The Other Side of Hedonism
by Francis Halsall

Source - Issue 76 - Autumn - 2013 - Click for Contents

Issue 76 Autumn 2013
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View photographs from: Ibiza Index, Nothing is Ever the Same as They Said it Was ▸

When we were bored, as kids, there was a stupid game we played. You’d start at night in a garden and head off creeping through neighbours’ back gardens. Climbing over fences, squeezing through hedges and dodging through yards the game was to see how far one could go. Inevitably, at some point, you’d have to stop as you’d run into a prickly thicket, unclimbable wall or vicious looking dog.

Occasionally a security light would be triggered and you’d be held captive for a moment in its blue-ish flare, rendered visible to anyone looking out. More often than not you’d catch odd glimpses of lives going on inside, framed by a window. These were boring, normal lives that seemed exotic in their banality: family meals; couples watching television; petty bickering; and people just sitting, waiting for something to happen. I’d almost forgotten about this but it came back to me when I started looking at Gareth McConnell’s pictures. He offers pictures of boredom too.

Since 2002 McConnell has been returning to Ibiza to photograph the young people who go there to go clubbing or "the kids that live to party and get as wrecked as possible" as he puts it. My youthful transgressions of suburban boundaries seem to apply here for two reasons. First, kids are idiots. They’ll do anything for kicks no matter how stupid it is. They like to fool themselves that anything goes when it comes to escaping the imagined humdrum of middle-class teenage home life. McConnell’s subjects are similarly drawn to excitement and reckless ways of escaping. Second, like my own explorations into the lives of others McConnell also seems to offer us glimpses into the banal remainder of a lifestyle. He shows us what’s left over when the PA goes quiet, the lights go up and the drugs wear off. Then, life continues on mundanely, on the other side of hedonism, behind closed doors.

These photographs are boring. And I mean this as a compliment. It means that we’re not so much trespassing into the subjects’ rooms, so much as participating in their boredom. The obvious place to start the project would have been places where the parties take place, in the clubs, at the bars, on the beaches. The easiest thing to do would have been to document the lifestyle of their public ecstasy and not the private spaces they return to after the sun’s come up. This would have been to make images of the very things that had seduced McConnell’s subjects in the first place: those images of a sun-drenched, never-ending party. Instead, McConnell has the nerve to show us something else. These rooms could be almost anywhere and his characters anonymous. They seem stuck in limbo, in no place in particular, as if waiting for the next party to happen.

This is, of course, not the first time that images have coupled modernity with a sense of ennui. Manet, the great painter of modern life in the 19th Century often presents his models as appearing bored. The serving girl in A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882) wears a look of weary resignation at odds with the decadence of the nightclub where she works. The ambiguity that Manet plays on so beautifully arises because we can’t tell whether it’s the barmaid who’s bored by her profession or the model, Suzon, bored by modelling for Manet. This ambiguity reappears here in the insolent stares McConnell has captured. In Manet’s Olympia (1863) the model Victorine Meurent wears a similarly blank and detached expression. This is probably why the painting was so shocking for its bourgeois audience; the model was not pretending to enjoy her position (that of a prostitute). Instead what was laid bare was the object reality of her imperfect body (which one critic lambasted as a mockery of fine art; a ‘base model’ with ‘a yellow stomach’) and situation. The Ibiza models are similarly unidealized, with lumpy, blotchy skin and occasionally sagging flesh.

The truth is, it’s difficult to be bored these days. To admit to being bored is to resist the contemporary demand that we be always consuming, always entertained. There is a ‘duty’ to "have a good time today", as Slavoj Zižek puts it. Contemporary capitalism works, he says, through constant injunctions to enjoy ourselves and "experience the need to have a good time... and, consequently, feel guilty for failing to be happy".

It’s a hard thing to admit to being bored when there are so many apparent choices offered to amuse and enjoy. We can be constantly distracted, of course, by screens and networks, but being bored requires a certain amount of sustained attention. Being boring requires being in the same place for enough time; it demands paying attention long enough to be bored. This is perhaps why it resonates with the post-drug situation which we can imagine is being depicted here. After the buzz, when colours and smells and sounds and feelings become deadened, and flattened again, maybe boredom is the necessary come-down back to life as it needs to be lived. What we can now see is the necessary, inescapable ordinariness which accompanies the simple administration of modern life.

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