by Stephen Baker
At times it has felt like the fall-out and debris of Northern Ireland’s violent past has been swept up with indecent haste to make way for the new political dispensation; that culture has been pressed into the service of ‘rebranding’ Northern Ireland as a place in which to do business; and that ‘the troubles’ have been dismissed as a period of collective madness from which Northern Ireland is now recovering. There has, for instance, been no process of ‘truth and reconciliation’ and no agreed or ‘official’ version of the past to underpin a museum exhibition or the teaching of history in schools.
Ennui, indifference and economic expediency have seen to it that there is precious little public reflection upon a period that for many people was formative in both a personal and political sense. It is in this context that we might consider Malcolm Gilbert’s Post Traumatic Exorcism, a collection that renders violent acts in vivid detail, with a mise-enscene that is often recognizably Northern Irish and an iconography that at times recalls the ‘Troubles’.
Gilbert foregoes the forensic gaze of the crime scene, the documentarist’s commitment to realism and the therapeutic impulse to seek healing and reconciliation - all styles that might lend themselves to his subject. Instead, his photographs seem to draw inspiration from pulp fiction novels and comic books, both of which are low-cultural forms usually associated with sensationalism, prurience and the macabre. However it is the very excesses of these forms that give substance to the ‘pastiche of memories, fears, anxieties, paranoia’ and things that Gilbert says he finds otherwise unspeakable.
Each photograph stages an act of violence in a way that sometimes defies popular expectation and convention. If the Irish countryside has long been mythologised as an idyllic site of respite and leisure, in Post Traumatic Exorcism it contains a child-assassin and elsewhere provides the backdrop to a suicide.
In the latter image, the anguished, kneeling figure of a man points a gun to his head, the scenic Ulster countryside stretching out behind him. Here the picturesque surroundings seem implicated in the suicide’s despair, with the blue skies and cumulus clouds stacked oppressively above the tormented figure in the foreground. In another photograph Gilbert seems to use the environment figuratively. Woodland provides the backdrop to a macabre act of butchery, perhaps drawing upon the strong association of the forest with witches and wolves in children’s fairy tales.
At times there is an element of bathos and dark humour in the way Gilbert brings seemingly incongruous elements together. An assassin smiles for the camera as if posing for a holiday snap, while behind him his female accomplice stands by their victim’s lifeless body. Alternatively, a hooded, grimacing figure appears in a tidy, commonplace living room, simultaneously challenging the assumed sanctuary of the domestic sphere and looking ridiculously out of place in it. The orange fruit, stabbed with a kitchen knife, clutched in the figure’s right hand, is the sort of surreal detail that appears in dreams and nightmares. Here it seems to comment mockingly upon the paramilitary-style figure holding it, defusing his ominous presence. Indeed, the juxtaposition of the tiny kitchen knife with the automatic weapon by the figure’s side and the pistol stuffed suggestively down the front of his trousers, hints at his potential domestication, emasculation and perhaps even impotence.
This taste for intriguing juxtapositions is also present in the image of a young boy holding a man at gunpoint – albeit a toy gun. A small horse watches on one side, while a sinister adult seems to direct the child from the other. This menacing accomplice hides behind a caravan, which has emblazoned on its side a Christian message, suggestive of an association between violence and religious fundamentalism.
Furthermore, there is something ambiguous about the plastic holster that hangs around the boy’s waist, the plastic gun in his hand and the cowboy hat that lies at his feet. Are we witnessing the corruption of childhood by a nefarious grown-up world or is there an implicit message that boyhood games are already a preparation for violent, adult masculinity? Similarly indefinite is the sight of the paramilitary-figure in that most sacrosanct of places – the home. Does it represent a monstrous incursion upon domestic live or is it a comment on how commonplace violence actually is?
In fact, all the killers, victims and suicides in Post Traumatic Exorcism look conspicuously ordinary, dressed in football tops, t-shirts, trainers and jeans, while their surroundings seem disconcertingly familiar. This is not at all how violence is usually portrayed in Northern Ireland. In our cultural imagination we have configured it in shades of noir and confined it to the urban outdoors. We strictly demarcate so-called ordinary people from malevolent and murderous others. In films such as Mickybo and Me and The Mighty Celt, for instance, young protagonists are depicted in prelapsarian terms, not as cold-blooded assassins. Meanwhile, ‘home’ and all its loving intimacies are off-limits to unreconstructed paramilitary-types. These myths provide a sort of ideological comfort by dividing the social world in to ‘us’ ordinary decent folk and ‘them’ murderous criminals. What is interesting about the Post Traumatic Exorcism collection is its refusal to offer any such reassurance that the world can be so neatly catagorised and ordered.