Max Houghton reviews Sarah Pickering's Explosions, Fires and Public Order (from issue 27 of 8 Magazine).
Of the four photographic studies of human preparedness that comprise this collection by Sarah Pickering, the most wounding by a distance is Public Order. It is not that these photographs hint at a post-apocalyptic future, nor that they depict an uncanny simulacrum of Anytown (although they do both these things), but that the pain, the acute discomfort, we feel in looking at them arises from the fact that these pictures look like now.
Denton is a fake suburban town used by the British police for specialist training purposes; everything from football riots to terrorist attacks happens there first. It is immediately obvious that it is a set, not even a very convincing one, yet every hollow façade, every door to nowhere, every grey concrete street looks like the collective failure of public architecture, town planning and human spirit that has ransacked and homogenised every high street in Britain. Anyone who has grown up in suburbia has been sick outside Flicks nightclub, bought nylon underwear from Dickens department store, and has failed to be offered a job other than “account executive” at the Job Centre.
Photographically, this work comes from the same stable as Broomberg and Chanarin’s chilling Chicago, or An-My Lê’s 29 Palms, and is shot in the same straight-on, deadpan style. The idea of the simulacrum is uncanny, a window to another world, in this case one where disasters become their polar opposite: controlled events. This idea is explored in three further bodies of work included here. The images from Fire Scene are compellingly narrative-driven. Pickering gained access to the Fire Service College and the domestic interiors carefully constructed for forensics officers’ training sessions. Fascinating stories of lives never lived unfold in these spaces. Chaotic lifestyles, where plates are ashtrays, chairs are tables and one-bar electric heaters are makeshift ovens invite a class-based reading of these scenes, as though fecklessness of the underclass in particular causes fires. It’s interesting to consider why a candle in the library of a mansion was not imagined by the creators of these spaces. Would their emergency procedure be different if the furniture’s provenance were antique French instead of the Red Cross charity shop on the High Street?
The Explosions series holds fewer possibilities. Taken at a site used for combat training, the images themselves are only superficially beautiful. It looks like more of a technical achievement, which in addition exposes the theatre of war, but once that conceit is undone (by the text), the photographs have the same effect as fireworks: to be admired only briefly. The abstraction engendered by the background landscapes renders each explosion less poignant to the human eye. The thought of someone being maimed or killed by them seems more remote than Raphael Dallaporta’s landmines photographed as gleaming product shots, less menacing than Simon Norfolk’s Full Spectrum Dominance.
An exhibition of Incident happened to be my introduction to Pickering’s work, and it loses none of its power in book form. Also shot at the Fire Service College, these burnt out spaces have had the colour and the very life sucked out of them. Pickering has played with this, and her matt black and white prints take on the quality of drawing, allowing the full ghostliness of the spectacle to take over. The overstuffed dummy-bodies that draw the work to a close seem to have stumbled blindly from Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”, a dread-filled poem with the thrice repeated refrain: “This is the way the world ends.” Truly, contemplating these pictures, I could believe it had.
What all these photographs lack is people. I say this not as a criticism of the absence-of-presence photographic style, but as an observation on the very reason why no amount of planning or preparation for disaster can be properly successful, Pickering’s people-free photographs are as tightly controlled as the security strategies she is documenting. Enter the human and watch all hell break loose.
Explosions, Fires and Public Order
Published by Aperture