London

Mike Marshall

UNION Gallery

Before Mike Marshall photographed the scene depicted in Concrete Pavement (all works 2003), it’s quite possible that nobody had ever seen it. Hardly a coup, you might think, since there’s not much to see—an almost abstract expanse of pitted silver gray stone, given comprehensible scale and the faintest of festive airs by fallen leaves (from London plane, that tree beloved by European urban planners because pollution can’t kill it). But that is precisely what makes the spot ideal for this British artist, whose interest lies in anatomizing and reversing the optical hierarchies that preselect “glance” or “gaze” mode in relation to what’s before us. There’s a kind of maudlin comedy to where Marshall, determined to shun the spectacular, chooses to point his eyes. He stares at a wall (Green Wall, pinkish light bouncing off a satiny green surface); he monitors drab rural-urban interfaces (Gravel, a stretch of asphalt bounded by a stretch of bushes); and, on vacation, he favors a lonely bougainvillea, planted in a sandlot and ringed by cigarette butts, swaying in the breeze—its petals registering in Marshall’s C-print as roseate blur—as if madly signaling for attention (Bougainvillea).

An unlikely lusciousness animates each of these images. That, however, doesn’t mean we were blind for not having noticed such things before, as there’s a fundamental difference between a pavement and a rich, large-scale, glossy, cropped transmutation of it. Marshall doesn’t pretend otherwise, but it means that extricating subject matter from aesthetics in these images is all but impossible, though it’s precisely the friction between dour subject and ripe picturing that drives them. There’s no science here, just a media-heightened consciousness of perception’s contingency that leaves the artist looking more like another would-be poet of the disregarded than he might desire. The most inventive turn in this selection of photographs—from a series on which Marshall, better known for his videos, has been working for the past three years—comes when the show segues from an opening trio of views of a tropical quagmire (Swamp 1 and 2) to the more familiar urban scene, equating the two on the axis of the locally overlooked and so reminding us that “exotic” is an entirely relative term.

Marshall stayed in swampland to shoot the nine-minute video What If Things Were Different, in which the act of looking is spun several ways at once, with the artist doing the spinning. The film montages fleeting shots of teeming aqueous activity—fizzing protozoa, slimy bacteria, microscopic driftwood eddying in the current—which even in silence walks a line between luxuriant and repulsive, an indecision that Marshall echoes by cutting so that the micro-life seems to be constantly changing direction. A zoned-out male voiceover adds further uncertainty: “Stagnant, foul, soup, rancid, filth, seething . . . ,” it drones; the grumbling monotone encourages us to disagree with it, but the words invariably color our viewing. Yet even the narrator is having second thoughts by the film’s end. Paying grudging tribute to natural fecundity in whatever understated form it manifests itself, his last word is “worlds.” And since Marshall’s deceptively offhand video work allows us comparatively neutral access to the image—distanced from the aesthetic quicksand that surrounds his photographs, the swamp’s inhabitants get to beg for our attention on terms closer to those in the real world—we can decide for ourselves if we agree.

Martin Herbert