Sunday, 18 March 2012

Mark Power: "The Sound of Two Songs"

I had no preconceptions of Power’s work before I came see here. I viewed none of the prep’ documents supplied. I came to this work with a clear mind. I knew of course the broad brush of (modern) Polish history, the German territorial dominance through WWII, the communist territorial and political dominance, the insurrection stemming from the working class of Gdansk and others, the “fall of the wall”, the economic restructuring, the exodus of talent to the Eu. The weather, the heat and the cold, potatoes, Solidarity and Tomaszewski. I had a vague feeling that, like most ex soviet bloc countries, there would be decay/rebuilding, despair/hope, and utilitarianism/wanton post soviet capitalism.

I expected there to be Christian iconographic images in abundance in this largely devout catholic country, but I think that is about all I expected.

The first photograph I made notes on, was on the subject I thought I would see, an image of a cross – this one a “burning/irredescent cross” inlaid in the ground. I thought I had found what I expected to find and I moved on, only realizing later that I had probably not understood it at all. How was that cross glowing in the dirt, this photograph that was possibly a constructed image (so may others seem to have been posed)? I contrived to blend congruence with preconception which led me to “tick the box” of conformity and I moved on to look at other photographs. *

This wasn’t a consistent body of work from many perspectives, there were some portraits, still landscapes, dynamic landscapes, urban, pastoral and documentary shots. However I came away with a strong feeling that there was a cohesive narrative running through the work. Power, it seems to me, has imbued this collection with a sense of how the sacred and profane are interwoven into the psyche of the nation state as depicted. There were references to be observed in many of the photographs that highlight it’s past, it’s present and, in some cases, the future.
I think I was helped by the lack of titling. Typically there would a reference only to the place and month and year e.g. Warszawa 01/2006; if there were people involved they would be named. It left the interpretation to the viewer, it enabled me to bring the narrative to the picture. I’m absolutely sure that I got it wrong on many occasions, perhaps all (wrong in the sense that the intent, pre or post curating, was probably different to that which Powell had intended), but as individual pieces of art they were powerful enough to project an emotional response.

There is little humour in these photographs (series here). There is, however, a lot of beauty; from the expertly printed images that are gently quiet and which invite and reward contemplation, impelling the viewer to question the place that modern day Poland inhabits today, and maybe the challenges that it faces for tomorrow. It is, in it’s entirety, a social document; the series attempts no provision of answers, rather it provokes the viewer to project a future for Poland in the knowledge that it’s past has been kicked from pillar to post, so much that even the great Tomaszewski would have had difficulty in saving Poland.

Rather unfairly – I thought at the time - we were asked to pick our favourite photograph, stand by it and then be prepared to speak about why it was so, to the rest of the group. I’m not really a fan of beauty contests, having a “fave’” smacks of camera club to me, but the time allocated to choose didn’t really allow for too much consideration and the subsequent conversation stemming from each “chooser’s” pitch was very interesting and stimulating. There were times when the speaker found a great deal of empathy with their view, similarly, contra suggestions were made and also discussed. In the end I think this exercise proved quite useful and thought provoking.

There was some talk at the end about the use of exhibitions and monographs; clearly there is a tendency to fetishize images that hang in exhibition halls, maybe more so these days, and maybe it was because this was a “study day” that I sought to derive context and narrative from these images. It may also be that they were mounted as very large prints, expertly printed and framed, well lit and sensitively curated but I did find lots to think about in these photographs and will look again, not only at this series but also at Power’s other work.

Christian illuminating on the art of making books

* post posting note: on closer scrutiny the light appears to come from underneath, the cross seems to have been made in the dirt that covers a light source. The soil around the cross is disturbed, allowing a little stray light to filter through, maybe this is a residue, or overflow that has covered a roof light? There are footprints around the cross - pic 59 - in the link to “The Sound of Two Songs” on Mark Power’s web-site.


  1. Hi John, it was great to meet you in person at Bradford, and to talk about the pictures, albeit relatively briefly. I've also been reflecting on the habsence of jokes in this work - except perhaps for the car tyres picture. Both Mark P and Martin Parr have been invited to take a series of pictures of the Black Country - given their very different approaches I think that will be a wonderful opportunity to compare and contrast.
    Hope to see you again soon.

  2. Hello Eileen, I agree, it was, and is, very beneficial to meet up and talk and I think Gareth and Christian did a great job in facilitating this. A long day but worth it. The contrast between the Powell and Parr you mention would, I think, be very marked and make for an interesting study in aesthetics and semiotics.