Dominant Style / Variant Practices
Photography and Contemporary Art in Ireland
by Justin Carville
A survey of the contemporary art shows exhibited in this country during the last 12 months would probably, unsurprisingly, reveal that an increasing number of institutions are incorporating artists using lens based media into their programmes. Indeed over the last 3-4 years photography in particular has become a visible feature of museum and gallery schedules throughout Europe as a whole. This emergence of photography as a predominant feature of contemporary art is reflected by the increasing number of graduates using the medium. Art schools are a useful barometer of marketplace trends and recent reviews of graduate shows in papers such as The Irish Times have gone out of their way to comment on the high numbers of graduates using photography in a variety of contexts.
A further indication of the predominance of photography in current artistic practice, can be seen in the number of artists who have been shortlisted for the Turner Prize and the Glen Dimplex Artists Award who use the medium. The Turner Prize has produced a number of candidates using photography as their primary medium over the last few years with two from this years shortlist, Steven Pippin and Jane & Louise Wilson producing lens based work. Pippin's work in particular is photographic based, taking photographs with constructed cameras made out of domestic machinery and furniture such as his Laundromat-Locomotion photographs for which he was nominated.
On the domestic front, the Glen Dimplex has been dominated by candidates using photography in recent years. Indeed the winners in 1995 and 1997, Willie Doherty and Paul Seawright respectively, are both photographic based. This years shortlist has also thrown up something of a first with all four nominees using photography in one form or another. A number of other shows in Ireland during 1999 such as First Look at the R.H.A. Gallagher Gallery, this year's EV+A in Limerick and Perspective '99 in Belfast have also had a strong contingent of artists using lens based work. And with the Irish Museum of Modern Art's (IMMA) failed attempt at staging the Lambert Art Collection 'blockbuster' show Veronica's Revenge in August, it would appear, on the surface at least, that the now cliched divisions between photography and art have finally been consigned to history.
The question that remains to be asked, however, is why lens based media, and photography in particular, have come to such prominence at this moment in time and in this country? What changes have taken place within Irish culture that have allowed photography to become such an acceptable medium in public and private gallery spaces alike? It is these questions I want to address, for a closer examination of the state of photography in contemporary Irish art will reveal that some of those cliched divisions still exist between the role of artists and photographers within the spaces of the gallery and museum.
The role of photography in what we might broadly term 'contemporary art practice' is by no means a recent phenomenon, its role in artistic practice of the late 1990's is significantly very much underpinned by its use in 'conceptual art' from the mid 1960's. As with its use today, photography was not always of primary importance but played a supplementary role in the documentation of site specific work, particularly the environmental art of Richard Long and most famously Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty. Indeed photography has been a significant supplementary medium of conceptualism, bringing performance art and site specific sculpture into the hallowed spaces of the gallery and museum and, more notably, the canon of Western art. Photography was also used as a primary medium and in conjunction with other modes of representation. The status of the photograph as index was of prime concern to artists such as Keith Arnatt who explored the unstableness of the photographic image and Joseph Kosuth, who in his 1965 series Investigations, explored its representational role in conjunction with other modes of representation such as One and Three Chairs in which a chair, a photograph of the chair and a linguistic representation of the same are presented side by side.
This brief history lesson is important in understanding the role photography plays in contemporary art in Ireland. The different strategies employed by artists using photography today are not that dissimilar from the conceptual practices of artists throughout the 1970's. With few exceptions artists who use photography have adopted a practice in which the very conventions of photography are the subject of their work; the photographic image is distorted, ruptured and fragmented through the very processes which once defined its infallible character. Those popular-consciousness notions of photography, the modernist 'truisms' of photography's objectivity and disinterestedness, have also become the subject of artists who use the medium. Photography has, significantly, also retained its archival role in contemporary art, documenting the processes and activities of the artists themselves.
