Rhubarb syrup: nothing like it for a gentle purge. Jane Grigson understood it as an old fashioned vegetable, by which we usually mean that it is healthy and inedible at the same time (like rosehips). This is the rhubarb paradox that underpins The Rhubarb Triangle, Martin Parr’s recent commission for the Hepworth. Part of a retrospective, it is shown alongside previous series by the artist exploring systems of industry and consumption including: The Non-Conformists, 1975-80; The Last Resort, 1983-85; The Cost of Living, 1989; Autoportrait, 1991-2012 and Common Sense, 1995-99.
The Rhubarb Triangle documents the process and culture of forced rhubarb. Farms in Yorkshire expend huge amounts of energy growing and cultivating the vegetable. The rhubarb crowns, muddy knots of truncated shoots, are left to grow for two years in fields. After they have been frost hardened, they are lifted from the clag and re-potted in forcing sheds. They are then heated, which brings on the shoots, but they are not exposed to light. The outcome is thin, pink ribs of rhubarb. Because they are not allowed to photosynthesise, the shoots do not become as fibrous or as bitter as rhubarb grown outdoors.
The forcing process is laborious and the men who grow it look tired. A number of Parr’s portraits show the workers in their long aprons, covered in mud. They represent an esoteric strand of English workmen, along with blacksmiths, butchers, and freemasons. A group portrait shows a dynasty of rhubarb farmers in their office. The room is from a bygone age, resembling something between a factory office and an allotment shed. Magic and manual labour are barely kept out, and it is somehow difficult to associate the strange process of forcing rhubarb with day-to-day administration. The process is shrouded in an animist mystique, bordering on a kind of animal husbandry. Tourists even come to the sheds to stand in candlelit silence and listen to the growth.
The ribs are harvested and trimmed by hand, revealing pink satiny sticks. The four portraits of men holding bundles of rhubarb all elegantly testify to the strange quiddity of these vegetables. One man, with his head questioningly cocked to the side, holds five stalks in a single hand. Another, smirking slightly, holds a larger bunch counterbalanced with a hand on top, which makes him appear lopsided. The third man looks over his right shoulder at us, his body obscured by a great bunch of stalks that he wraps both arms around. His blue gloves are stained with pink sap, his fingers are locked together. The last man faces the camera, holding a bunch of rhubarb under one arm. The other hand, marigolded, hangs by his side, stained red.
The intrinsic humour of The Rhubarb Triangle is similar to that in Parr’s other series, particularly Work. There is a gentle absurdity in his observation of workplace acts; absurd because the process or behaviours in the workplace give an alien and unexpected depth to our understanding. A row of men roll a stick of rock from a giant unformed ball of pink sugar, at one end tapering into its familiar shape. At their most complex, the photographs balance humour against the complexity of human invention. The workplace is a particularly rich ground for such studies because at work people are both themselves and not themselves. They are distorted by the engineered space and structure of their working environments.
The Rhubarb Triangle operates on the edge of social satire, perhaps epitomised in photographs that feature a man dressed as a rhubarb mascot. This is also evident in The Cost of Living and The Last Resort, which both play off cultural stereotypes in a way that resist a serious reading. A subtle punchline drifts in and out of focus throughout the exhibition. A delicate balance is achieved in The Rhubarb Triangle, when Parr documents an array of rhubarb-based foods, evidence of the vegetable’s contested edibility.
One photograph has special poignancy for me. It is from The Rhubarb Triangle, but, like Parr’s series The Non-conformists, the image connects our present time to a spectral and earthy ‘Northernness’. A man with a beard is captured talking to a Morris dancer at the Wakefield Festival of Food, Drink and Rhubarb. The bearded man is often at these traditional northern events (I last saw him in Stony Middleton for the Well Dressings, a festival in which wells and springs are decorated with petals), and appears somehow timeless, perhaps because he never seems to age. He embodies these traditions simply through his presence and enthusiasm; a cheerleader for the muddy fields. In this moment with the Morris man, Parr documents an Englishness which is at once honourable and absurd.
The Rhubarb Triangle and Other Stories: Photographs by Martin Parr is on at The Hepworth Wakefield until 12 June 2016.
Images: GB England. West Yorkshire. Wakefield. Westwards. The Rhubarb Triangle. 2014. © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos. Courtesy Martin Parr and The Hepworth Wakefield/hepworthwakefield.org; Installation view of ‘The Rhubarb Triangle & Other Stories: Photographs by Martin Parr’ at The Hepworth Wakefield. Photo © Justin Slee. Image courtesy Martin Parr and The Hepworth Wakefield/hepworthwakefield.org;
Laurence Piercy works in the third sector and writes in his spare time.