‘somewhere in england’, the inaugural solo exhibition by British photographer Polly Tootal at Palazzo Rialto, Venice. The exhibition is a compendium of over a decade of key works from a series entitled ‘somewhere in england’ (2000-2013) together with a new body of large format photographs of various sites in London.
Over the last fifteen years, Tootal has composed images of public spaces – spaces marked with the richness of human activity, yet bereft of human presence. There is a subtle preoccupation with obsolete and overlooked structures in that spatial arrangements are swept clean and the inhabitants absented.
Familiar spaces as they are plucked from their context become more complex and suggestive as we are asked to conduct a distanced and disengaged examination through the artist’s lens. Urban, suburban and industrial forms become unfamiliar and removed – converting into a narrative of displacement. Seen as a collection, we read Tootal’s photographs as autonomous patterned images – we read them from right to left, a line, a mark becoming hieroglyphs and imprints of the man made, yet the creators are never present.
An apparently simple embellished observation apparently simple starts to play towards a deeper more visceral emotion as we view the intersecting of verticals, columns and foliage as abstract configurations. Tootal wants the viewers to push themselves to this act of “intensive seeing”. The artist’s sentiments are not to create a visual catalogue of types of structures or a typology of architecture but to underpin a language of mysticism and presence giving a majestic view of the banal. Like Piero Della Francesca who turned mathematics and perspective into mysticism of space and light, Tootal creates an aura of transience between spaces as traces of architectural profusion and landscape create narratives of beauty read through colour and metaphor. The endless architectural forms become abstract patterns, shapes and sequences, reflecting the disorientating spatial experience and tensions within the city itself. The viewers emotional response is called upon bringing with it an imaginary world of what has been and what is to come. Carving out seemingly insignificant details breathes life into spaces; a back lit shadow, lines of steam from a factory, a hole in a brick wall, we question the figures absent from their subject and the photographer’s presence behind the camera which becomes barely perceptible.
Tootal’s primary interest lies in the composition and gesture of space itself presenting an un-articulated vision of her contemporary environment, which can be strongly felt if not seen. The panning shot of the crane and construction site, which at first glance appears to be some bustling metropolis in the USA, the iconic millennium dome in the background. Similarly, the large format image of the dark abandoned
golfing pitch, a American synergy comes to mind, yet, we carefully adjust our eyes to the unapparent danger signs – quintessentially ‘English’. Considering even the most abstract of images – the wall with a bricked out door, we see the familiar double yellow line by the pavement. In the composition of the view up to the A-road bridge where the foliage and greenery encroaches upon the concrete structure, certain gestures of undeniably enlgish landscape given here are framed in order to appear slightly out of place. Eccentricities and a deadpan humour emerge as banal forms, which assume a notable spatial order, and depth and these ‘quirks’ nuance regional idiosyncrasies resonating with English humour and wit.
Tootal’s photography has emerged out of a continual exploration of the possibilities of space between a variety of extremes – tension and stillness, absence and presence, the familiar and the unfamiliar, the peculiar and the banal. Working almost exclusively with digital format camera and without image manipulation, the artist alternates between long and short exposures to gain a controlled quality of light. Tootal preferring overcast greyish days or the inflected light of the early morning so as to avoid contrasts of shadow.
This Somewhere in England is both seen and felt in the captured English atmosphere and in its English industrial soul, shy but evocative in its presence.