Questioning the Signals
'Signals' ran from 16th October until 12th November 1996 in Dublin and Waterford
Review by Aphra Kerr
On October 26th a day of seminars was held in the Gallery of Photography, Dublin as part of the festival. We heard some very informative presentations; Victoria Lukens of the Independent Review offered practical tips on how to approach picture editors and Rhonda Wilson, also from the UK, offered advice on how to harness digital technologies. The latter discussion was free of hype, focusing instead on how photographers might usefully access technology, i.e. using the downtime of computer firms. The informal atmosphere of the gathering was conducive to meeting other participants and breaking down barriers, as the publicity material intended. The physical exhibition in the Gallery of Photography in comparison to the seminars was rather uninspiring and disjointed, hampered by the restrictive and unsympathetic design of the gallery itself.
Wandering from corner to corner I kept hoping for arresting work which would allow me to celebrate what this festival conscientiously set out to present, i.e. women's photography. In the exhibition work from seven female photographers was presented. While there was interesting work at the level of process, the pieces were consistently disappointing on the level of content and as a show the pieces lacked any sense of unity. While this lack of unity might be attributed to the open submission process, the content demands closer examination.
The first room presented five vertically hung images by Rachal Ballagh which were literally pinned to the wall. The toned images represented a fox to the viewer, each image taken from a different angle and strangely devoid of detail. The images were over-written by words such as transfix, familiaritx, (sic.) revelation, muteness and anaesthetise. These words served to question the fate of the fox and indeed on reading the accompanying caption one found that we were being encouraged to question our collective ambivalence to violent images. The pinning of the piece to the wall and the thickness of the red paint on the images added subtle layers of meaning to the images, tactile stimuli to extend the effectiveness of the images themselves, which were almost secondary. Indeed it was hard to extrapolate the message of the work purely from the images given their lack of detail. In this case the text both on, and accompanying the images anchored the piece.
The only images which addressed a specifically Irish subject was the collaborative work between Felicity Clear and Clea van der Grijn. In addition their images could be described as the straightest use of photography. They relied purely on the ability of the camera to record a subject and the ability of traditional silver based papers to represent these images to an audience. No overt manipulation of the images intervened in the communicative process.
The Black Room contained six large (6 X 6 feet) images which presented images of vacated outdoor spaces; sites emptied of people, anonymous yet all too familiar places in Ireland. An empty harbour scene, the long road ahead, the famine rock, close-up shots of water; the subject matter and the size of its presentation all evoked the largess of the loss, the graininess of the prints echoed the roughness of the landscape, the heavy grey skies reinforcing the foreboding atmosphere. The angle of view and the rippling movement of the water suggested for this viewer the eroding movement of people from these spaces. A person from rural Ireland would be all too familiar with some of these scenes, but these images were presented for the benefit of an urban audience which might not recognise the signs of famine and emigration which the Irish landscape retains. The joint work made good use of what is the largest space in the gallery and benefited when viewed from the balcony which overlooks the room. Viewed from ground level the scale of the images almost overwhelmed the subject matter. The addition of audio in the guise of one voice being chased by multiple murmurings in an inharmonious cacophony without any discernible logic was the only human presence, supposedly a reference to past but continuing presences. Rather than add to the works it intruded on their quiet contemplation.
