Causality and Contingency - Irish Landscape Images
'Causality and Contingency' by Daniel de Chenu was at the Gallery of Photography, Dublin, October, 1997
Review by Nicholas Allen
Daniel de Chenu's 'Causality and Contingency - Irish Landscape Images is currently on show at the Gallery of Photography in Dublin. It consists of a large number of colour images by Le Chenu on both floors of the gallery, placed around a landscape painting from the eighteenth-century and a selection of four images from the turn of the century by Robert French. De Chenu himself tells using the Gallery's notes for the show that he wanted to follow a practice which would "utilise the medium of photography as an objective recorder of reality as opposed to a tool of creative expression". Thus Thomas Roberts' 'Ideal Landscape' is from the start marginalised. The painting is there to show what photography is not. It is indeed easy to see how Roberts's landscape conforms to certain traditions of pictorial representation. There are elements of romanticism in the deserted church in the background with its literary analogue of Goldsmith's Deserted Village. There are the figures in the foreground, a country gent talking to his inferior from the height of a horse and a woman carrying a water jug on her head. Finally there are the cows, ruminating idyllically on their station in life.
All this is fine but I think that de Chenu ignores one thing. Traditions of representation do not generate themselves but are made for a point. This is equally true of Roberts as it is of de Chenu. Just because the traditions of representation in landscape portraiture seem so much more transparent to us now does not mean that the as yet uncodified presentations of de Chenu do not contain their own equally contextual agenda. I think such a point can be seen to be true in the way in which the modern Irish landscape is portrayed by de Chenu on the first floor of the gallery. They are often striking and present several planes of vision to the viewer. There is an unlabelled image which catches the tracks of a digger, foregrounded in turn by the levelled but unmarked earth behind. Looming behind these again are hills, separated by a veil of low mist. This is an exceptional image, sending up as it does the Celtic Twilight and foggy dews by suggesting that the mechanical tracks in the earth leave a mark on the landscape similar to the turf diggers of a more 'innocent' past. Several other of the images are equally striking, especially that of Co. Clare, which leaves us with a pile of dead wood heaped before a rise which barely hides a smokestack in the near distance.
But what soon becomes apparent is the extent to which de Chenu is following his own directive of 'objectivity'. The very name is suggestive of a practice which will concentrate on the concrete rather than the abstract, on the monument rather than the ephemeral. Thus, in the images of Co. Kildare and Co. Meath we are presented with the greens of golf courses. There are some playful touches, like the flag surrounded by bunkers in the Kildare picture, making the course seem like an imposition on a nature which resents its presence. But even my personification of nature, a force which we cannot adequately define beyond an imposition of our own values onto its necessarily amoral systems, shows the impossibility of objectivity itself in any practice. I am not saying that everything we do be consigned to an endlessly referential system of relative values but rather that we must be aware that even our 'natural' choices have their roots laid around us. And in a funny way de Chenu realises this. Why else would the golf course be presented as a green rather than the fairway, the final shot rather than the initial drive. It as if the photographer is trying to make objective sense by presenting the final moment available to him.
The show continues upstairs with two more images from Le Chenu appearing immediately before and after a series of four images by Robert French from the last decade of the nineteenth-century. De Chenu's Co. Sligo foreshadows French's first image by presenting a picture of a newly laid road, snaking with gravel up a hill and not yet covered by a layer of tarmac. French's first work follows and is called Cork Screw Road, Co. Clare. The suggestion seems to be that de Chenu, or indeed modern landscape photography, has either relaid or made redundant French's practice. This, if it is indeed the case, is highly problematic. The Gallery's introduction to the show informs us that de Chenu's work "signifies a wider connection to landscape representation in art history and raises questions relating to mythology, romanticism and notions of the picturesque". The relationship between de Chenu and French is imagined to exist on a purely aesthetic level. It ignores, or cannot acknowledge, the reasons why for example French might have travelled to the Antrim Coast to photograph the Giant's Causeway when this part of the North East was still notoriously difficult to access (thus causing the area's long tradition of a Scottish connection by sea). The results of French's trek are placed instead solely in a tradition of landscape portraiture, with the connection to de Chenu's work provided by a tourist board like image of the causeway from the 1970's. Now I don't know why French travelled around Ireland with his camera in the 1890's but I would suggest that the significance (in both senses of the word), or otherwise, of his work rests beyond an endlessly artistic reproduction of artistic traditions. Brian Friel in his play 'Translations' has already stressed the political implications of the mapping of territory and I see no reason why the capture of it on film should be any different.
I left this show then with mixed feelings. Many of the images were fresh and original. I liked the idea that traditions of landscape representation change over time, thus perhaps changing our perception of the landscape itself. But I was less convinced that the implications of this point were fully realised, with the resultant effect that the impact of the work was limited. I do however urge you to see it as it will certainly set you thinking and that, ultimately, is all we can ask for.