A couple of days ago I had the pleasure of taking part in an ‘In Conversation’ with Edgar Martins, at the Wapping Project Bankside, in central London. He was introducing his new project, The Time Machine, a thoughtful study of some of the great hydroelectric projects in Portugal, and what is implied by the political will it took to bring them about. The buildings themselves have odd connotations of modernism, fascism, and a certain Dan Dare futurism. They have a haunted quality partly because they are now almost wholly automated and occupy only handfuls of people where once they employed hundreds, but also because Martins used long, long exposures on large format cameras to photograph them. Passers by could come and go without leaving any mark on the negative. And where there were no passers by, as Martins tells us there often were not, it looks as though they might have been.
These pictures are something of an inversion of the great industrial studies of Walter Nurnberg or even Lewis Hine. Those photographers wanted to remind us of the dignity of labour, of the grandeur of skilled work done well. They had to show people, and they showed them in a gleaming black and white that was itself one of the great products of the machine age. Martins isn’t doing that. He’s looking at big systems that cover whole societies, and including people would bog him down him down in the specifics of date and place. These are solid pictures that call into question some of the promise that technology was supposed to offer. They also very deliberately call photography into question.
Like all of Martins’ projects, this is one with layer upon layer of content. Martins is a photographer who talks. He talks fluently and well, and he drops references like a moulting dog drops hairs. No doubt some of the audience last night blanched a little when he started in with pataphysics, tossed Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle about a little, and took it on from there. But he was not pretentious. His allusions had point and purpose and plainly applied to the pictures.
There’s nothing wrong with having only plain things to say about pictures, and there’s nothing wrong with taking Martins’ approach. The abomination is the awful desire to make a puddle seem profound. The specious crap I’ve heard and read in the name of art criticism or commentary defies belief but there are still far too many people who don’t trust their eyes to see and their minds to think. Those people seem to need blankets of woolly words before they can feel warm about art, and it’s a shame. That phoney art speak that we can all parody still survives and thrives and is as bad as any other jargon. It’s like cheap anaglypta wallpaper, a tricksy cover for myriad faults beneath. You could apply a rule: the gaudier the patter, the worse the art. Curators, gallerists, critics, museum directors… show me the one who explains in plain language what he sees in his art, and the chances are that the stuff he’s peddling has some merit. Look out for the word reference: it’s not a verb.
I hope nobody at the Wapping Project mistook Martins for a gaudy patterer. Martins was evocative and thoughtful and showed some small portion of the big-thinking that goes before he ever makes a picture, and it was illuminating and a pleasure to hear. And for those who had never heard of Marc Augé, it made a good chance to jot down his name and look him up.
Edgar Martins is interesting as a photographer partly precisely because he regards photography as the perfect vehicle in which to express complex ideas. He likes the way a photograph doesn’t say it all. He actively invites us to engage with ideas that the picture can only sketchily allude to. He knows that not all viewers will take the same understanding from each picture, and he’s gracious enough to say that sometimes he has been agreeably surprised by viewers’ readings that were not quite what he had expected. The Time Machine pictures are not, in fact, necessarily his best: in spite of their questioning, intelligent stance, they have received funding from the EDP, the Portuguese power company which operates the power stations, and they do smack a little of the corporate trophy. Not his best, but still a thoroughly good and stimulating set of pictures at the cusp between a certain new documentary and a certain new topography.
One small minus and one small plus. It’s a pity about the title, which is a little less brilliant than Martins has made us accustomed to. Anyone who can call a series of beach pictures (wonderfully special beach pictures, admittedly) The Accidental Theorist is going to disappoint a little when he settles for The Time Machine. Martins, may I remind you, has published work under the titles Dwarf Exoplanets and Other Sophisms and When Light Casts no Shadow. A frightening set of pictures from the non-city where the police train their firearms people was called a Metaphysical Survey of British Dwellings.
On the other side, it is elegant of Martins to have included in the series studies of the tools and equipment which he found in the great cathedrals of power. There is something fundamental about a hand-tool, as there has been ever since the first hominid knapped a flint to make a scraper. These tools of Martins’ remind me of the exquisite studies of land mines made by Raphaël Dallaporta. They are at the human scale, perfectly adapted to perform simple tasks in the most efficient way possible. But like Dallaporta’s landmines, they beg the question of whether those tasks should have been performed in the first place.