The final room on the first floor presented vertical triptychs where again artistic technique, or rather process, dominated over content. The images of mundane everyday scenes; hopscotch squares, a clothes line shot from a low angle of view were so heavily coloured that the subjects were rendered ambiguous and somewhat ominous. It was not until this viewer read the text that the theme was articulated. The project was entitled Mind over Body and the images attempted to deal objectively with an issue which affects many women; eating disorders. Having read the text I then reassessed the images. I must admit that objectivity is not something that I readily subscribe to as a photographer and I did not recognise it in this work either. The theme was dealt with indirectly and veiled references to the body through the use of clothes was all this viewer discerned. The author, Ruth Hurley, graduated from the Glasgow College of Art in 1995 and is currently pursuing a postgraduate degree. This work was interesting for its use of colour but its presentation hardly approached the fluidity of interconnecting frames of a narrative film. The only interconnectivity was a recurring patterned garment appearing in different settings but obvious only on close examination. Stealing swiftly upstairs a small enclave housed two television screens and two video players in the only digitally rendered piece in the gallery. On first glance the screens, which stood at eye level about two feet apart, presented stereo still images of the Sugar-Loaf mountain in Co. Wicklow. However patience was rewarded. The images were not indeed freeze framed but rather the camera was pointed at the same scene and the only clue to the forward movement of the tape was a person who intermittently appeared, quite literally, jumping into the frame.
Technically the piece was clever and created a sense of dissonance in the viewer. We expect to see still images in a gallery context and according to this logic one is initially tempted to conclude that the images are paused. Yet we also expect to see movement on a television screen, and the lack of it initially arrests our attention. Caroline McCarthy, a graduate of the National College of Art and Design in 1994 sought to represent where we come from and who we are.... by playing with uncertainty. For me the piece was humorous on a technical level and the subject matter familiar but the inferior VHS image quality and the unlooped video tape lessened the impact; as I was leaving the tape had reached the end and a screen of television fuzz removed all uncertainty.
Another project which adopted a non-silver photographic process was the cyanotype project produced by Amanda McKittrick in collaboration with five mothers and toddlers from the Pearse House Resource Centre in Dublin. Their aim in adopting this printing process was to overcome the technical barriers inherent in photography and concentrate instead on the symbolic power of the medium. The images presented were to all intents therefore monochromatic blue resembling water colour images rather than photographic prints. The subject matter progressed in terms of abstraction from the first images of toddlers to more curious shapes and while pleasant in terms of texture were more engaging on the level of process than content.
While it was good to see work by non-artists and allowing for the personal significance which I am sure the images have for them, it is ironic that the process should be the most interesting part for this viewer.
Personal and hidden meanings were again suggested by work in the final room which presented a series of black and white images quite literally hung out to view. Dettie Flynn provided a series of disconnected images recording everyday objects; curtains, a ship in a bottle, artichokes on a plate. The fine grained images of straight or blurred objects exploited light, texture and shape on a literal level but drew little on a deeper more meaningful level. The captions when consulted solved little of the puzzle. Handwritten and framed in wood, they were as unorthodox as the presentation of the images. Some seemed to relate to the images, some did not. Those which did not reminded this viewer of the frustration presented by captions in a photo-album which relate to long-lost images.
It was interesting to read afterwards that Dettie wished to question the process of viewing, and the art viewing tradition. Certainly the presentation of the unframed prints achieved a counter-gallery effect.
Interestingly in the same room a series of photo-booth type portraits were framed more in the style of work usually presented in a gallery context. Yet the formal presentation of the prints was in contrast to the pose of the subjects; the people depicted were relaxed, comfortable, looking out at us looking in, but inviting us to look rather than treating us as voyeurs. The inferior quality of the prints extended the informality of the images. What this room achieved certainly was to present us with images stripped of context but very obviously representations of the everyday captured using photographic techniques. Some of the images were intensely detailed and realistic, others more imaginary and suggestive. But suggestive of what?; apart or together they were incongruous.
The work presented during this festival addressed issues relating to art and the presentation of such in a gallery space. Many of the projects were unself-consciously artefacts exploring photographic processes and presentation techniques. Conceptually some of them worked, but one engaged more with the photographic object than the subject matter. Perhaps the speed with which other viewers went from room to room suggested how little the images engaged the general viewer.
Curiously no reportage work was presented. If this show was meant to represent womens' photography in Ireland it was an extremely limited presentation dominated by artistic interests and agendas; if it was meant to present and celebrate photography I am afraid that for this viewer at least the promise was unfulfilled. It is unfortunate that the discussions in and around the seminars should engage more than the works presented.