While contemporary art is still contingent upon this legacy of conceptualism, the prominence of photography in contemporary art cannot be explained away solely through recourse to an art-historical interpretation of current artistic practices. For a start, the inclusion of lens based media in contemporary art spaces in general has been dependent upon the displacement of modernism from the discourse of the museum and gallery. This has not, as some critics and artists have argued, been the crowning success of post-modernity, rather it reflects a self-conscious shift from within the discourses of the institutions themselves. As a result, the plurality of contemporary art and the incorporation of popular forms of representation from the broader capitalist culture have become highly systematic and structured, and the use of photography in this capacity lacks the critical impact of the postmodernist practice of 20 years ago.
This incorporation of popular culture into art does at least partly explain the rise of photographic based art work, many of those popular cultural forms such as fashion and advertising have a high profile in consumerist culture through the photographic image. But again this does not account fully for photography's prevalence in contemporary art, particularly in an Irish context. To get a clearer picture we need to consider the changes that have taken place regarding the very conception of the identity of Irish culture, both in this country and abroad. Indeed photography's new found popularity with curators and consumers of art has much more to do with the changes that have taken place within the broader culture industry in this country than shifts in artistic practice.
Although Irish culture is often thought of as having retained its identity in the face of rising federalism, it has steadily been Europeanised, if not on the immediately visible surface, certainly within its administrative structures. This has not only been reflected in the content of much Irish cultural production but also its material form and is particularly apparent in much lens based art. This has come about in part because young Irish artists are more financially astute, have a certain amount of savy concerning the economics of the market place and are, as a result, producing work which sits more comfortably within an international context. But it is also partly due to art institutions, both public and private, engendering an art practice which is more familiar on a universal level to the general museum/gallery goer. As a result young Irish artists are increasingly looking to Europe for both professional merit and financial success. This has not only had an effect on the types of media Irish artists are using but also the content of much of their work.
This is illustrated in the presentation of this years Glen Dimplex nominees at IMMA. Susan MacWilliams's work The Last Person and the set of three 'stereograph's' which comprised her award exhibition, did not receive the critical commentary in press reviews that the subject matter probably warranted. Her engagement with spiritualism is indicative of a recent trend amongst a number of European and North American artists and academics who have attempted to re-articulate the role of photography in spiritualism since the turn of the century. However, MacWilliam's 'stereoscopic' images of ectoplasmic excretions are explained away through recourse to their construction. Attention is focused on defining what a stereoscopic image is, and how it is put together rather than its significance in the history of visual perception. The introduction of the stereoscope in the 19th century, marked a substantial shift in the experience of the photographic image and played a major role in introducing colonial, ethnographic and pornographic imagery to the public on a mass scale. The stereoscope was the virtual display unit of the Victorian era, and for at least two decades of the century it became the predominant mode for viewing the photographic image.
The stereoscope was a particularly favoured format for precisely the type of subject matter that MacWilliam's piece addresses; phantasmagoria and the supernatural, as well as erotica, pornography and anything to do with the uncanny and the spectacular. Any subject which was more associated with myth and mysticism rather than the physical world was mass reproduced as a stereograph.
The introduction of the stereoscope also brought certain anxieties concerning the photographic image into the public sphere, the viewer was suddenly confronted with subjects which 'common sense' dictated as questionable, but the technological presentation created the illusion that the subjects of the photographs were physically tangible. The viewing experience was thus impinged with the spatial paradoxes of contiguity and distance as well as the more visually apparent, illusion and reality. These paradoxes came about not through the viewers' experience of the photographic image itself, but their experience of it through the optical apparatus of the stereoscope. It is precisely this experience which MacWilliams's work sets out to evoke. The viewer is effectively alienated from the established experience of the photographic image in a gallery/museum setting. Yet the presentation of this individual piece at IMMA merely collapsed the critical concerns of the work into its technological parts. The anxieties of vision, subjectivity, illusion and reality which cut across MacWilliams's work fall into ineffability within the space of the museum.
This may seem a moot point, but the way museums and galleries present or promote bodies of work will effect the way the public perceives and tries to make sense of the art object. Any object which appears within the white walls of the museum and gallery is necessarily co-authored through curatorial policy, and exists somewhere between the intentions of the artist and the demands of the institution. As a result the critical and political concerns which may cut across certain art works are effectively silenced and collapsed into aestheticism.
