Unknown stories, forgotten places: The photography of Angus Boulton
Looking at Angus Boulton’s work to date, from The Homeless (1995-2000) to his latest 08/26 (2007) you are struck by its formal, aesthetic qualities, quite apart from the content. His images are rigorously composed, with an almost classical sense of proportion between land and sky, vertical and horizontal. Colour plays an equally strong role, assuming an abstract quality through the manner in which a slab of red or a blue line anchors the composition. Boulton positions himself in relation to the landscape so that the frame often includes a substantial amount of foreground – tarmac, cobbles, grass – which could seem redundant, but in fact it is of critical importance; it is a space that holds the viewer at arm’s length, forcing an examination of the whole picture plane. Sometimes it acts like a sculptural plinth for a piece of architecture.
The Homeless was criticised for ‘aestheticising homelessness’, although it won the DG Bank Kunststipendium for Boulton in 1998, enabling him to live in Berlin for a year and setting him on the path he is following today. But The Homeless isn’t a social document, even if it had some connection with the artist’s own fraught domestic situation at the time. The title is a trifle misleading, since there are no people under the blankets. Rather, this work is an anthropological study of human habitation – even at this most basic level, people select their space and construct their shelters. It makes you forcibly aware that people live like this but doesn’t invite you to identify with the absent occupiers. The sculptural piles of blankets, the stacks of cushions between the pillars of some august City institution, the mattresses ranged under a dank colonnade, are emblematic enough of their owners.
Richtung Berlin was the product of the DG Bank stipendium. Starting from Mark Brandenburg, the city’s rural hinterland in the former GDR, he worked inwards through the suburbs, observing the city as it was gradually transformed by a stream of reunification money. There are only two photographs of building sites, in what was known for a while as the City of 1200 Cranes, and one of those is hidden behind a hoarding advertising ‘Lemonbabies Porno’. Within the city, the Berlin Wall had been cut up into re-saleable slabs – one of which found its way to the Imperial War Museum in London, where it stands forlornly in the park – but in the outlying districts sections remained almost intact even at the end of the nineties. At Invaliden – Friedhof part of the Wall encloses a power station, a mausoleum and the remains of a graveyard. A section has been cut away to allow easier access, while chunks of old tombstones lie about in the foreground. Elsewhere, the blank white walls of new buildings smother and obscure old houses more effectively than the Wall itself ever did. Boulton drily exposed what his catalogue essayist, Christoph Tannert, described as Berlin’s ‘three radical layers of change: in the system, in the structures and in accepted values.’ As a portrait of a city in transition, Richtung Berlin is a historical document of unparalleled value, since much of what he recorded nearly a decade ago has long since been swept away by the march of Western capitalism.
However, the fever of reconstruction in Berlin was of much less interest to Boulton than the undulating grassland and sandy forests of Brandenburg, the large and sparsely populated Land that surrounds Berlin. The first five or six photographs in Richtung Berlin are of this desolate and mysterious landscape and they form a prologue to Boulton’s extensive exploration of the Cold War military bases in East Germany from which the Russians withdrew after the collapse of the German Democratic Republic.
The cultural and architectural legacy of the Communist era continues to be a fertile source of investigation for European artists whose parents’ generation grew up in the Cold War or whose own lives, like Boulton’s, developed during its later stages. But the abandoned Russian bases are largely ignored by their former hosts, while for Boulton they represent a set of values very different to those with which he grew up. As he himself has tellingly remarked, his photographs and films, from ВОИН to Kino, are a comment on the death of a belief system. Looking at this work, you can’t help but have a sneaking admiration for what was a hugely idealistic, if flawed, enterprise.
Abandoned and derelict buildings of various kinds are now almost a genre of their own in contemporary art and photography, and you could be forgiven for thinking that one lot of empty corridors, peeling wallpaper and overturned chairs is much like another. Except that it is not as simple as that. The history behind the ruins and the knowledge that we bring to the image, as well as the art of the photographer, makes the difference. The ВОИН photographs (Warrior, 1998 – 2009), taken in former Russian bases all over Brandenburg, are imbued with a quite extraordinary atmosphere, partly because these camps and training grounds are lonely and threatening places, but also because they reveal in every frame some physical manifestation of that once omnipotent political creed. The heroic murals that decorate entire walls in many of the communal rooms must have been the work of professional artists, and as for the stencilled instructional figures and symbols in the gymnasia, they put one in mind of Russian modernist paintings.
Boulton’s compositional signature, the precisely judged distance between the camera and the middle ground, is used here with great effect. In exteriors, such as the shot of the Firing Range at Forst Zinna, the distance across the sand to the clump of trees, or the target board just beyond them, is a space our eyes may travel but which holds us at a psychological as well as physical remove. These landscapes with their (deliberately chosen) grey skies were once a performative stage for tanks, firing practice, parades and inspections. Boulton is not some Cold War tourist with a passing interest in the more dramatic aspects of Soviet militaria, but more of an archaeologist: by now familiar with the layout of barrack complexes and training grounds, he explores even their seedy, utilitarian corners and gives them some architectural validity.
The hot summers in this part of Europe permit much more outdoor activity than you would find on a British Army base, and there are outdoor swimming pools and cinemas, one with its ghostly rows of benches still intact, and a circular smoking area with a concrete table and a ring of benches. (Even smoking had to be a communal activity). Isolated in their rural fastnesses, the soldiers had no escape from the dominant ideology. Inside the camp buildings, Boulton revels in the Russian palette of sour greens, militaristic reds and dirty creams. He positioned himself at the far end of each room, so that the floor, walls and ceiling envelope us like a box. Each space – library, cinema, gymnasium, lecture room – contains memories of its former inhabitants.
41 Gymnasia is a typological subset that came out of Boulton’s visits to dozens of former Russian bases. Not all of them are products of the post-war era, as the new occupiers from the East frequently took over pre-existing bases from the Nazi period and even earlier. One thinks of the Bechers’ work when considering the formal consistency of these images, but the stripped-out interior volumes and gorgeous colours in which these gymnasia were painted contradict any association with minimalism.
A discussion of Boulton’s imagery requiret some reference to his move to film, which introduces a temporal as well as spatial dimension to his work. His use of sound is naturalistic: silence is interspersed with birdsong, the noise of a train, the soughing of trees, the tick of a Geiger counter, a heavy door slamming, the click of a slide shutter. Near the end of ‘Cood Bay Forst Zinna’, the voices of the Soviet Army Song and Dance Ensemble well up over discarded photographs of army personnel. In 04/22, Jaguar fighter planes roar out of RAF Coltishall for the last time.
Raking over the coals of history while they are still warm is bound to evoke an emotional response. Angus Boulton does this with a long stick and his critical faculties intact.
Angela Weight © 2007
Angela Weight is an independent curator and writer; formerly Keeper of Art at the Imperial War Museum London.
This text first appeared in the publication Restricted areas – Angus Boulton, 2007.