Art as Irritant
by Suzanne O'Shea
Issue 28 Autumn 2001
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View photographs from: No Surrender - Portraits from the Albert Bar ▸
I'm glad I'm not in Carrickfergus. Well, the Carrickfergus of these pictures at any rate. Frankly, they depress me. There are a number of reasons for this, some of them nostalgic, others more ambiguous. One of my favourite poems, Louis McNeice's 'Carrickfergus', with its 'mill-girls, smell of porter and salt-mines,' bears little or no resemblance to these pictures of Ulster Loyalists, to these dark and oppressive documentary photographs of a ideology, perhaps as impoverished as its Catholic counterpart.
Having lived in Northern Ireland, the subjects of these pictures are familiar to me as are the politics of the society in which they live. Initially, any insightful foray into their respective personalities is the furthest thing from my mind. Primarily, these photographs are about people living in a divided community, people perhaps who like many of us, harbour mean secrets and small dreams and are trapped in two by four lives. Closed circuit?
In an ideal world, in an ideal magazine, the complexity of the Ulster political scene would not be a factor. But here, it is. The ostensibly decontextualised space of a magazine like Source may function here to artfully sexualise or glamourise the state of civil strife in which the subjects of these photographs play out their lives. Or so it seems to me initially. But there is an element of risk in the editorial decision to publish them, and implicit in that risk is a respect for the integrity of the readership. If, as reader, I refuse to leave these personalities unexcavated, if I prioritise the political referents, am I not ignoring the principle that that which is art is often indigestible - an irritant in consciousness? In playwright Howard Barker's theatre of catastrophe for example, the intention of the actor/artist is to wound the audience, to inflict pain, to honour with the truth of an absence of truth. Perhaps my personal distaste for the ideological certitudes of both perspectives in the ongoing 'troubles' is preventing me from looking beyond the descriptive parameters of these pictures?
Given my interest in an art that functions primarily as a space of contradiction, that turns conventional aesthetics on its head and prioritises a disordered, improper aesthetic that privileges the ambiguity, the enigma over the factual, given that I continue to preach to my students an openness to an ongoing negotiation of crisis in the name of precarious stabilities, am I not duty-bound to consider these pictures from the point of view of some kind of 'difficult' iconic resonance? In Eoin MacNamee's latest novel, The Blue Tango, the 1952 murder of teenager Patricia Curran in suburban Belfast - stabbed 37 times - is reimagined by the author, principally through the aegis of an old photograph. In an interview with Mick Heaney, MacNamee speaks of the affinity between photographs and memory, how after the first captured moment, a picture begins to acquire a density beyond the still image, a resonance that moves it beyond political and societal parameters. And this sentiment comes from an author who describes himself as 'pretty nationalist'.
I allowed myself a straw poll of friends and colleagues, who, without exception, found the studies of enormous interest, particularly in relation to the body language of the subjects. All commented on the rigidity of the postures set off by fixed expressions, on the shadowed interior and garish setting, on the 'hard men' expressions, the lack of openness. Such reactions forced me beyond the dubious certitudes of defined audiences and obvious channels to contemplate the possibility that these people provoke a spirit of curiosity and fascinated interest in the viewer. In short, the consensus seems to be that, over and above any intentional or interpretive political referents, these pictures constitute 'art' and for that reason alone, Source has both a duty and a right to publish them. That an interaction takes place and that that communication lies on a line of infinite variation and in a variety of ways of seeing and viewing the world, is obvious. Isn't this what makes art, above all else, a document of the human condition? Think of Rembrandt's evocative portraits of the burghers of his home town - how much they reveal of the socio-political conditions of the time, how much they reveal of the personalities, the inner lives of his subjects.
In this spirit, I try to imagine lives for these subjects, aware that in so doing, I am risking partial, contingent, non-universal meanings. Consider the evidence: A man sits, pose defensive, well-worn slip-on shoes, jeans, sweatshirt, socks, red-hued skin perfectly set off by the noxious red-tiled floors, horizontal-striped walls caging a subtle seediness, a coiled energy. A tattoo rests in the soft place between thumb and forefinger. Somehow, the encroaching darkness is safer, softer than the harshness of light in which he sits. He seems to be a man waiting, perhaps for the next thing they will tell him.
In the best tradition of C15th marriage portraiture, sits a girl, vest splayed like a second skin, again the tattoos, the emblamatization of self - soft young skin, rings on her fingers, hair, flyaway, hands gently resting on inner thighs, too-snug top jean button, altogether a sexualisation of self, yet her face is that of Leonardo's Madonnas, serene, enigmatic. She is the keeper of secrets, this daughter, grand-daughter, girlfriend, this incipient mother.
And who shall be her suitor? What about the three 'usual suspects', grouped in the corner around an incongrous glass of orange? Will it be brute force or a kind of loving? Or perhaps it will be the younger man, posture defensive, hands protecting his crown jewels, his face fixed, set, defending his physical territory. She will not threaten his mental territory.
And what of the two older men, one distorted by tattoos, angrily cupping his genitals, his face a study in rigidity, in implacable threat. Will he dance, benign uncle, at the nuptials? What of the silent man, face shrouded in shadows, calling to mind the 'cleaner' in Tarantino's Pulp Fiction? Is there some kind of communion between him and the almost genderless figure, also seemingly swallowed in the gathering dark?
Endless speculation then and elsewhere in a hushed Belfast, taut drumskins beat their bright-orange retreat in the summer sun. Undoubtedly, these pictures have creative force when situated cross-culturally. They have resonance over and above societal and political referents. They are neither sentimental nor slick. They are not self-congratulatory. The photographer, rather like a modern Carravaggio has set the scene carefully, has lit it carefully, has assembled his dramatis personae judiciously and may, in these processes, be attempting to influence the viewer. But not politically, rather covertly, directing attention away from the 'struggle' towards something outside it, greater than it. In the final analysis, away from that pub in Carrickfergus, in the homes of those interested in photography, something else may happen. Art may happen. And as always, it will be an interaction of bone and tendon, of fragile things.
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