Pictures speak louder than words
The photographs are designed to subvert conservatism At first glance, the show could be an advertisement for a new perfume
Monday 17 April 1995
On top of the hill is the castle. At the bottom of the hill are the masses. Some are cheering the arrival of a number of skydivers, with their patriotically coloured chutes. Others, like the man whose hand is clamped on his partner's buttock, evidently have other things on their mind.
This is the British weekend day-trip, depicted in all its crass, dishevelled glory. And it is this, John Kippin tells us - the crowd, the ancient monument, the whole tired spectacle - that most readily signifies England. England is a nation trapped in sentimental reverence of its past. The words are there in big capitals, engraved on the grass in the foreground: ENGLISHISTORY. According to Kippin, though, there's more to it than that. By strategically dividing the words up into three parts with red, white and blue, you get ENGLISH IS TORY. So there you have it: English history and English Tory values are pretty much synonymous.
This somewhat laboured observation spells out the agenda for the rest of the show. Kippin's photographs are politically laden images designed to subvert conservatism with both big and small "c"s. English history is a story of landed struggle, the supremacy of the propertied classes over the rest. And, by extension, the history of English landscape art - with its idealised portrayals of our green and pleasant land -has been, in part at least, a deliberate aesthetic justification of those owners' rights.
Superficially, the 35 large prints bear all the hallmarks of traditional photographic landscapes. Whether they show an industrial landscape in decline or shopping malls and enterprise zones, these are staged, finely composed pictures, taken with the favoured appareil for such work, the large format camera. The grain, the tone, the colour saturation of the likes of Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. But there the similarity ends.
If landscape photography has traditionally been concerned with the deification of the natural environment - to depict nature uncontaminated by culture - Kippin's work sets out rather to puncture the pastoral idyll. He is the antithesis of the picturesque tradition.
Most typically, this will involve taking a physical space, unadulterated but for one corrupting cultural icon. The wreckage of two jet fighters, for example, in a Northumberland National Park. A concrete edifice in the middle of a lake. A cargo boat washed up on a beach.
This may sound an unnecessarily theatrical gasp at the extent of man's folly - a sort of pictorial "Where did we go wrong?" Thankfully, though, Kippin's political manifesto is a bit more sophisticated. For one thing, the corrupting element becomes strangely beautiful in his hands. This is partially to do with the fact that it is treated as integral to the landscape rather than as an object of reportage. Kippin has framed the concrete block in the middle of the lake, for example, such that the glassy landscape that surrounds it is a complementary adjunct to the structure's own symmetry. Framed like this, it is excitingly reminiscent of a palace on the lakes of Udaipur, or the pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre.
There can be few people who, when taking a photograph, have not tried to be selective. Kippin's stance is perhaps that you shouldn't bother, for the notion of a natural virgin state is an untenable one. What he does instead is make wry digs at our inability to accept that the bite's been taken and acknowledge that nature and nurture are inextricably intertwined.
This, it seems, is what trains his eye in his shots of heritage sites, such as Joust, at Tynemouth, or of the reproduction ships and trains in Wallsend. These pictures are still formally rooted in the landscape tradition, but are none the less astutely designed to show how kitsch our nostalgia for the past has become. Man's greatest folly today is his gaudy attempt to recreate a world past, as yet unsullied by machinery, buildings and town planners. Heritage sites only perpetuate the misery. About as realistic, or indeed natural, as the garden designs that Kipppin has photographed inside Newcastle's Metrocentre, they draw only more day-trippers, more litter.
One might argue that Kippin's own folly, however, is his compulsion to explain all this for us in words. ENGLISHISTORY is not the only inscribed image. More than half of the photographs have a slogan screenprinted on to their shiny surfaces. The effect is to turn the pictures into something akin to commercial billboards.
Underneath the concrete edifice in our Northumberland lake, for example, is etched the word INVISIBLE. At first glance, this show could easily be an advertisement for a new brand of perfume. FORGOTTEN, meanwhile, which underscores a picture of the vestiges of the Cokeworks at Derwenthaugh, could in another incarnation be the cover for the third album of a Northern soul band.
Quite what these textual additions achieve, though, either in the context of the gallery wall or indeed as contributions to the rich socio-political debate about the British landscape, is harder to fathom. For all too often the words merely draw our attention to what is already startlingly evident. The architecturally infamous Byker estate in Newcastle, for example, is hardly a place one associates with William Shakespeare. And so, to see a mural of the distinctive old Bard up amid the highrises is incongruous enough. One hardly needs the slogan SHAKESPEARE COUNTRY to point this out.
It may be that Kippin finds it amusing, in a disingenuous sort of way, to fob his work off in the guise of cheap advertorial. But he should probably give his audience more credit. NOSTALGIA FOR THE FUTURE, the slogan that underwrites a shot of a deserted caravan and a washed-up tanker on a North Seaton beach, is self-evident from the family that, from a respectful distance, stares in awe at the rusting hull as if it were some grand ancient monument. Lo and behold, even this unremarkable rustbucket could become a quaint curiosity, and eventually hack its way into our heritage.
There are pictures that Kippin chooses not to caption. Some, perhaps, do not possess enough visual polemic to warrant the injection of a Kippinism. Moonrise over Teesside (the words in this case are offered as a separate subtitle, rather than etched on the print) is what it says it is - a spectacular urban scene redolent of Ansel Adam's own Moonrise over Hernandez, New Mexico. In others, the socio-cultural landscape is too complex to be distilled into one glib slogan. What statement, for example, would not come across as trite under a picture of a woman and her two grandchildren fishing from a lake, being watched over by a video surveillance camera? Kippin might argue that an inability to accept his slogans is tantamount to an inability to see the landscape in any form other than that dictated by those English Tory values. But he would be doing his otherwise extremely accomplished art a grave disservice. There is simply nothing to add verbally, for example, to a shot of a Muslim prayer meeting on the banks of lake Windermere. As a comment on the contemporary British landscape, the picture says it all.
n At the Photographer's Gallery, WC2, to 6 May (0171-831 1772)
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