Ingrid Pollard: the Turner nominee uncovering Britain’s secret shame – review

With detailed studies of flaking, iron-blooded rock, printed at monumental scale Ingrid Pollard directs our thoughts to the bigger picture. The title of her show, Carbon Slowly Turning, might describe the motion of the spinning Earth, with you, me, the trees and other carbon-based life upon it.

But Pollard’s urge to revisit and remix art made across four decades also makes me think of a compost heap – in a good way. The show concludes with some of her oldest work – body shots from 1991 articulating lesbian experience – alongside her most recent, looking at pride, propaganda and national identity. It’s as though Pollard is constantly turning her pile of leaves, pulling old material through new, to see what mycelium it might generate.

Pollard is, primarily, a photographer, and as with Wolfgang Tillmans, is interested in the qualities of the photograph as an object, and how modes of presentation can transform the way we read an image. Opposite the entrance hangs a row of silvery photographs of a wind-scoured section of British coast: The Boy Who Watches Ships Go By. Here, weather-bleached wood protrudes from pebbles like old bone; the hull of a boat exposes its scraped age above the shingle; a lighthouse is spied across islands of silt. Hand-tinted, printed in a blotchy, painterly way on canvas, the pictures appeal to melancholic nostalgia.

The watcher here is Pollard, staring through the viewfinder, and scrutinising prints in the darkroom. But as two fragments of 18th-century text printed above the photographs indicate, the watcher is also an African child, long dead, who once played the fiddle as “Captain’s boy” on a boat loaded with human cargo, travelling between the Gambia and Jamaica.

Glimpsed portraits of the artist in Hastings (Seaside Series, 1989), are framed with sticks of rock and souvenirs, above scraps of text referring to the last successful invasion of Britain, and other sorts of intrusion (“… and what part of Africa do you come from?”) Pollard is interested in aesthetics of the coast, but she’s also interested in Britain’s long sea border as a place of departure and arrival, whether you come as a tourist, an invader, an enslaved servant, or a migrant.

The standout work here is Seventeen of Sixty Eight (2019), which artfully matches conceptual enquiry to Pollard’s interest in how visual information is displayed and dispersed. Through objects and pictures of many kinds – colourless images embossed on white paper, facsimiles of redacted book pages, metal tokens, stained glass, pub signs – she drags the deeply embedded history of African bodies in Britain into view. The sites in her photographs are unremarkable – rural inns, suburban lanes, tracts of countryside – yet all bear a title referring to a “Black Boy”. Someone – or some incident – touched each place in a way that left a memory of a person (though not their name) as a marker.

In among these artefacts and images is a lone photograph of a grotesque blackface “minstrel” marionette. A neat white box sits on a neat white plinth in among the signage and statuary in the centre of the gallery. Click open the doors and music leaps from within: a video in which the minstrel puppet dances for your eyes alone. Close them again and, like a jack-in-the-box, he is hidden from view. As ever with Pollard, the mode of display is very particular: there’s something obscene about this entire device.

The title – Seventeen of Sixty Eight – is left unexplained, though it tells us we’re only seeing a fragment of a larger picture. An earlier version was shown at Baltic in Gateshead, after Pollard was selected for the 2019 Baltic Artists’ award. This was the first in a victorious hop skip and jump for the 69-year-old artist. The exhibition at Milton Keynes is the result of Pollard’s receipt of the 2020 Freelands award for mid-career women artists. This show in turn has garnered her a nomination for the Turner prize.

Proceeding through the exhibition, it becomes harder to ignore what sound like particularly grating building works near by. Stepping into the final room, we meet the source of the noise: Bow Down and Very Low – 123 (2021), a trio of kinetic sculptures, two of which (a pair of bending, scraping metal saws, and a body of knotted ship’s rope) appear to genuflect, and the third of which impotently swings a baseball bat. Behind them is a row of lenticular prints of a little Black girl in a white 1940s dress, trapped forever as she bobs in and out of a curtsy.

As a central room exploring portraiture and narrative attests, Pollard is a captivating photographer, but there are many layers of enquiry going on beyond the surface seduction. This is not easy art – it doesn’t come with a neat punchline. I think even for the artist, associations shift with every turn of the compost heap.

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