I am happy to say that I came second in Breese Little Prize for Art Criticism this Autumn 2013, for a review on The Photographers’ Gallery’s exhibition Mark Neville, Deeds Not Words.
Christiane Monarchi, Editor of Photomonitor and Judge commented:
I would like to highly commend Erica Payet’s review of Mark Neville, Deeds Not Words, as a runner up, because I like the writer investigating the commercial and interpretive implications of staging the show at The Photographers’ Gallery, interesting points which may not often get raised in art writing.
I would like to thank Céline Marraffa for her competent proof-reading! My congratulations to the winner, Rebecca Sykes. Please keep scrolling down to read my text.
The first image you encounter in Deeds Not Words is a triptych showing a young boy against a black backdrop, as if in a portrait studio, bursting a red balloon. This violent action works as a (noiseless) wake-up call. The high-speed camera captures the exact moment of the explosion, allowing you to see it as if in slow motion and conjuring up a series of paradoxes: speed/immobility, noise/silence, surprise/reflection.
I didn’t notice the young boy’s two missing fingers until the third photograph. Not that his impairment is concealed in the previous images, but my attention was drawn elsewhere, as if the photographer plays a trick to let us see this boy first, without focusing on his disability. These prints come from the original book project by Mark Neville that aimed to document the Scottish community of Corby, at a time when a group of sixteen families were undertaking legal action after their children were born with disabilities caused by the old steel mills’ environmental pollution.
You find yourself searching for the trick in the other photos, but Neville never ceases to deceive you. He did not only photograph the sixteen families, but the whole community. His wide-angle camera captures scenes from low down or from a height, such as youths dancing in a nightclub. Faces emerge from these carefully composed and lit scenes, drawing you in the large format prints. Neville’s use of colour photography reminds one of Martin Parr’s: gaudy colours depict the happiness of leisure activities, but they are also uncompromising, letting the irony show right under the surface. Neville couples colour and black & white photography to represent the same scenes, creating a mental strobe light, which allows us to shift emphasis from the individuals to the social group.
Neville worked on the ‘body image’ and ‘beauty’ within the Corby community. For me, the motif of ‘dance’ is what comes out of his research. Some subjects have an obvious link with dance, such as the night clubbers, an elderly couple softly coming together and participants in the Corby Highland dance competition. But others offer a more subtle relationship to group choreography: the Corby carnival queens bowling in their fancy ball gowns, young boys hitting the Adrenalin Alley skate park. Evidently, it is the nature of the photographic medium to obliterate the sound of music that we imagine alongside these coordinated movements in space. Everything happens in the silence of the photograph, and yet the balloon detonations bring you back to the case at hand: the genetic disorders provoked by the mishandling of toxic waste.
The original photo-book was meant to underpin a socio-political battle. For the art theorist Dominique Baqué, politically engaged art usually fails to achieve anything. It “often proves to be naïve, ideologically weak, and still full of humanist illusions… [and] seriously obscures the extreme harshness of social divides”1. However, she recognises a (partial) power to photographic and video documentaries in that they “show” and “reveal” things, acting as a catalyst to political action.
Mark Neville’s work falls into this second category, in that it conveys a message without overly aestheticising it or resorting to pathos. Furthermore, his artistic gesture goes beyond the image-making stage, as he put some thought in the way his message was to be disseminated. The book Deeds Not Words was distributed for free to local authorities, thus directly targeting the political decision-makers.
In the exhibition, large posters are given out to visitors. This functions more as a symbolic gesture reminding us of these alternative dissemination strategies, than as an effective way to act in favour of the Corby families, who set up a precedent when they won the legal case four years ago. It is therefore worth wondering exactly what the aim of this exhibition is, and whether it is still trying to act as an agent of political action (as the promotional material and media attention suggested), or if it really just functions as a retrospective on one of Neville’s projects.
Indeed, the fact that the project is shown in a London art institution undoubtedly contributes to raising awareness, but it also draws it further from selfless action by bringing added fame to the artist. It also sheds a different light on the images: as the large digital C-prints climb up on the display wall, they are dragged further from the community. Just consider that the book, previously given out for free, is now for sale in the bookshop for £300.00 (“out of print / very rare”).
Mark Neville | Deeds Not Words | The Photographers’ Gallery | 2 August – 29 September 2013
- Dominique Baqué, Pour un nouvel art politique (For a New Political Art), 2009, Champs Art Flammarion, Paris, p.35.