this was the first in a victorious hop-skip and jump. The Milton Keynes exhibition is the culmination of Pollard’s receipt of the 2020 Freelands Prize for mid-career female artists. This show, in turn, earned her a nomination for the Turner Prize.
Walking through the exhibit makes it harder to ignore what sounds like particularly roasting structures nearby. Entering the last room, we meet the source of the sound: Bow Down and Very Low – 123 (2021), a trio of kinetic sculptures, two of which (a pair of bending, scraping hacksaws and a body of knotted rope) appear to be kneeling , and the third waves a baseball bat helplessly. Behind them is a row of lenticular prints of a little black girl in a 1940s white dress, captured forever bobbing in and out of a curtsy.
As the central room where portraits and stories are explored, Pollard is a captivating photographer, but there are many layers of research beyond the superficial temptation. This isn’t an easy art – it doesn’t come with a neat punch line. I think even for the artist, associations shift with each turn of the compost heap.