Mark Aitken: Sanctum Ephemeral / Reviewed by Zelda Cheatle / 04.09.17Mark Aitken is a quiet, considered photographer. He is multi-talented, has made award winning documentary films and previously written extensively, has a Resonance radio show about photography and is currently working on a PhD at Goldsmiths.When his home and the estate where he lives came under threat of demolition he became motivated; empowered by an anger which manifested in making photographs – strong visual statements that channelled anger and discontent, insecurity and instability and portrayed the people who live on Cressingham Gardens, his neighbours and friends – as real people at home. Mark has photographed these subjects as a means to divert anger and apathy towards a dignified and complex form of response.But Mark’s series of photographs Sanctum Ephemeral does more than touch upon the lives of these residents. As an on-site installation, the portraits are embedded in this blighted housing estate. Mark chose to make large scale enlargements of eight residents. Selecting from a group of approximately fifty sittings, these powerful and still exhibited portraits, are part of the daily life of the estate now.As I walked through Cressingham Gardens on a tour with Mark, it was a joy to meet several of the subjects on the walls in real life, kicking footballs, coming home from school, on their way to the shops. Mark, too, was somewhat of a hero, he had brought life affirmation, a happiness to the residents, – an acknowledgement that their lives were important and they existed. Everybody knew Mark, the man with the camera. The large portraits on the walls seemed to co-exist with the life of the estate, a human dimension and a recognition both of the residents and their plight.I find that Mark’s quiet way of gaining trust and understanding the essence of each person, photographing them in natural light, relaxed and happy in their own homes has brought a calmness to the work which is also manifest in the outdoor exhibition. Scale can change the meaning and context of an image. We are all too familiar with bill boards – but these quiet intimate portraits are still as special when many times greater than human proportions. Almost painterly, almost tableaux, these are intriguing, fascinating, respectful photographic portraits.
To quote Mark Aitken:
“These pictures are about seeking sanctuary in the ephemeral.
The context is also ephemeral.
I have pressing conversations with neighbours. We shed frustration. The impositions are beyond our control. Proposals beyond comprehension. There’s nothing wrong with my house. Why do they want to knock it down.
Words fail us. We feel impotent and angry.
People let me into their homes. An ephemeral trust develops.”
All of the pictures exude a confidence that Mark has developed. In one, an older resident, resplendent in his jewellery and proud of his home looks out with a mixture of defiance and determination. The stance, the demeanour, the orderliness and confidence are indicators of his history and how important his home is as defining his present.
There are many portraits that seem classic and eternal, the draped lady on her settee – the punctum, the golden mean of picture making refer this photograph to a Renaissance painting. But the elegance and dignity are attributable to both Mark and the sitter.
In perhaps one of the most ephemeral portraits, a young boy looks out of the window staring out at his future. So uncertain, his life already so complicated when there should be certainty and safety in knowing that home is home. There are echoes of early Robert Frank faces from The Americans, people lost and lonely.
“I speak with children. The world is their dream. I speak with adults. Some want to know what happened. Others know their dreams are behind them and are more concerned about being awake. I learn that everything is ephemeral and that if there is such a thing as sanctuary, it lies within this understanding.” (- M.A.)
I would hope that Ted Hollanby, the architect who designed these homes as an answer to brutalism – making low key, low scale residences full of daylight and space – would be utterly thrilled at how Mark Aitken has added the human scale to his design.
Mark will publish this work as a book, he needs your support and endorsement so that this body of work may help to change the notions of those who want to demolish a perfectly happy housing estate.
The pictures are LARGE. The potential demolition is a large issue. See the show. Get involved.
– text by Zelda Cheatle