There is one important point which needs to be made concerning this situation. Such use of photography is very much in the interests of the art institutions. Because many of the artists who use photography are concerned with manipulating the conventions of the medium itself or conjoin photography with other visual media and text, it is much easier for museums to pin down and disseminate to the museum/gallery going public. Even if an artist's work engages with say, the critique of identity or representational politics, the issues are now so entrenched in contemporary art discourse that they are no longer an effective critical force. The hegemony of the cultural institution thus makes it difficult to ask different questions of photography.
There are a number of artists however, whose work is not so easy to circumscribe within an institutional framework. The work of those who are generally seen to come from a photographic based background rather than a fine art background, tends to carry a certain arbitrariness which is difficult to negate through institutional rhetoric. I am referring here to photographers such as Padraig Murphy, Anthony Haughey and Paul Seawright (to name but a few), who are usually dispassionately categorised under the generic label of documentary. Seawright best articulated this arbitrariness himself when interviewed in The Irish Times after winning the Glenn Dimplex: commenting that his photograph of an RUC officer wearing a communications ear piece had been interpreted by one reviewer as depicting the sinisterness of surveillance, while the RUC saw it as representing the discomfort of wearing the surveillance device. The point here is that photography is open to the types of cultural interpretation which do not fit easily into the consensual aesthetic values of the museum.
I also use these terms 'photographer' and 'documentary' with a certain degree of trepidation. Many of those who have been labelled with these terms are in fact represented by commercial art galleries and see their work as falling between two stools. But pretending to ignore these terms does not mean that they do not exist, indeed they have come to be used as a way of demarcating the types of spaces where such work is exhibited. What I am suggesting here, is that within contemporary visual culture, to be labelled a 'photographer' has meant a certain amount of exclusion. For some the term has even proved to be a burden. The options of possible exhibition venues thus become very limited, which creates further restrictions on the scope of the potential audience for such work.
What I would argue, is that whilst photography has become an increasingly prominent feature of contemporary art, few of those who are gallery based photographers, have been incorporated into the exhibition schedules of Irish museums and galleries. Let me qualify this statement by acknowledging that there have been exceptions to the rule. IMMA exhibited Seawright's work as part of the Glenn Dimplex awards, and a number of spaces in Belfast have been more progressive than their Dublin counterparts. But outside of the Gallery of Photography, the spaces where gallery based photographers have exhibited in this country are thin on the ground. On the flip side, the photographic work which does occasionally find its way into some of the more profiled spaces, rarely reflects the types of critical photographic practices seen in this country. Perry Ogden's heavily marketed Pony Kids at the Hugh Lane Gallery is indicative of the clichéd photographic imagery many Irish photographers have been concerned to avoid Despite the moral and ethical rhetoric which accompanied the show and its publication, the work remained theoretically threadbare.
The question that arises, is why is it that so few Irish gallery based photographers have been exhibited outside the Gallery of Photography? I would suggest that there are two main reasons. Firstly, the old discriminatory perceptions of photography as a craft based medium associated with the commercial world still colour the conception of photography within some art institutions. From this position, artists who use photography are acceptable as they are seen to be adopting a practice which challenges the conventions of the medium associated with its use in the wider visual culture. Secondly, the work of gallery based photographers is much more political, particularly on a domestic level, than that of studio based artists who use the medium. The political content of much gallery based photography sits uneasily within the authoritative framework of institutions who see themselves as cultural arbiters of aesthetic taste.
In the late 20th century, these disparaging perceptions of photography should of course have by now dissipated, but within an Irish context they still seem to be lingering on the fringes of contemporary art discourse. There is a need to move beyond the current impasse which has polarised the role of artists and photographers within the spaces of the gallery and museum. Gallery based photographers have produced work which is particularly salient at a time when questions of Irish culture and identity are increasingly being played out across the wider visual culture, and there is a need for such work to be brought into the wider discourse of contemporary art.