The Last Stand: a visual marker of the shadows of conflict by Marc Wilson

Wayne Ford former art director of The Observer’s award winning colour magazine & Design Director of Haymarket Business Media

As both personal and shared memories of the dark clouds of conflict that hung over Europe in the first half of the 20th century begin to fade, it is often the physical remnants of war that all to often become our visual markers of these times past — times that should never be forgotten. Amongst these visual reminders is the network of military defences that are to be found dotted along the coast of the United Kingdom and northern Europe, and it is these fortified constructions — that vary in size from the anti-invasion obstacles found on many beaches to the vast gun emplacements of coastal defences — which form the focus of British photographer Marc Wilson’s series of large-format colour landscapes, The Last Stand.

Beginning with extensive two year period of research that encompassed over 200 potential locations across the UK and Europe; Wilson finally narrowed his research to 75 locations that he would photographed between 2010 and 2012 — during which time he would travel over 10,000 miles. ‘These man-made objects and zones of defence now sit silently in the landscape, imbued with the history of our recent past,’ remarks Wilson. ‘Some remain proud and strong, some are gently decaying. Many now lie prone beneath the cliffs where they once stood. Through the effects of the passing years, all have become part of the fabric of the changing landscape that they are placed in.’

In Lossiemouth, amongst a dense Scottish pine forest a line of vast concrete cubes — designed to halt the might of any invading Nazi armour — bisects the woodland floor like some piece of contemporary land art; the superstructure of a gun emplacement — of unimaginable firepower, that would target an enemy fleet far out to sea — lies dormant on the coast of Dorset, the roar of it’s guns and and the voices of those who manned it, now only exist as fading echoes; and like the memories of those that fought and lived under the threat of Fascism, a pillbox slowly gives way to the passing of time as it slowly succumbs to the relentless embrace of the sea in Findhorn, Moray, Scotland, 2011.

Whilst Wilson utilises the language of the landscape photograph, The Last Stand is far removed from the genre in the traditional sense, firmly placing him within a small group of contemporary photographers whose work — whilst landscape in nature — has more in common with that of the documentary photographer. ‘My aim is that the collection will become a permanent photographic record of the past,’ he writes, ‘A testament to the subjects physical form and the histories, stories and memories contained within, both of these wartime objects and the landscapes themselves.’

At times these physical reminders of war are almost invisible, a secondary element within the landscape structure, as Wilson deliberately focuses upon the landscape as a cohesive whole, rather than the isolated manmade structures. At Studland Bay, Dorset, the merest hint of two grey silhouette’s can be glimpsed through the trees that cling to the craggy coastline; and further north on the rocky shores of Loch Ewe in the North west Highlands of Scotland, a small observation point is dwarfed by the scale of the dramatic granite rocks that fill the foreground of Wilson’s composition, and the mountain ranges beyond. At Tocross, Devon, the gun positions are so deeply embedded into the coastal rock, they become visible only to the viewer who spends time looking deep into the photographic image. From the wistful sea that laps around the base of the cliffs, that rise skywards, their shades of grey slowly becoming warmer and richer, before the rock face slowly becomes shielded by a luscious green jacket. It is here that a small rectangular slot, gives a clue to the coastal defenses carved out behind the rocky facade, above hangs a pale blue sky, marked by the feint remnants of vapour trails, a reminder of the fighter aircraft that once patrolled the sky like hawks. And on Braunton Burrows, Devon, the  the concrete structures are slowly being swallowed by the dense scrubland.

But elsewhere in this powerful series of 40 photographs, the structures are far more dominant within the emotive landscape. On Crammond Island, a line of triangular obstacles, stretches along the seashore for as far as the eye can see. Their physical form like some wonderfully manicured garden at Versailles. In Wissant, Nord Pas de Calais, France, the viewer encounters a beach littered with the fractured skeletal remains of some once vast defence system; at St. Marguerite sur mer in Upper Normandy, a monolith stands alone on the shingle beach, it’s angular form a contrast to the natural forms of the cliffs beyond; and on the flat expanse of Orford Ness, Suffolk, the circular outline of a structure appears like a series of hieroglyphs from a now long lost ancient dynasty. 

