During the summer of 2015 I was invited to Lisbon to participate in the Procurarte international project, Flaneur - New Urban Narratives. The work was installed at Largo do Intendente in central Lisbon, from Sept 11th until Oct 5th 2015.
Following on from the series Postcards From a Life, in December 2014, with the help of a Travel and Training award from The Irish Arts Council, I returned to Paris to gather more material for ongoing research based upon Andre Breton's novel Nadja. Renting a room at Hotel Henri IV, one of the last places Nadja lived in Paris, my intention was to concentrate on the night, to move closer through both image and text, to the psychological space of the original novel. The material gathered will form the basis for a photo book and video work, currently in progress.
Postcards From A Life (2013/15)
“Who am I? If this once I were to rely on a proverb, then perhaps everything would amount to knowing whom I ‘haunt’”.
So begins the story of Andre Breton’s encounter with the enigmatic, and ultimately doomed figure of Nadja in the poets 1928 semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. Nadja, or Leona Camille Ghislaine D. was twenty-four years of age when she met Breton by chance on the Rue Lafayette on October 4th 1926. Struck by the other-worldly detachment of the young woman, her ghostliness and visionary quality, Breton pursued her for the following ten days, tracing an erratic trail through the streets of Paris. Nadja’s mystique lay in her inexplicable, almost clairvoyant capacity to move lucidly between regular and alternative states of consciousness. She was for that very brief period of time the embodiment the Surrealist femme enfant, the conduit, or door to the marvellous. As in the writing of contemporaries such as Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant, Philippe Soupault’s Last Nights of Paris and Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, Breton’s story is that of the Flaneur, wanderer, entranced somnambulist on the threshold of the uncanny, who seeks and finds in the object of desire, not only a door to the subconscious, but ultimately the answer to the riddle of his own identity. Breton’s infatuation with Nadja thought short-lived, drew him towards a dark undertow, a psychological voyeurism into states verging on insanity. On 24th March 1927 in the Spring following their brief affair, Nadja was admitted for psychiatric care to the Perray-Vaucluse Hospital, and from there transmitted to a hospital near her home town of Lille, where she died in 1941 at the age of thirty-nine. Breton never saw her again in person beyond that initial ten-day encounter, but her spectral presence lingered on, resulting in his 1928 novel, and her enduring legacy as one of the great Surrealist muses.
Breton chose forty-four photographic plates to accompany his text for Nadja, many by the photographer Jacques-André Boiffard, whom he commissioned to record certain places related to the story, others quite haphazard illustrations of objects and artifacts. The disjuncture between the poetic prose of Breton’s text and the documentary, often didactic quality of the plates was something Breton regarded as the least successful component of the final work. By 1937, with the publication of Lamour Fou, in many respects the redemptive sequel to Nadja, Breton more successfully used several images from the Surrealist photographer Gyula Halász (Brassai), to accompany his new work. Here the nocturnal wanderings of the photographer through the deserted streets of the city, communicate a sense of dark immanence, of threshold states and unsettling emergence from the depths of shadow. His work navigates a metaphysical underworld, rupturing the often too literal grip of the photograph as document, and allowing for the imaginative or subconscious to infuse the image through a specular fascination, more in accordance with Breton’s expressive intention.
In the summer of 2012 I travelled to Paris in search of Nadja. Over a period of ten days, using Breton’s text and Boiffard’s photographic plates, I followed the same routes, visited the same places mentioned. I was searching for evidence of Nadja, any traces remaining, any indication of what she might have been like then, or what she would look like today, as she wandered the streets of Paris. In the process I reshot many of the original locations from Breton’s novel and created a series of maps of my journeys. Using similar Surrealist techniques of reliance on chance to reveal mystery, and the later methods of Derive and Detournment of the Situationalist International movement, I navigated the city by day and by night. As I searched for Nadja, I also wrote to Breton, a semi-autobiograpical narrative, in the first person, responding to his account of encounter. My intention was to give voice and image to a side of his story which had been so silenced, so erased, yet so important it influenced a generation of artists.
