Anyone who has attempted a jigsaw will know that it’s best to start at the edges. Michelle Sank appears to take the same approach when piecing together her view of the world. She seeks out subjects at the edge of something – society, adulthood, culture – and places them in a context that physically acknowledges this state. Tidal and The Water’s Edge are two clear examples, where the sea is the enduring backdrop – the straight edge – to a number of newly connected stories. Inland – roads, curbs, railings, walls and grassy banks serve a similar purpose, though none are as faithful, accepting, and impenetrable as the sea.
The Submerged also goes to the water’s edge. Its subject, the coastal stretch of land between Ynyslas and Aberyswyth in Wales, is apposite to Sank’s work: it is geographically isolated and has a diverse population. Visitors might be drawn to the seclusion, but Sank pursues people: “It’s about seeing something. Sometimes I don’t want to let it go, so I’ll chase after it”. People with animals, walkers, workers, children, and wanderers are all held in her eye. These characters are mostly encountered when alone: lifted from their private meanderings, they are gathered into a community of photographs.
The title of the work references an ancient forest that was submerged thousands of years ago and still surfaces in Cardigan Bay at low tide. As the water retreats, stumps of oak, hazel, willow and birch appear and if you listen carefully, it is said that the bells of the lost city can be heard ringing out from under the sea. The same eerie ringing echoes through the pages of this book; yearned-for warm and carefree days of summer are eclipsed by gatherings of cumulonimbus and apocalyptic atmospherics. There is a continuous sense that something untoward is about to happen, as if a storm is coming, when animals start to behave strangely and the wind has picked up. The staunch sunbather has laid two mobile phones out on her pink towel. Pairs of people seem fastened together, as if ready to board the Ark: two young girls in pink tracksuits and headscarves, a mother and daughter in matching pink tartan dresses, and two gentlemen in ‘Sunday best’. The omens are not good: an abandoned fire burns, a fake Roman statue points inland, rural graffiti reads ‘ELVIS’ and ‘TWAT’.
Many of the most stimulating images of The Submerged might have come from the pages of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. A young woman, who is perhaps a beauty queen – perhaps not – is found sitting at the entrance to a marquee; at first glance, she has no hands and is tied to the chair by her sash. Her expression might be taken as confirmation of her plight, yet almost as soon as we think it, we realise other explanations are possible. Photographs can deftly oscillate real and fictional worlds and Sank exploits this, sometimes to chilling effect. Only an ill-fated character would eat an apple from the adjacent tree. As normality and strangeness collide, the Welsh landscape is transformed into a place of both wonder and anxiety. Nothing is quite as it seems. Land is turned to water, as a church and a teepee bob in grassy waves, mobile phone poles tilt like boat masts, and houses disappear behind hilltops.
This uncertainty both repels and attracts. At times the bleakness is overwhelming and one longs for Sank to have captured more aspects of the landscape that lie beyond the civic pebbledash and grass. Only the animals introduce a sense of wildness, as in the beauty of the grey horse whose mane is swept by the wind – one of the few occasions when we are offered a contrast to the all-pervading grit. The two elderly ladies who laugh whilst presenting themselves in their best outfits deserve a better setting than simply to be stood in front of a crumbling curbstone. These are people who maintain their dignity and vivacity in spite of, rather than because of, the place in which they live. One is grateful for the sense of friendship and companionship that inhabits some of these images, whether it is to be found with other human beings or the dogs they walk; the landscape seems to afford only a bleak loneliness in a world that has been drained of its colour. When primary colour is encountered, it is found in the rope around the head of a bull and the red dress of a young girl, bringing to mind Ewan McColl’s song, Dirty Old Town and the line, ‘Spring’s a girl in the street at night’.
There is little solace to be found in The Submerged. But it is compelling. What solace can be found certainly isn’t in the Brutalist church, the incongruous fountain in front of the mobile homes, or the car park where a lorry appears to have hitched up the countryside and is about to tow it away. If we want to find it, we must be like the photographer and the young boy, and turn our gaze towards the sea.
The Submerged is published by Schilt Publishing.