Wednesday, 25 March 2009

The British Landscape, CUBE gallery

I've only recently started going to exhibitions at CUBE (Centre for the Urban Built Environment), following their really interesting Yellow Space show, and I really enjoyed their new exhibition of work by the photographer John Davies.

Taken between 1979 and 2005, John Davies' imposing black and white shots document a changing Britain. They trace the way both its natural landscape and urban centres have been changed forever by the processes of industrialisation and modernisation; the march of motorways across its hills and valleys, rebuilding of cities after the war and spread of 1960s office complexes and tower blocks, similar from town to town and city to city. This all seems to lead up to the exhibition's culminating photo, of the gleaming sprawl of the Trafford Centre and its million or so carparking spaces.

A grubby grey box of a building, once voted among the ugliest in the country, stands awkwardly between ornate nineteenth century buildings in Newcastle, and the layers of Birmingham's New Street Station are depicted as a tangle of concrete.

The way in which we influence our landscape is obvious, as is seen particularly in the shots of Welsh mines, but we’re left to reach our own conclusions about how the environment around us affects our lives. People are strangely absent from most of the photos, which either show the closed structures in which our lives are contained - the offices, multi-storey car parks and tower blocks where everyday events take place - or the traces left behind once these projects are abandoned and places exhausted.

Partly because they're aerial shots, the photos are static and eerily quiet - when humans appear, as in one image where insignificant figures pick blackberries by an abandoned railway line, they’re almost quaint.

From the toy town houses of Hulme, crisscrossed with roads like a town planner’s model, to a Stalybridge skyline dominated by mill towers and a hulking Stockport viaduct (accompanied by the necessary Engels quotes on urban deprivation), the built environment towers forebodingly, way above the level of human life.

In a 1982 photo, the players in a football game are tiny specks in comparison to the massive Agecroft power station in Salford; it's almost as if they're there by accident. Even a horse, incongruously small and lost in the foreground, seems to be staring at it in awe. Four huge monolithic towers, blackened at the top, rise over everything for miles around and spill smoke into the air around them, as if to prove Davies’ point about man’s huge footprint on the world around us.

What is implicit in the often desolate emptiness of Davies’ photos is the way lives have been changed and uprooted to make way for the new, from slum clearance and the demolition of back to back houses to the programme of mine closure undertaken by the Conservative government. We’re shown the remnants of a community that was built up around Easingdon Colliery in County Durham and told, ironically, that the houses which survived featured in the film Billy Elliott and are now regarded as ‘classic’.

Hulme provides another example of how trends in urban living come round again like fashions; housing left over from the Industrial Revolution was knocked down to make way for sixties high rise housing estates, before being rebuilt as traditional low rise houses again in recent decades.

Many of the scenes look old fashioned now, depicting a bygone way of life - for example, a shot of racing pigeon sheds overlooking Sheffield, and many of the buildings pictured, including Agecroft Power Station, are long since demolished.

What links all the photos across the 30 year time span together is that they have an unusual beauty. A few photos of nature’s natural monoliths, the peaks and mountains of the Lake District, show Britain in its pure, unsullied, glory, but Davies’ shots seem to say that it's still majestic even after the intervention of man.

113-115 Portland Street
M1 6DW
Until April 18.

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