The silent beauty of Wilson’s landscape photographs — that bare witness to greatest conflict of the modern age and the passing of time — is that they do not try to say more than they know; but form a place where the viewer can reflect and contemplate upon the fruitless turmoil of war and the selfless sacrifice of so many, who fought against the threaten and shadow of oppression that hung high above Europe.”

Review from ‘Les affiches de Grenoble et du Dauphine’.

Translation  of Le Réel qui nous résiste by Jean-Louis Roux.

Resisting Reality

“Inevitably, one thinks of the famous Gare de Toulon(1861) by Edouard Baldus, one of the most iconic emblems of  19th century French photography: the same centered frame, the same focus on a non-subject, the same feeling of enigmatic evidence in face of  the resistance of  reality.

The photographs of Marc Wilson belong to those, too rare, which almost naturally make the link between the concerns of the pioneers of early photography and the questioning of  contemporary art.
It is in the “non-places” of England, that this young Londoner gleans his subjects: abandoned industrial sites, wastelands, unzoned areas, bits of degraded nature, etc.

In head-on views of extreme austerity, Marc Wilson captures an empty swimming pool disfigured by graffiti, the no- man’s land around a stadium, an old  cement staircase  descending to the sea, or a sublime barbed wire enclosure set in the middle of nowhere and protecting nothing.

Although of a monastic sobriety, these photographs draw their poetic strength, their power of evocation, from the extreme rigour of their composition.
Most of the time, the photograph  consists of two superimposed areas with identical dimensions (e.g. sky and earth). The photographer defines his subject at the point of juncture – with the focal point at the absolute centre of the image.
The  almost graphic purity of the horizontal lines and the clearly subdivided zones of colour provide the photography with an order and a plasticity all the more disturbing, in that they bear witness to abandoned worlds bound for chaos.

In this exhibition, Marc Wilson exhibits nine photographs only, but these nine photographs, as in all likelihood the reader will by now have well understood, are more than worth the outing.”

From Mouvement (French arts magazine)

Vincent Verlé

“There is  in the photographs of Marc Wilson an after- taste of desolation or rather of melancholy.

The images of his exhibition at Fluid present, all of them, places emptied of human presence:

A graffiti-tagged swimming pool where various objects now replace  the swimmers; a field displaying what is left of an engine of a B29 Superfortress, the American bomber; a Scottish seawater swimming pool
high above the ocean; a black corrugated iron structure, a vestige of the glorious past of a stadium whose pitch is but the shadow of its former self; or also the monumental  stone steps rising to the sea . . .

All these landscapes (because one is dealing here with landscapes even if they are far from the usual cliches of green meadows) have a story in 
common – the story of their abandonment by man: a few minutes ago, a few hours, a few years.  What Marc Wilson allows us to see is their survival, revealing their intrinsic beauty.

Marc Wilson did not come to photography by following the normal route.
It was whilst  reading sociology at university [pursuing his studies in 
sociology] and studying the image as a means of communication between people, that his interest in photography started.

What until then had been an object of research only, became the most
appropriate medium allowing him to best explore the principal theme of his work –  the tracks which  loss leave in the memory.
At the beginning, he took his first artistic stepsin the family
circle. Too complicated, his works were not easily accessible to the public. So he developed his search, making his way towards other forms. Taking an opposite direction from his previous work, he now removed all human presence, letting the visualised landscapes interpret themselves these notions of loss and of memory.

Without any stage-managing, each of the nine exhibited photographs shows the reality of the photographed place. And this reality, whichclingsto the image,more easily involves the spectator in the photograph.

Their very strong visual impact and the diversity of their viewpoints
encourage the observer to reflect on the works and imagine all the lives connected with these landscapes.
In this way, Marc Wilson is able to maintain a dialogue with the observer  whilst leaving him free to make his own interpretation of the photographs.”