Brighton Photo Fringe 08 - Sarah Pickering's Incident At Phoenix

By Adam Bambury | 27 October 2008
An image of white goods smeared with black.

White Goods. © Sarah Pickering

Exhibition Review – Adam Bambury visits Incident, an exhibition by British artist Sarah Pickering, which is running at Brighton’s Phoenix Gallery until December 6 2008.

The Brighton Photo Fringe 2008 continues with Sarah Pickering’s haunting ‘Incident’ at the Phoenix Gallery, Brighton.

Taken while on residency with the UK Fire Service College between 2006 and 2008, Pickering focuses on the grimy interiors of purposely-designed buildings that have been repeatedly set on fire then extinguished, for training purposes.

Incident was selected from a UK-wide call for mid-career lens-based artists’ works, and the result has a strangely unsettling power.

Ten large black and white images are on display, mounted on a thick white background within a thin black frame. Crucially, the photographs are printed with a matt finish – there is no shiny surface to distract from the many textures underneath.

A pile of human-sized sacks at the bottom of an escalator.

Escalator. © Sarah Pickering

“The matt surface of the print echoes the carbon-covered surface in the spaces, while the photographic trace is a record of multiple moments – anticipating the future and referencing the past,” says Pickering.

The first piece in the room, White Goods, displays this to its fullest. Four replica kitchen appliances face directly towards the camera, taking up half the frame. Their surfaces are an intriguing mess of smears, dust, and fingerprints.

Light spreads across them but quickly disappears between the cracks. The contrast between bright light and its dark absence indicates the frantic motion of fire and human that must have occurred there. This movement has ceased however, its transient nature evident in the enveloping stillness of the shot.

Although the objects are designed to be repeatedly set alight, they still retain a recognisable form. It creates confusion in a mind expecting to see nothing but blackened wreckage. Instead, the appliances remain, waiting to be ignited again.

An image of a box-shaped car in a dark room.

Garage. © Sarah Pickering

In its subtle way, Incident examines what we value in our surroundings. Kitchen appliances, swivel chairs, a bizarre cuboid-shaped car – all are seen fit to render in replica. But it’s clear that what were once valued possessions and useful items, soon become nothing but obstacles in the desperate rush from a burning building.

In Fireplace, people finally make an appearance. Not heroic firemen brandishing large hoses, but three figures of different sizes lying in front of a breezeblock fireplace. These ‘people’ are of course dummies, sacks of filled material in roughly human form, though still eliciting a subdued sadness. They are piled on top of one another, the heads of the bottom two figures disappearing into the impenetrable darkness of the central cavity.

On top lies the smallest figure, the ‘child’ of this family. More detailed in representation than the others, the strong light on the body reveals its ruffled fabric and the strange intricate rendering of its tiny boots. Despite its sparse simplicity, a thousand uncomfortable narratives could be drawn from this one scene alone.

An image of filing cabinets with hay on top.

Filing Cabinets. © Sarah Pickering

In several of the photographs, the ground appears to be littered with straw. The reason for this becomes apparent when Filing Cabinets is reached at the back of the gallery. In the foreground of the picture are the cabinets, blackened and with the familiar smears and handprints of movement. Poking out from behind them, however, is a tower of wooden palates and hay bales.

Obviously identifiable as fuel for the next inferno, these natural products are brightly lit compared to the dull replica cabinets below. A window in the background, bursting with brightness, provides the light source. It is a portent of the crackling, all too real, force of nature that will soon engulf the quiet training room again.

Pickering has long been interested in reality, its simulation, and the differences between the two. The British artist’s work reveals the anxieties prevalent in our lives, and the steps authorities take to prepare for the worst.

Examples include Public Order, which documents a surreal “town” environment built for crowd-control training, and Explosion, a dream-like series depicting test explosions in rural England.

An image of white cupboards with black swivel chairs.

Office. © Sarah Pickering

In January 2008 Pickering exhibited Fire Scene in New York - also a product of her residency at the Fire Service College and the ‘before’ to Incident’s ‘after’. The scenes in these photographs consist of elaborately recreated rooms, complete with all the trappings of human habitation – underwear in the drawers, pictures on the wall, food on the table.

Designed to test trainee Scene of Crime specialists’ skills at deciphering how, where, when and why a fire was started, the rooms are set alight. Pickering captures them at the moment the flames takes hold.

With Incident, the focus shifts from the perpetrators to the victims. Painstakingly constructed lives become blunt white boxes covered with carbon and the smears of frantic motion.

It seems whether you go for the fascinating depth and texture of the photography, or choose to explore it as a statement on simulation and society, this exhibition is definitely not only for trainee firefighters.

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