The resulting work, Postcards from a Life, consists of ten panels, one for each day of the journey, both Breton’s and my own. Each includes a map juxtaposing my journey with that of Bretons, a constructed conversation between two speaking subjects, and finally a series of nine photographic images, each the size of a postcard. I have deliberately used aesthetic conventions of photography from different eras, to skew the temporal reading of these images. Using my own shots, interwoven with archival material, found images and textual fragments, my intention is to suggest archival evidence of a life and an autobiography. The work is a constructed archive for Nadja, a materialization of evidential traces from a life that has been otherwise erased. This work is also part research into the role, function and potential of photography to operate as a mnemonic environment.
In September 1954 Dorothea Lange began a six-week assignment for Life Magazine, shooting rural life in Clare, a county on the western seaboard of Ireland. Based for the duration of her stay at the Old Ground Hotel in Ennis, she hired a car and travelled out daily into local villages and townlands to document rural existence as she found it. Lange was fifty-nine years of age when she visited Ireland and it was her first trip outside of America. She travelled with her son Daniel Dixon, who was to write an accompanying photo essay for her images. Prior to visiting Ireland, Lange read The Irish Countryman, a book written in 1937 by the Harvard based academic and anthropologist Conrad Arensberg. Arensberg’s text was based on observations made during a year of field studies in the small village of Lough in North-West Clare.
Linda Gordon in her autobiography on Lange, A Life Beyond Limits, (2009, p.370) notes that in Ireland Lange was searching for something of the rural unspoiled relationship between people, community and the land that marked her project on Mormon life in America. Gordon also comments that Lange’s preparation included defining symbolic, descriptive and analytic categories of topics to capture, with an identified list of particular subjects planned in advance. These included, ‘emigration; congregations; the temperament and the weather… the church, the creamers, the fair’, and technical specifications including angle of view on her subjects. She also found and concentrated on a number of family units, including the O’Halloran family whose two daughters were about to emigrate to America, and the farmstead of Michael Kenneally, who was over time to become the most iconic subject in this body of work.
Inspired by Lange’s images of County Clare, my current work and on-going photographic research involves a revisiting of Lange’s original sites, motifs and interpretation of life in the county. Beginning in Spring 2014, I have been travelling to selected places and events to capture moments in the regular daily life of local communities. Along with my camera, I am carrying a small suitcase, which will eventually contain all the images taken, along with maps of my journeys. This object is also serving as a self-reflexive visual device to question the role of the photographic observer, as nomadic ethnographer or wandering flaneur in a rural context, gathering evidence of a place and its culture for a future archive. The suitcase is pictured in some of the images, where people encountered along my route agreed to interact with it. In other images, it sits alone in the landscape, evoking thoughts of transience, of a state of passing through, of the emigrant experience so familiar to many in this part of the country. Many of the photographs are simply straight up documentary images of what I have seen, responding to Lange's choice of topic, site or subject. Along with compiling and exhibiting prints and maps with the suitcase itself, I hope to bring the work together in a book publication in 2017.
Remember to Forget (2013/14)
This work is about a journey of return to Helsinki in December 2012, to reclaim memories attached to certain buildings and locations in the city, in particular the island of Suomenlinna in Helsinki harbour. Using photography, psychogeographical mapping and text the work explores how memory is interwoven with certain buildings, streets and places, generating complex affective mnemospheres linking both the inner and outer life. I use the term mnemosphere to describe the psychological process where the outer environment is infused with an affective overlay, that lingers, like an afterimage or double exposure induced by material traces. Memory held fast by the architecture of a life is suddenly triggered by the opening of a physical door, or the way shadows fall in the corner of a room revisited. Gaston Bachelard in his theory of topoanalysis notes how “memories are motionless, the more securely they are fixed to space, the sounder they are.”
In this work I am exploring the interplay between journeying through real buildings and the memories they house. I have used certain aesthetic and technical devices particular to photography to show chosen rooms, or spaces as metaphors for memory itself. During this journey many of the key locations were also in a state of physical renovation, and were therefore empty, devoid and cleansed of objects. All that remained were walls being painted over, areas fenced off, spaces in a state of transition, footprints of dust on freshly painted floors; a reminder of the futility of attempts to hold onto or linger in the past, when everything even the most solid of structures eventually change, fade or disappear. This work consists of a series of individual photographic prints and a photo book.