Placeholders: The Politics of Place

Posted August 7, 2022 in Arts & Culture Features

In the decades on either side of the fin de siécle, it was an open question whether photography could be considered an art. The uncertainty about photography’s status was motivated by the nature of the equipment that produces the image; what troubled the sceptics was the thorny issue of artistic autonomy. Who, or more appositely what, was actually responsible for the image under review? In the minds of many an art critic, the photograph – and later, the film-still – was the product of a merely mechanical recording and was excluded a priori from the domain of art, because, they claimed, a work of art is not the result of unsentient, automatic processes, as though art could be created by machinery on the factory floor; each artwork involves feeling, intention, emotion and implicit meaning. The thinking behind this early scepticism, which was famously revived in our era by the late Roger Scruton, is that the camera only records the visual appearance of objects – it is unable to represent anything about the artist’s psychological state.

This argument floated around in the back of my mind as I walked through the new exhibition at Photo Museum Ireland, because The Politics of Place is such an eloquent rejoinder to anyone that might still harbour a similar attitude towards photography. In the minds of those early sceptics, in the interaction between photographer and their environment, the recorded product could only be classified as ‘landscape photography’. The principle of this exhibition, however, is to address “how photographers have engaged with one of the defining obsessions of our national life, the notion of place.” The artists meditate on the meaning of place “as a way of speaking to and about national identity, the spaces and the landscapes we share, the ground that we hold in common and the boundaries that divide us.” That is, as distinct from the soil and brick viewed by the lens, over and beyond landscape, stands the concept of placehood. By expressing a unique sense of place, these photographs address “the profound changes that have reshaped Irish society over the last four decades, from the decline of the church to the impact of globalisation, through to ongoing crises around housing, migration, and the environment.”

David Farrell, Coghalstown Wood, 28/02/10, from the series Small Acts of Memory, 2009 – 2010.

As the curatorial material suggests, the approaches that are explored here, though all index the concept of placehood, are wide-ranging and diverse. For instance, David Farrell’s work investigates the meaning of place from the perspective of political violence. Farrell is preoccupied with a particular subset of the victims of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, who are known as ‘the Disappeared’. This group of 16 people were murdered by Republican paramilitaries at various stages throughout the Troubles and secretly buried. Their fates were suspected, but no organisation took responsibility or explained their involvement for decades. All of the Disappeared were Catholics, and one was a woman; Jean McConville, mother of ten.

The artist has been documenting the sites where these bodies were exhumed since 1999, in the aftermath of extensive efforts on behalf of local police forces to discover the remains. The photographs were selected from Farrell’s Small Acts of Memory series (2009-2010), featuring an earthy field, dissected by digging equipment. Chestnut browns, charcoal greys and vivid ochres predominate in these compositions, and the images of displaced soil and forest clearings have a ritualistic quality. Farrell’s work memorialises the “intangible presence of absence,” to use his poetic phrase, representing a trauma that has settled deep into the marrow of the landscape.

Miriam O’Connor, Untitled, from the series Tomorrow is Sunday.

Death hovers in the background of other artworks too. In 2013, Miriam O’Connor’s brother passed away and the responsibility for the family farm, which had been in his care until then, fell on the shoulders of Miriam and her sister. The selection of photographs in this exhibition were taken from a series called Tomorrow is Sunday, composed by O’Connor between 2014 and 2020. Although the impetus for O’Connor’s project also involved death, her work is in many ways dissimilar to Farrell’s; whereas Farrell’s imagery compresses time so that the layers of soil and plant-life analogise the long-lasting impact of the disappearances, O’Connor’s work conveys a more fleeting temporality. These are moments, fragments of memory, evocative of a single word, a passing cloud, a stray emotion that burned brightly and then withdrew. Her fragments are accompanied by a text-poem, one of several in the wider collection, that further serves to punctuate time with a series of one-line weather reports, obsessing about the rain: “Heavy rain this week for days./ Weather broken. Thunderstorm with rain./ Started to rain./ Soft rain all day./ Very wet weather./ Unforgivable rain. June 23rd/ Storm weather. Torrential rain…”

While O’Connor’s photographic project strikingly depicts her personal experience of her homestead, capturing the luminescent moments in her daily routine, Izabela Szczutkowska’s treatment of home is far more spectral and disembodied. Her photomontages were inspired by her father: in 2020, the artist wrote that “my father, Zbigniew, never visited me in Ireland as he was afraid of flying. He was very familiar with Ireland, however. As a frequent user of Google Street View, he knew the colour of the front door of the house that I had lived in Dublin.”

Izabela Szczutkowska, Collage #26, from the series Let’s Take The Wrong Way Home, 2020.

Intrigued by the idea that technology “allows us to see, at any time, places we have never been to,” Szczutkowska began to experiment with imagery pulled from the web, and fused together features of her Polish and Irish homelands, expressing “an unfulfilled dream and desire for those two places to become one.” Szczutkowska’s work stands out for its formal inventiveness – her practice involves several stages in which she collects, fractures and then unites her imaginary landscapes; taking images from Street View, glueing and layering digital imagery over prints, creating collages, taking photographs of the collages, etc. The distorted surface of the image is made more disorienting by the skewed perspectival dimensions in the image, and heightened again by incorporating several types of image-resolution.

There are far more contributors to the show than I can mention here, all of whom present intriguing visions of place using different perspectives and methodologies; Paul Gaffney, for instance, shoots the forest in near-total dark; Bernadette Keating uses off-camera lighting to create bright lines that split her natural studies apart; Martin Seeds intensifies the contrast of his black-and-white photography to create a visual metaphor for the polarity of Northern Irish politics, etc. I largely chose to analyse the artworks of Farrell, O’Connor and Szczutkowska because the explicit thematic relationships between their works capture the connections and dissimilarities that make the exhibition as a whole so cohesive. However, they also each touch upon an aspect that I haven’t yet mentioned. Darren Campion, one of the curators of the exhibition, explained that they “wanted artists who had a critical relationship to how Ireland-as-place has traditionally been represented in wider culture. We felt these photographers are using ‘place’ to address questions about Irishness and national identity.”

Izabela Szczutkowska, Collage #20, from the series Let’s Take The Wrong Way Home, 2020.

Farrell, O’Connor and Szczutkowska fit neatly into this curatorial framing, offering a nuanced extrapolation of Irishness: in terms of Republican violence; historical agriculture; family-lineage; immigration; poetic imaginaries etc. On a final note, the exhibition also serves to highlight the role of the gallery, which changed its status to a museum in June, has played in supporting the development of major bodies of work by Irish photographic artists. If the calibre of this exhibition is a template for the newly minted museum, the future is bright for photography in Dublin.

Words: Tom Lordan

In Our Own Image: The Politics of Place is on at Photo Museum Ireland until September 3rd.


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