Mark Aitken / Mark Aitken: Sanctum Ephemeral
September 2017 Interviewed by Kim Shaw
London’s Lambeth council has proposed the building of new public and privately-owned housing in Cressingham Gardens, Brixton, and the estate has been earmarked for demolition. For the past two years the artist and resident Mark Aitken has been working on a photographic series of portraits of residents living on the estate; his project Sanctum Ephemeral has recently been exhibited at Peckham 24 (May, 2017), as part of Made in Brixton at Photofusion (June, 2017), and in an outdoor exhibition continuing on the estate itself until the end of September 2017.
Below, Photofusion Director Kim Shaw recently asked Mark about the background to this compelling series of portraits.
Kim Shaw: Mark, Sanctum Ephemeral is a project which is, quite literally, close to home for you. Can you talk about the genesis of this project?
Mark Aitken: Sanctum Ephemeral was conceived as an artistic response to an exceptionally invasive decision made by a local council with regard to my home and those of my neighbours. Five years ago we were informed that our housing estate was to be demolished due to London’s housing crisis. I’ve no wish to go into the rhetoric and arguments over this imposition but suffice to say, the people directly affected are barely considered in these scenarios. Officials are required to perform as sociopaths – the only way to serve the speculative capital driving the property market – and this gave me an idea as to how to approach my project.
We know that a home is different to a house. People make homes and they are full of memories. The value of which is very personal and not quantifiable. Try fixing a real price on your home that has nothing to do with money. I realised I was in a privileged position to share these values with my neighbours and taking portraits was the net result.
KS: I first saw this work about a year ago at Photofusion. At that time, you were adamant that this project was apolitical. I wonder if you still feel that way, or if recent events (I’m thinking about Grenfell Tower) have changed your thinking.
MA: I grew up in South Africa at a time when all art was Political. The racial politics of the time literally measured the world in black and white and art fell into line. When I moved here I discovered similar reductive dichotomies in politics, although art was less restricted. I embraced the complexities offered by art as much as I rejected the pat views I heard about the country I’d arrived from. This was a good lesson.
I think there are always politics in art but I’m cautious when the latter serves the former. And I resist very strongly when any representation reduces people to victims and begs pity from the viewer. This is a political standpoint and it informs my work. None of us want pity from anyone. Equally, none of us want to lose our homes – I mean, who would? It’s not for me to state the obvious. The photos simply state that we exist and given the forensic nature of the medium, the faces and pictorial elements are literally life affirming. I see this as a modest but anarchistic statement. Clear but complex.
As for the Grenfell Tower disaster, I don’t hear any calls for pity from survivors or those who have lost relatives and friends. I do see a demand for understanding as to how this came to be. The building now exists as a tomb of incinerated people. To walk around it and become absorbed in the horror is a more than salutary experience that arouses many feelings. I haven’t had to photograph anything as extreme as that where I live but in a similar way, I want you to feel how we feel and to say that we exist just like you.
KS: I think that’s what makes this work so successful. It isn’t strident, but it starts conversations- about social housing, about the dehumanisation of people who reside behind concrete facades, and ultimately as you suggest, about people and the significance of home. There is an intimacy between you and your sitters. I know these are your neighbours, but I can’t imagine what my neighbours would say if I told them I wanted to come into their homes and make portraits! Tell me a bit about that process.
MA: I’ve always been surprised by people’s generosity. It’s very moving and it gives me strength but more than that, it enables the work. I always propose that we’re going to work together. Let’s see how it goes and if we can make it better. I think people appreciate it when you’re not in a rush and you’re trying to do your best.
On this occasion, I live amongst the people I’m working with so perhaps this made the sense of trust easier. But I feel that you have to ensure an unwritten contract based on the person having a story and as a storyteller, you have the means to convey it. In other work, I’ve spent five minutes with a stranger and they’re pouring their heart out. If people feel safe, they’ll work with you. One way of making this happen is to let the relationship you develop with the person direct the work itself rather than having a fixed agenda before you start.
