Monday, August 05, 2013

Photographs from a Doomed Vessel

An slightly edited version of the following piece appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 4 August 2013:

Doug DuBois
It's tempting to look for parallels between Father Browne's recording of life aboard the Titanic in 1912 and the exhibition Uncertain State In the Gallery of Photography.  The doomed ship and the doomed ship of state.  Both disasters generated by greed and hubris.  However the judicious Jesuit departed his vessel at Cobh while the ten photographers in this show are stuck on theirs for the duration of the voyage.

These photographers are described in the attendant blurb as "photographic artists".  Whether photography can be considered art has been a  perennial question since the new medium emerged 180 years ago.  In 2012 the National Gallery in London finally gave the upstart its due with its first major photographic exhibition Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present.  Our own RHA began admitting photography less than 10 years ago and it has since grown into a major part of the annual show - with a dedicated room to itself.

But art photography is, in the words of photographer Jeff Wall, a "photo ghetto" of niche galleries, aficionados and publications.  Photography's universal appeal is as a recording medium and the emphasis in this show is very much on showing how things are without being artful.  In fact many of the images would seem banal if we were unaware of their context.  Only Una Spain's beautifully composed images and Doug DuBois'  stage-managed studies venture fully into that ghetto.

The show is arranged around ten themes, one per artist, mainly relating to our busted economy, our human rights abuses, and the sheer misery of being poor and urban. Nine artists are named but the tenth, responsible for Asylum Archive, remains anonymous - for good reasons perhaps.

Not all the themes address the state of our nation directly.  Pete Smyth's A View from the Dearth seems more to depict the ravages of time - albeit time lived on a council estate in Tallaght.  He photographed a number of residents in 1988 and returned 21 years later to record their current appearance.  Some were gone, some were dead, but a couple of those who remained seem to have had it tough in the interim. The cheerful equanimity of 20 odd years ago had been supplanted by a wary and world-weary resignation.  There is something prurient about depicting such decline.   You feel the lash of Susan Sontag's critique of photography which, she claimed, imbued people with a "chronic voyeuristic relation" to the world around them.

Eoin O'Conaill's Reprieve and David Farrell's An Archaeology of the Present tackle ghost estates and arrested development projects. O'Conaill deals with spaces where the ground has been broken but nothing has been built.  Traces of machinery tracks, or the odd irregular mound, suggest the passing of something intrusive that has moved on.  In some cases there is just emptiness - a flat, weed-littered space has the ironic title 32 Residential Units and 18 Apartments in 2 Blocks.   Farrell's estates have been built but are deserted and devoid of infrastructure.  Hotel, Murrisk shows us the beautiful view from the window of an abandoned hotel.  One piece by Farrell, Sixmilebridge, Clare, is a striking surreal image of a model cottage on a wooden jetty.  It doesn't seem to chime with his theme but maybe I missed a metaphor.  Paddy Kelly also displays deserted spaces in Bogland but these are locations where late the Provos trained.  One picture of dank wooded clearing enveloped in mist has a particularly sinister frisson.

The Asylum Archive is a disturbing account of a problem that gets little attention in the media.  There are 35 Direct Provision hostels around the country where the State provides basic food and shelter to those who seek refugee status in Ireland.  These unfortunates are cut off from the rest of society while their claims are processed.  Their only discretionary spending is the €19.10 a week they get from the Government.  The images show a series of bleak isolated buildings - some, like Ballymullen Barracks, suggestive of concentration camps.  These photographs indicate that our talent for institutional abuse isn't quite lying fallow.

Una Spain displays two striking images enhanced by light boxes: a coil of unclaimed wedding rings - mostly similar gold bands - and two poignant pipes.  However the most fascinating part of her exhibit is the album of photographs from the disused St. Brigid's psychiatric hospital in Ballinasloe.  In addition to the various deserted cells and facilities depicted she has recorded extracts from old diaries and medical books of the period.  We are advised that "men are more prone to feeble-mindedness"  than women and that "self-abuse and any form of dissipation predispose to melancholia".  Useful to know.

It's not too often you see a Union Jack mop.  Lauren McGookin, a Belfast-based documentary photographer, takes us into the homes of the Loyalist community.  Amidst the photographs of domestic kitsch and playfulness we see the ugly clutter of an insignia filled hall. Aesthetics are not a priority in those parts.

Kim Haughton's In Plain Sight documents victims of abuse and some of the locations in which the abuse took place: a banal terraced house and a creepy country lane.  The victims themselves seem to share a kind of sad forbearance - it's hard to know if we  project this or if it's captured in the image.

Doug DuBois is an American photographer who has spent his summers in Cobh, recording teenagers on the cusp of adulthood.  Another kind of uncertain state.  His theme, My Last Day at Seventeen, depicts those lazy, hazy, crazy days before kids and jobs kick in.  The bravado that will pass.  These, along with Una Spain's, are the most artful images in the show.  Bonfire in Russell Heights shows a dark ominous cloud of smoke looming over a trio of teenage boys, turned away and unaware.

Paul Nulty's I'm Looking at Our Place is a study of disillusionment.  His mother, a long-term emigrant, returns to the Midlands from London only to find that she no longer fits in.  An ugly terrace of houses and an unhappy-looking woman standing on a pavement capture the broken dream.  The fair has moved on.

Uncertain State does not make for comfortable viewing.  The overall tone of the show is unrelentingly bleak: failed aspirations, blighted lives, dismal ends.  The tourist throngs sunning themselves outside in Temple Bar should absent themselves awhile from the  paddywhackery and come inside for a cold douche of the real Ireland.

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