Oith the opening of his investigative exhibition, Carbon Slowly Turning, at the MK Gallery in March (currently on view at Turner Contemporary, Margate, until September 25), 2022 had already established itself as a major year in the career of photographer and visual artist Ingrid Pollard. Then in April she was nominated for the Turner Prize, praised by a jury “struck by bold new developments” in her recent work as well as the way she has “for decades […] stories uncovered and stories hidden in plain sight”.
In works ranging from The Cost of the English Landscape (1989), which linked romantic visions of the Lake District with references to the slave trade and nuclear power generation at Sellafield, to Landscape Trauma (2001), where the geological structures of the rock formations of Northumbria are written large on vast photographic panels, Pollard has, for more than 40 years, reflected the inadequacy of simplistic narratives about the English landscape and instead offered a vision artistic engagement with nature. world that captures above all its movement and complexity.
A new series of kinetic sculptures will, in this vein, crown his contribution to the Turner Prize exhibition which opens at the Tate Liverpool in October. Until then, perhaps the best evidence here is an artist who, at 69, is only now reaching the pinnacle of her creative powers, finds herself off the beaten path, at Thelma Hulbert Gallery in Honiton, East Devon, where a new solo exhibition, Three Drops of Blood, brings together Pollard’s recent engagement with 19th century botanical collections and the history of East Devon as a former world center of manufacturing of lace with his own lingering preoccupation with matters of race and the legacies of empire.
Organized by Devon-based Talking on Corners (AKA Ella S Mills, whose art history research has focused on female figures in Britain’s black arts movements, including Pollard, Sonia Boyce, Lubaina Himid and Claudette Johnson ), the exhibit marks the culmination of two years’ research by Pollard across the county, including at the Devon and Exeter Institution where, among other details, she unearthed folk stories of the fern. This element runs through the exhibition by combining perfect reproductions of xylotheks – wooden boxes used to store tree specimens – and classification-photography, with contemporary reflections by Antiguan American writer Jamaica Kincaid on communion with the people and plants in the Himalayas, and other colonial adventure ways of being in the world.
The fern, it seems, is part of our ancient landscape, dating back over 300 million years, and even predating the advent of the dinosaurs, in the Carboniferous period. Its reproduction has for centuries been a mystery – no flowers or pods – inspiring beliefs of magical action. It was said, for example, that whoever held the seeds of invisible ferns would also be invisible, and that by shooting them into the sun with an arrow on St. John’s Day, three drops of blood would fall and whoever caught the drops “would acquire knowledge “. of all things” and could keep the devil at bay.
This poetic resonance in the title also indicates how imagination, in Pollard’s last work, emerges as the substance that holds so many disparate elements together, transfiguring and transforming. Where the juxtaposition of images or of text and image of a young Pollard, sometimes harsh, often ironic, could lead us headlong into an abyss of contradictions that can be discerned at the heart of Anglicism and English cultural mythology, she appears here as a master of synthesis and humanism. She pulls the invisible threads that connect landscapes and stories and establishes a sense of being liberated that moves freely through space and time.
Anonymous portraits of Africans, for example, are rescued from the pages of old books. While in the past these images could speak, through Pollard, of the violence of black voices erased by the colonial archive, here they are recast on a black fabric with white polka dots and become the center of a visual dance that stimulates the eye and makes the mind soar. An experience of transcendence is conveyed, confirming Pollard’s own assertion, in a text that accompanies the exhibition (drawing on a conversation with Sussex professor Divya P Tolia-Kelly), that it is “the most dreamier” than she ever finished. Like a dream, it makes things forgotten and invisible and lands with a sense of sublime restitution.