It’s always surprising when you’re let into someone’s home. Puzzles appear in front of you. I’m very curious and ask lots of questions. People like it when you’re interested in their lives. I think that what’s in a home defines the person. The corollary being that the person defines the home. At a certain point the two are interchangeable. I tried taking pictures of the rooms without people but they were never as powerful. Saying that, I once photographed a woman who was moving out of her house into an old age home. She had lived there for sixty years with paintings of Irish landscapes. The pictures had been removed and an outline of dust remained on the walls. A death of sorts, before they were painted over.
KS: I’ve seen your documentary film Dead When I Got Here and I wonder if the process you’ve just described has been honed over years of film-making. And it also begs the question, why did you choose to tell the story of Cressingham Gardens with still photography versus moving image?
MA: I see making films as something like architecture except you’re inventing or finding new materials to build with as you go along. Dead When I Got Here was made in a mental asylum run by its own patients so my sense of discovery was immense while being full of mystery. Filming people who are mentally ill and in chronic trauma was entirely different to anything I’d done. For one, these people were so lost in their own worlds that they barely acknowledged my presence. A lot of responsibility came with this privilege but that’s another story.
I lived in the asylum and there was nothing to do but work. Documentaries are like that anyway. If you’re not filming, you’re recording sound or watching rushes and eating in-between. One day I had a break and took photos of people. I hadn’t taken portraits for years. After all the filming I found taking photos a completely different experience. People were posing or looking straight into the camera. They were conscious of me. Whereas when filming I was treated as the perennial fly on the wall. This is strange as I think filming is far more invasive. So I took as many photos as I could and saw it as respite from the construction work. These ended up being published in a book about the film.
The main character in the film had recovered from trauma and we became close. The film came from our relationship and this is the way I like to work. I feel that the making of art can change people or at least touch them in a new way. We both learned about ourselves and were pushed to new limits.
As for the choice of making pictures where I live – it was an opportunity to carry on the process of making portraits that I’d discovered in the asylum but under much less duress. I did consider a film but couldn’t work out how it would be interesting to film people in their houses. I knew I didn’t want to film meetings with the council or make an advocacy piece. Perhaps I needed a break after a tough four year project. It’s been a great transition but I look forward to a new film. One thing I’ve realised is that I use the same process of meeting people and finding their stories. The camera is a great licence for that. It doesn’t really matter if it’s one frame or many.
KS: Finally, until there is some resolution with the council, you and your neighbours are living in some cruel sort of suspended animation. I am trying to imagine how the years of uncertainty would have affected your ability to create? To what extent has this situation fuelled and/or hindered your progress as an artist?
MA: Over time some people have left the estate, many people are resisting and most are struggling with the pressure of uncertainty. The council as an entity is an abstract force, just like the property speculators backing the operation. If they’re stopped, I think it will be because of an implosion of sorts.
This imposition has brought us closer together here and I now know a lot more people through making photographs with them. I was also very surprised by the response from residents to the pictures once they were installed on the estate. Something as simple as taking pictures of people inside their homes and pinning them to the outside walls elicited a powerful acknowledgement of visibility. Pause to think how many advertising images we’re bombarded with every day that have the opposite affect. Some of the pictures are now getting wider exposure via awards and competitions like the Portrait of Britain and the Royal Photographic Society.
I’ve worked in some extreme places where people do not take their security for granted. Some are subsumed by fear while others live incandescent lives. I wouldn’t wish the undermining of a sense of home, community and belonging on anyone. And I don’t feel that insecurity is a necessary stimulant to creativity. But I do think we often fail to realise just how hollow our so called security is. We’re all going to die so any sense of sanctuary is ephemeral. This understanding is what helps me embrace an uncertain future.
An exhibition tour with the artist and picnic will take place 23 September, 2017.
Zelda Cheatle recently toured Sanctum Ephemeral at Cressingham Gardens, her thoughts can be read on Photomonitor here.