Ingrid Pollard: Carbon Slowly Turning

MKGallery 12March – 29May2022 – details here

This exciting new exhibition at the MK Gallery is another notable achievement for this regional gallery that is rapidly establishing a reputation in promoting artists who deserve to be better known .  This show has been eagerly anticipated, having been in gestation over four years and delayed by the closure of galleries due to the Covid 19 pandemic.  Surprisingly, it is the first major solo showing of the substantial and diverse oeuvre of the Guyanese born British artist and photographer, Ingrid Pollard.  It is supported by the Freelands Foundation, which enables arts organisations outside London to present exhibitions by mid career female artists who have not hitherto enjoyed the public recognition merited by their work.  In 2020 it was Ingrid Pollard who won this award in recognition of her forty year career as an experimental artist working across diverse techniques, including photography, drawing, installation, print making, video, audio and kinetic sculpture.  The MK Gallery has the privilege of hosting this thought provoking and timely retrospective.

The works included in this exhibition defy easy categorisation as it covers nearly half a century of experimentation with different techniques in the context of Ingrid Pollard’s commitment and engagement with complex ideas, particularly within a diasporic historical and political context .  Two recurrent genres are landscape and portraiture and these are treated subversively and distinctively, frequently as vehicles for the interrogation of complex and shifting ideas of identities, racial, sexual and, in particular, the vexed notion of Britishness.  The use of text in Pollard’s practice is important too.  Each room offers multiple and challenging works from the entirety of Pollard’s career, but they all relate to these common themes and link the personal and the political, so relevant to present times.

I was immediately struck by the delicate beauty of the exhibit entitled Flotilla of Fragility, 2008, comprising fifty ceramic renderings of paper boats at the start of the exhibition.  This poetic creation conjures up journeys and migrations, a signifier of perilous crossings of the Atlantic.  It has a particular poignancy now as it also invokes images of desperate refugees and asylum seekers currently being transported to the U.K. in flimsy, easily capsized boats.  The movement suggested by these boats is paralleled by images of movement in a juxtaposed video, Rhythms at Hand, 2022, exploring in a two screen blend  collaborative gesture and coordination in tango and rowing.  The viewer needs to actively engage to rise to the challenge of discovering the multiple connections between seemingly different exhibits.

Flotilla of Fragility, 2008

I would draw attention to the clever curation of items, helping to draw parallels between exhibits and tellingly concluding the exhibition with two further recent exemplars of movement and gesture.  Bow Down and Very Low-123 (2021) uses images from a propaganda film made by the Colonial Film Unit in 1944 , showing a young girl voted as May Queen in a repeated action of bowing and rising.  It also explores gesture and movement through three new collaborative kinetic sculptures , devised to human scale and incorporating diverse objects, with industrial overtones, accompanied in their random movements by eerie , unsettling sounds.  These sculptures feel threatening, robotic, signifiers perhaps of a dystopian future.  These two new works seem indicative of an interesting new direction in her work, methodologically and thematically.

Bow Down Very Low123, 2001

In terms of Pollard’s earlier work, I was particularly struck by her radical approach to the genre of Landscape.  In traditional British Landscape painting the subject matter often gives expression to ideas of class, white Britishness and land ownership.  For example, Gainsborough in his depiction of Mr and Mrs Andrews, depicted proudly surveying their vast rural property.  Pollard draws attention to the stereotypical representation and association of black people with urban environments.  Pollard situates herself and black people in this pastoral, idyllic environment, for example in the Lake District , in her beautiful series of hand tinted photographs, entitled Pastoral Interlude, 1987.  This series illustrates the importance of accompanying and overlaid text in Pollard’s work.  Signs of Keep Out, No Trespass accompany some of the images and even more powerfully Wordsworth’s poetry is subverted to express the feeling experienced by black people of feeling uneasily out of place in this rural idyll, ‘ Where I wandered lonely as a Black figure in a sea of white’.

Another powerful exemplar of Pollard’s subversion of the idyllic landowner dominating rural depiction is her reimagining of the traditional Toile de Jouy fabric and wall paper design, 2015.  She replaces the idealised vignettes of the leisure pursuits of landowners with images of toil and Labour, incorporating an image of a textile printer in Ghana, in addition to her references derived from overlapping residencies in Northern France and an artists’ project at the site of a former cotton mill in Lancashire.

