Dawn Ades on Transformation

As a child, Masefield¹s poem “Cargoes” mingled forever in my imagination what was probably intended as a rollicking contrast: galleons of riches from the East became merged with the dirty British coaster, whose load of Tyne coal and pig lead was suddenly rendered distant and exotic. Now one of the final traces of imperial trading days is disappearing in the interests of hygienic economic efficiencies: the last spice mill operating in the docks a Butlers Wharf, where industrial decline itself becomes exotic.

A photograph has a special value in relation to time, change and decay: its apparent insistence on “now”, its always self-vaunted status as a record, as document, is forever undermined and rendered poignant by the inevitable change from now to then. Karin¹s rusty warehouse with the goods seeping and spilling to the ground are just the first stage in a new process of transformation .The sources of ancient wealth, the spices from the East, are helplessly turned into objects of aesthetic nostalgia.

The first stage is the recognition of the extraordinary beauty of these overlooked sites: corners, troughs, staircases, puddles, ironwork, and things: pallets, glass fragments, globules of melted spice. Some seem to offer themselves as perfect examples of the laws of complementary colours: the brilliant blue of a pallet is the exact complement of the sharp orange of the curry powder spilling from its sack. But then repeated and ordered, the photograph itself is made tot reveal different points of interest, and different details suddenly spring into prominence as the photograph is multiplied. Sometimes the objects are manipulated with a pure and abstract vision, sometimes the material resists its transformation.

The photographs are whole in themselves, but of fragments; recombined they become new wholes, of which the most successful, in my mind, are those where there is either a shock of contrast when the orinal material is recognised, or where the character of the original material inheres in the metamorphosis. A cog, unmistakably metallic and rusting, turns out to be a staircase, probably of wood. A metal grid shot in deep perspective, taking on an architectural grandeur, is the factory weigh bridge. White plastic sheeting stained with turmeric is translucent as a shell. Best of all, perhaps, the mill-stone itself, heart of the whole process, now turned into a spiral, the curves with which the photograph endows it becoming the embedded and enduring ammonite. Somewhere in this productive tension between loss and memory, the object and the imagination, lies the power of these images to attract.

Dawn Ades is Professor of Art History at Essex University and author of Photomontageand Salvador Dali in Thames and Hudson’s World of Art series