I was commissioned to write this a few years ago for the Central European House of Photography in Bratislava (and thank you to all the photo...
Monday, 9 February 2015
Landscape is Not Dead: The Last Stand
all pictures by Marc Wilson
There is something quite compelling about finding old war defences on the British coastline. Without even looking for them, you stumble on bunkers, radar stations and old radio bases, curious constructions that were never quite put to their fullest possible use and have been left to decay in the face of the sea and the salt and the wind.
These sea defences are the subject of Marc Wilson's book, The Last Stand: Northern Europe, in which he travels around Europe photographing the sea defences of Britain, Belgium, Denmark, Norway and France.
It's large format work and it's quite beautiful (Paul Virilio's Bunker Archaeology may be the most recognised photography of sea defences but that's a different kind of book) . Everything is shot in subdued diffused light, the pre-dawn it looks like much of the time, and the way in which the different defences merge and crumble into the landscape of which they are now part.
At Sainte-Margtuerite-sur-Mer in Normandy, the grey brutalism of bunkers meets with the brutalism of crumbling cliffs, the plates of concrete mirroriing the tectonic plates of a shifting earth. On the pebble beaches, the shards of blackened concrete look like the remains of ancient megaliths, while on the grey sand stretches the slabs look almost soft and malleable.
The Scandanavian defences take on a pagan look. At Vorupor in Denmark, a radar receiver is buried into what looks like peat bog, while on the beach the batteries (which could fire 495 kilogramme projectiles) look like the remains of particularly malevolent beetles.
At Haugesund in Norway, the batteries are folded into the basalt rock formations. The top of one bunker peeks out from a pile of shattered rock like the top of some strange helmet, the opening a visor from which some mysterious being looks out upon the world.
The most attractive patterns are made by tank walls, the one-kilometre wall at Newburgh, Scotland being a particularly fine example, while the anti-submarine barrier in the Firth of Forth is known as 'the dragons' teeth' for good reason.
The English sea defences are curious and range from old gun placements on the white cliffs between Dover and Folkestone and the defences at Studland Bay in Dorset, the bay where the full-scale rehearsal for D-Day took place.
The Last Stand is as multi-layered as the landscapes which it features; there's historical detail wrapped folded over into a chronotopia of functional brutalism, mixed with local touches that feeds into the geological, panoramic and tactical.
All the boxes are ticked in Robert Adams traditional landscape list: there's geography, autobiography, and metaphor. But on top of that, Wilson gives us a politicised view of landscape and power that ties back to survey photography of Timothy O'Sullivan and the work of Mitch Epstein.
Layered into that is an Arcadian vision. With its focus on Northern Europe it's a dystopian Arcadia; there is a pagan feel to Wilson's pictures, a syncretic vision where geology, flora, climate and war find a single expression. And it's beautiful. .
Buy the book here