There was much interruption, 2015

There are, in addition, examples of striking, highly stylised portraiture within iconic landscapes, such as a bluebell wood, and the adults portrayed hold various items , signifiers from the days of the Empire and reflecting cultural stereotypes.  These include tropical flowers, the Financial Times and fried chicken.  These adult , in plein air portraits, entitled Self Evident, 1995 and comprise nine colour light boxes are all the more striking as across the gallery is a series of large black and white indoor studio portraits of children in sharp contrast.  I was reminded of the work of another ground breaking black artist who has subverted and reinvented the Romantic European Landscape tradition.  Kehinde Wiley in his current exhibition at the National Gallery reimagines well known works, such as Caspar David  Friedrich’s Wanderer in the Landscape replacing the original white aristocratic figure with a young Senegalese man.

Bluebell Wood

Many of Pollard’s landscape subversions are small or medium in scale and often are characterised by a delicacy of execution and have the feel of chamber pieces.  In contrast, the monumental images entitled Landscape Trauma , 2001, have an almost apocalyptic quality to them, produced during a residency in the Farne Islands , Northumberland, and lend themselves to many possible interpretations and personal emotional responses.  I was reminded of some landscapes by Tacita Dean and indeed her scene designs for the recent Royal Ballet production of the Dante Project.  It will be interesting  to see Pollard and Dean in the forthcoming exhibition  Radical Landscapes at the Tate Liverpool, where more revealing comparisons may be possible.  These works have an abstract and surreal quality to them and an awe inspiring beauty and grandeur.  They inspire meditation and I felt ideally they deserved to be in a space on their own as they possess the same compelling qualities that we find in the monumental series by Mark Rothko, rightly allocated their own chapel like space in the Tate Modern.  Clearly, in the compact space a available at the MK Gallery in the six exhibition rooms, this luxury was not possible.

I have picked out just some of the themes and exhibits to express some of my impressions and reactions to Pollard’s work.  I would hope to revisit the exhibition and focus on different aspects that I have neglected in this review as there really is a wealth of material and many issues that challenge.  I should just mention that there are works on display that interrogate notions of sexuality, masculinity and homophobia.  These are extremely powerful and disturbing too.  There are also seascape images that pose similar questions to Pollard’s landscape depictions.  Important too is a section devoted to portraiture, including black female artists activists and performers.    I haven’t even had space to do justice to an entire room devoted to the thirty year research period Pollard spent identifying and cataloguing images of pub signs, objects and relevant texts with stereotyped and caricatured depiction of the figure of the African, The Black Boy.  This work is prescient in the light of recent debates and concerns about abhorrent traces of colonial legacy in urban contexts, as, for example, in the debate about statues celebrating the so called achievements of slave owners.  It strikes me that each of these subject areas is deserving of a separate in depth review and I cannot do it justice within my more limited framework of a generalist exhibition review.

It will be evident from my observations of and reactions to the contents of this exhibition that I am really excited at discovering an artist that I knew very little about previously, having only seen a few of her works in the first exhibition at the MK Gallery, The Lie of the Land, and more recently works in the current exhibition at the Tate Britain, Between Islands. Staging the work of such a seminal and relevant contemporary female artist is another triumph for the gallery. I am also delighted that the gallery made the decision to waive entrance fees, which are normally de rigeur for special retrospective shows. This is important as it will hopefully encourage a more and diverse visitor profile and enable the visiting public to revisit such a thought provoking and challenging exhibition.

Cecilia Wooding – Gallery Tart


Leave a Comment

  1. Thank you Cecilia for a brilliantly written and fascinating review. It sounds like a huge and complex retrospective and it must have been difficult and challenging to review. How do you select particular angles? What photographs do you include? How long should the review be in order to do the artist justice and to convey her multifarious messages ? I think you did a brilliant job because not only have you given us a extensive panorama of Pollard’s work but you have also made us hungry for more… I now intend to explore the work of not only Ingrid Pollard, but also of the other artists you mention in your review. I am also curious about Pollard’s choice of title for this major retrospective (if that was her choice): ‘Carbon Slowly Turning’ …I have an inkling but it is intriguing, all the same. I hope this fascinating review is ‘to be continued’.

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