I tend to gravitate towards London to view exhibitions, but when I saw a poster for an exhibition in Tunbridge Wells with the title “The Road to Asda” I was drawn – what could be more boring! As a local I knew exactly which road was being referred to: the A21, currently the site of major roadworks to create dual carriageway for a significant section of the road.
The work, by Martin & Marilyn Garwood, set out to document the roadworks, although this was not a documentary series, it had a clear ethical point to make. Martin is the photographer of the pair, but the exhibition also had a painted element created by Marilyn. The combination of the two was interesting – where the photographs were literal (in the sense of being indexically related to what was seen) the paintings were entirely abstract. The photographs were very still and dark, the paintings were a rush of colour and activity. For me the paintings represented the roadworks as I see them day to day – chaos, confusion, aggravation, mess. The photographs contrasted with this by presenting a more concealed and considered perspective.
The aim of the photographs was clearly to highlight what is being lost through the works. This was an area predominantly of woodland, with both ecological and archaeological sites being affected. The exhibition blurb talked about “acts of violence” and this sense certainly came across in the images, which appeared like crime scenes, complete with police tape around trees and harsh flash lighting. This contrasted with an eerie glow from the roadworks and road lighting to give a slightly scary feel to the images.
The images themselves were simple – cut down trees, tree trunks with markings on (one strikingly with a sign reading “moderate value” which really captured the battle between nature and construction). It was their treatment which gave them power – not only the sense of destruction but also a feeling of secrecy – the images being taken at night because admittance was not granted during the day. I should say that I am fully supportive of the road works, but I couldn’t help but pause to consider what is being lost as a result, when these images present such a strong visual message. The title itself is also key – what is all this for a but a road to a shop?! It forces one to think about priorities, and about the way we treat out landscape – in that way it reminded me of Fay Godwin‘s “Our Forbidden Land”.
As well as the multitude of trees, there was another strong motif in the form of a cross. This was usually just a sign stuck in the ground as a marker, but in the photographs they appeared as memorials or tombstones – honouring the lost landscape perhaps. This added to a sense of mourning and loss and was a very clever interpretation of a very small detail.
Image reproduced by kind permission of the artist. (1)
One of the most interesting aspects of the exhibition for me was the “work in progress” wall, which can be seen in the top image above. This included scribbles and sketches, snapshots, emails to and fro with the construction team, newspaper articles, and sometimes just odd words or phrases. It added colour to the exhibition, giving another layer of background information from which to read the images. But more importantly for me it was a really useful example of how a project emerges – of how a single word (for example a road sign) could trigger a thought or feeling which might lead to a sketch, which then feeds into the ultimate body of work. This is how I want to approach my assignments in this course, step by step gathering thoughts and imagery together before slimming down to a final piece of work.
(1) http://www.mgar.co.uk/The-Road-to-Asda (accessed 4th April 2017)