“It was quite busy today, we had a queue!” said the gallerist to her colleague, as I was leaving this retrospective show of Guyana-born, London-based photographer Ingrid Pollard. I guess she meant either that this exhibition in particular isn’t drawing in massive crowds, or that this large, beautiful gallery doesn’t tend to attract crowds in general. I suspect the latter, given the uncanny, uber quiet atmosphere of Milton Keynes in general. This planned 60s “new town” got official city status earlier in the week, which seems ridiculous given the utterly abandoned feeling I got when walking through the city centre to the gallery.
Anyway, this alienating atmosphere is quite appropriate for Pollard, who came to fame in the 1980s through her unsettling photographic series, showing herself and other black people feeling out of place in the English countryside. My favourite set on show was Seaside Series, featuring Hastings, hometown of the last successful foreign invasion of Britain back in 1066.
Each work in the series features a photograph from the seaside town - often featuring a pissed-off looking Pollard - a found object - like a stick of rock, a postcard, a pebble from the beach - and a quote. So, Pollard glowers in front of a beach-side “chocolate machine”, reflecting on the time she was asked what part of Africa she came from. There’s something defiant about her pose, feet planted firmly on the floor and hands in pockets - as implacable as William the Conqueror must have been, a thousand years before. She might have been made to feel out of place, but she's not leaving.
Elsewhere, there are Wade Guyton-style photographic manipulations, group shots of black-women-only events that irresistibly drew my mind to the Lubaina Himid show, still on at Tate Modern, and a very striking kinetic sculpture in which power tools mimic bowing and scraping.
“Was it on TV?” the other gallerist answered, when hearing there’d been a queue. Perhaps! But to be honest, Pollard’s awkward out-of-place works seemed to me to work best in such a palpably strange place; her small-town and countryside scenes are a nice match for one of the weirdest cities I’ve yet visited.
Ingrid Pollard: Carbon Slowly Turning is at MK Gallery (Milton Keynes). 12 March - 29 May 2022