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Wednesday 25 January 2012

Mark Power: The Sound of Two Songs | Impressions Gallery | Bradford

Text by Daniel Potts

The Sound of Two Songs is Mark Power’s photographic survey of Poland, formed and collected over a period of five years. He made his first visit to the country in 2004 as part of a project intended to record and document ten countries joining the European Union in that year. Power’s survey takes place over a period when around a million Poles migrated to the UK to live and work: a period of fascinating social change. As the title of the exhibition suggests, Power engages and captures more than one force in the visual aspect. He presents Poland as a land “bursting with visual contradictions…like listening to several melodies at once to the point where it’s difficult to hear anything clearly.”

The first image with which the visitor is greeted impresses and arrests both for the natural and artificial intricate beauty of the contrary visual forces. It is titled Warszawa 10/2006, and here we find an apparent marriage of opposites – a Warsaw cityscape in which the skyline is captured halfway down the image. In the lower half the city is shrouded in a mist or smog through which we discern the grimy regularity of the grey buildings framed and fashioned into pattern by dark streets. It seems to be early morning. The upper half presents the viewer with the brilliance of interlacing wisps of cloud illuminated and pierced by intense sunlight. This has the effect of an optical illusion. The composition seems to be an expression of two different worlds coupled: the earthly, commonplace and mundane meets the sublime firmament itself. The piece captures religious sensibilities in this way. This element of divinity is captured, again within an apparent contrary context in Warszawa 04/2005. Here the visitor is presented with, what seems to be, the dull, dark sand used in the casting of iron by blacksmiths pierced by an embedded, glowing metal crucifix, apparently cooling. Perhaps this bold visual expression of two contrary, material states reminds us symbolically of the historical forces - contrary, mutually exclusive, though perhaps substitutional - of Catholicism and totalitarianism evoked by the industrial context.

A sense of organised, regulated, totalitarian anonymity forms a contradictory part of the whole effect of the image titled Rzeszów 12/2004. Here we find a number of blocks of flats captured. The regularity of the fenestration might daunt the viewer with its clinical lack of humanity were it not for the cheerful, multicoloured geometrical shapes painted on to the concrete surrounding the windows. Perhaps this contrary element of the image evokes a sense of an optimistic breath of life into a tired and ineffective structure, reflecting the social and political change intended to be captured by the project. Perhaps similar to this evocation is that which can be felt when engaging with Stężyca 2005. Stark, winter silver birches are presented in the foreground of what at first appears to be a row of large canvas tents enclosed with a high barbed wire fence. At first glance the heart sinks at a visual memento of totalitarian atrocity, only to be lifted on closer inspection by the revelation that the “tents” are greenhouses, illuminated within, perhaps for hydroponic crop development. Here then, dark historical forces visually intermingle with optimism for the future. In this case “the sound of two songs” deafeningly confuses the viewer with the contradiction.

Deblin 04/2005 presents rows of differently coloured garages with varied types of entrance. Here the pleasing regularity of garage after garage can be felt to tie in with and evoke the sense of anonymity presented in the other images. However, each structure is unique. Perhaps this reflects a sense of individualism growing out of uniformity. Individualism translated into consumerism is one of the effects of Zabrse 10/2004 where we find the glowing sign lights of an enormous retail mall vaguely piercing mist or fog against an oppressive grey sky. The mist is ethereal, creating a sense of the ephemeral, perhaps reflecting the volatile nature of consumerism over time.

Visual cues as a reflection of social, historical and political forces and contradictions are striking, but where are the people? Well, they come in the image of Magda – Warszawa 09/2004; Kryspinów 08/2009 where we find crowds on a beach; and Gdańsk 11/2004, in which a man wearing a boiler suit is shown against an industrial backdrop. In Warszawa 04/2005 we are confused by the contradiction of an optical illusion involving a crowd and a large screen. Patryk, Natalia, Damian Zabrun 11/2004 captures the energy and life of three young boys. In these we find the humanity, hinted at in the contrary forces at work in the aforementioned images, which makes the exhibition complete and satisfying.

Mark Power: The Sound of Two Songs, 14/01/2012 - 24/03/2012, Impressions Gallery, Centenary Square, Bradford, BD1 1SD. www.impressions-gallery.com If you can't make it to the gallery itself, the whole series is available to view online here.

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1. Warsaw, Poland. 2005.
© Mark Power / Magnum Photos

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