Hannah Collins’s work can be massive but, even though the London-born artist fills entire walls with beautiful blown-up photographs, she’s no grandstanding lens-wielder in the Andreas Gursky mould. For a start, her subject matter – which includes mattress-strewn interiors shot in a startlingly pre-gentrified 1980s East End – tends towards the down-at-heel. Then there’s the manner in which she presents her vast black-and-white works. The images in the first and best gallery here are made up of several sheets which are pinned to the wall. Where these meet, they tend to curl, disrupting how you read the picture. The sense of fragmentation chimes with the often makeshift or decrepit subjects she shoots, quite literally in the case of ‘Thin Protective Coverings’ (1986), a room lined with sheets of overlapping cardboard. Overall, there’s a feeling of lives eked out. But not in a miserable sense. In Collins’s hands, society’s fringes and the fertile lives they sustain – as seen in ‘The Violin Player’ (1988) and the towering soundsystem of ‘Family’ (1988) – become epic, monumental.
Collins has travelled the world in search of its creative edges, and it’s this restless, inquisitive quality that unites the three decades’ worth of work in this mini-retrospective. A series of smaller photos and a sound piece from 2014 are dedicated to Noah Purifoy, the late African-American artist best known for making sculptures from the charred debris of the 1965 Watts riots. Collins’s photos depict some of the 100 or so incredible constructions he made in the Mojave desert while people reminisce about his importance. But it’s a deliberately frustrating experience – voices peter out, lines go dead. For another series, recently completed, Collins spent time with tribes in the Colombian Amazon, documenting plants that have a medicinal or spiritual purpose. The installation is ravishing, yet not knowing the purpose of this flora and foliage leaves you feeling locked out, like a tourist, which may well be Collins’s point.
A Barcelona resident for many years, Collins recently returned to London. It’ll be fascinating to see how – or even if – she reconnects with the city that inspired her boho east London images from the 1980s. Certainly today, that world feels as precious and exotic as the rarest flower in the rainforest.