Introducing Jonathan Olley's Pictures Of Barracks
by Tom Paulin
Issue 21 Winter 1999
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In an attempt to assimilate these images, I think of the Roman god of walls and boundaries, Terminus. There was an annual ceremony on 23 February when first fruits were offered and libations of oil and honey were poured over the termini, the boundary stones between properties. These rural termini had their state counterpart in the great god Terminus, the sacred boundary stone which stood, in the temple of the Capitoline Jupiter. The annual ceremonies would have been attempts at assimilation, attempts at plamasing the brutal truth that good fences make good neighbours, that behind social interaction there is a steeliness - the steeliness of Law or the fixed necessary formality that shapes good manners and shuts off intimacy.
But these photographs resist the mythologizing impulse. Mostly these enormous modern or postmodern fortresses - something intergalactic, cold and broken about them - mostly they're uncompromising in their absolute affirmation of the utile, their refusal to even acknowledge any idea of the beautiful. But one observation post is walled in what looks like sandstone crazy paving, as if the horizontals of a suburban garden have been recycled into vertical cladding in a useless effort to go beyond the simply basic and useful. This is an observation post by the walls of Derry and it reminds us that those walls are an earlier version of that city's defensive ramparts, though the walls are part of the life of the city, have attractive sandstone arches and are not too far away from the Grianan of Aileach. So perhaps the sandstone is a joke? Perhaps it says: We too are permanent like these historic walls. We aren't going to go away? The jagged steel fence opposite seems to lift a series of imploring arms towards the observation post, as if beseeching it or its potential besiegers. But this is a pathetic fallacy, another mythologizing gesture.
The dead light in which these objects are held for the most part, the surveillance to which these instruments of surveillance are subjected, is uncompromising, unassimilative. And there are so many lines of perspective that the effect is always uncomfortable, the eye doesn't know where to rest. These structures are like Martian spacecraft, one breaks the terraced main street of what looks like a country town and shows that the irenic structures of ordinary architecture must give way to these armed gods, meshed objects that represent the failure of politics and civic values. Broadcasting House in Ormeau Avenue is an early example of these modern fortresses - it's built to withstand an armed uprising with the inevitable seizure of the radio station.
Are these structures permanent or temporary? Permanent certainly as far as language is concerned - each one is a sangar or sungar, a Punjabi word which entered English by way of the British Raj, Kipling has a line in Barrack-Room Ballads which uses the term: 'When the redcoats crawl to the sungar wall.' But it's unhelpful to view these ugly forts as colonial monstrosities - they are emblems of a collective failure which as I write the Peace Process may or may not overcome. I look at the OP on a hill - here the light is gentler, the structure almost part of the landscape, and I remember a vast border post just outside Derry, I think it was on the road to Newtoncunningham - you were inside high walls of corrugated iron as you waited to get the go-ahead to cross. That border fort has completely disappeared and remains only in the memory, but this post on a hill seems to be saying: I'm here and I'm staying and whatever you think of the state that built me go you and build a better one, then send your lorries to dismantle me. I'm just a version of that metal gate to the field in the foreground. Come nearer and the trees grow darker, they might be marching on Dunsinane, except the light shines on the OP as if it's a version of Zion or of another walled city on a hill, the city of the oak groves, Derry. The trees here are sinister and must hold snipers.
The wire mesh and the shadows of the mesh and its steel framework are on the one hand incontrovertibly real and therefore resistant to a symbolic interpretation, but it's hard not to remember Stephen Dedalus wishing to escape the nets of class, nation, religion, language. Really these images show how barracks are part of daily life and that the daily lives of everyone in Ulster are trammelled by the fact that war is politics by other means. There is something vulnerable and hunkered down about these steel sangars and OPs, though the four OPs with young pine saplings in the foreground look like children dressed in balaclava helmets or masked for some Halloween game. Or maybe they look like young masked terrorists? One day the pines will grow tall and obscure these observation posts, as one day peace must replace conflict. In my lifetime I have seen the Finn valley in Co Donegal change from bare mountain valley to a wooded valley packed with tall pine trees, but this image has the strangeness of the grass in the foreground looking as if it's almost unprinted negative or as though it has been brushed or stuck on. Light seems to retreat into the four OPs, they do not give out light, they absorb it. They are not enlightened structures and seem to rise from the subconscious. Are these the dei inferni Hegel opposed to the daylight, the civic gods? That's a hard question, but this photograph poses it, I think. It leaves us to answer it. On the other hand Kant's phrase for the thing itself - Ding an sich - comes to mind. The thing beyond perception, beyond observation. This is an uncomfortable mystery - imagine having it on your living-room wall? It would seem to have broken into your four walls - as an armoured car or a pipe or petrol bomb might.
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