British photographer Brian Griffin is known for his eccentric photographic language. Aged 70 this month, Griffin has developed a diverse body of work, from corporate to documentary and music covers, relying on an impious humour and a pinch of irony – something Brian-y, as he calls it. His latest irreverence, SPUD, is the result of a 3-week residency in Béthune-Bruay, in Northern France. As Anne Braybon, who was Photography Commissions Manager at the National Portrait Gallery at the time of Griffin’s residency, puts it, “one knows, when commissioning Brian, that he is going to come up with something ‘other’!” And as a matter of fact, he created a post-modernist intrigue, a burlesque comedy charged with political discourse.
Upon arrival in Béthune, an industrial farmland that resembles his native Black Country, Griffin learns that the city has witnessed the highest number of British Army’s casualties during World War I. His first instinct is to focus on it, as 2018 marks the centenary of the armistice. An intuitive photographer, Griffin didn’t doubt that this would lead him somewhere. And where! “Around the city, there are massive fields of potatoes, which end up on our plates, McDonald’s fries you know. Those potatoes grow in soil where bodies and body parts and rivers of human blood have been buried!”, he says during a conversation with four photography curators that is transcribed in the book recently published by GOST Books about his series.
The enigma is set, the Cluedo-like question posed, “what happened to the young men?” The answer lies in the double meaning of the title – “spud” is a slang for potatoes, as well as a word used to qualify a low-rank soldier – one that Griffin would have been if another war had erupted. The book pulls the thread of the plot in deconstructed chapters, introducing the place (“Welcome to Twin Peaks”); the characters (“The Protagonists”, “The Young Men”, “The Sleepwalkers”); the weapons (“The Tools of trade”); and the manner (“Capitalist Realism”, “Choreography” and “Post-Modernism”).
The photographs, both in black and white and colour, are staged, as if they were an attempt at historical reconstitution. Griffin, with props he has collected over the years, asked friends and workers to pose in reference to historical facts. His friend Gary lies in the mud, hidden in a corner of a wasteland with a wooden cross on top of his body, mimicking soldiers fallen on the field waiting to be identified and buried. Today’s British soldiers stand before a picturesque landscape in a set up evoking that of video game. Potatoes are portrayed as anything but low-class vegetables, lying on a fur’s bed as a baby, planted on a bone as a chicken leg, or squeezed in an artificial hand as a grenade. Each image gives a clue that leads to the resolution of the intrigue, supported by photographs from former series that emphasize Griffin’s coherence within apparent improvisation.
All together, old and new series expand the meaning of the work, making it a study of capitalistic nonsense. Borrowing from the lexicons of science fiction and humour, he focuses on the bodies, which he choreographs as if they were robots in order to point at the fiction of capitalism, at the “failure of modernist autocracy to find solutions to all the social inequalities of the modern times”, as curator Valentine Umasnky concludes. Ironically, the dual reality of the fields of Béthune reveals the extent of the fiasco.
– reviewed by Laurence Cornet
Below, two images from SPUD © Brian Griffin: