John Byrne

John Byrne in Northern Ireland: 30 years of Photography, at MAC, Belfast

During the opening night, I noticed the pronounced difference in the display  between the two venues:  the intuitive sensitive installation in the small gallery at BX (see my previous post) and the hierarchic self-regard to expertise in the MAC galleries.  The suppressed subject was simply not allowed to break some mighty code of objective overview  and struggled to ameliorate the supermarket-shelf syndrome. At BX the hang was grounded in the images, in the visual value, in the preferences for the visible,  for the thinking in terms of images.

At MAC, many valuable encounters were suffocated by the absence of a spatial pause between them.  Consequently, the images that addressed the privacy of an experience lost out to the multitude and scale. Not that all the highly ambitious public narratives benefitted from the hang either.

And yet, of course it would be, there was an exception. On a narrow face of a pillar two small photographs  beckoned across the whole length from the door – something red, something frivolously free emanated a silent call and pull.  John Byrne  does not consider himself to be a photographer, the two images were one of several additions to his week-long project thirteen years ago. Recently, the artist emailed me the following reminder:

The two images were from a set of four which  featured on a single postcard labeled “Castles of The Border” (2000).  As the text suggests, they were taken at Cloghoge and Crossmaglen, County Armagh. Both are un-manipulated original images taken by myself.  The postcards were part of a range of ‘touristy’ merchandise on sale in my “Border Interpretative Centre” of the same year. This visitor’s  centre was positioned on a lay-by right at the border on the main Belfast-Dublin road. Other items available included miniature ceramic British army watchtowers imprinted with “Good Luck from the Border” and sticks of candy rock labeled “A Present from the Border”. The Centre lasted just under a week in September 2000 and is documented in a short video entitled ‘A day trip to the Border itself’  http://www.john-byrne.ie/project.php

Castles of the Border 1

John Byrne: from Castles of The Border, 2000

Castles of the Border2

John Byrne: from Castles of The Border, 2000

The use of text over a photograph is  a quite ubiquitous,  at the other venue, the BX gallery, a whole wall is dedicated to a variety of relationships between the visual and the verbal, often one rescuing the other.

John Byrne took the photographs in a unremarkable manner, and then pasted over the words of ironic denial of an a priori identity between the motif and its  photographic image.

The in-congruence between what is seen and what the verbal insists on, could mediate  a split between real and reported, but also between the subject and object. The first photograph does not represent  spectacular views of the landscape,  the fort is not clearly articulated, it looks annihilated by the watchtower. In the second photograph, there are not ‘old’ but only new fortifications, and there is no main square to be seen. The lens is condemned to one directed view whereas the subject kneeling / hiding  among the flowers  knows what is outside the direction of the camera and before and after the click of the button. As a relation between stages of cognition, each photograph presents simultaneously a truth and a doubt about it, as well as raising the issue of who controls what. When cognition is an instrument that projects its own limitations, it usually makes room for a belief, a conviction – at worst for a lazy  habit. And, vice versa. The consensual transparency of a photographic image  is limited by its blindness to what is not the predicted result.

The absence of people in these photographs vacated space to man-made and natural objects – constructed and grown. It is, by the way it exists, a connection to the subject behind the lens, the subject also responsible for the addition of the verbal elements. Thus the absence is not absolute, and is not a case of alienation. It is also not just, what Susan Sontag called,  ‘a  miniature slice of reality’.  The selected angle places the camera among the growing plants, accessing the myth of renewal, opening a space for hope and despair. and for a change, however remote and fragile.  The large part of the picture plane  is covered with red flowers.  The soft natural forms exude power of a different kind of surveillance contrasted with the power of the surveillance of the  tower on the hill, and of the massive fortification of a police station. The presence of vulnerable flowers not only overcomes the  estrangement of people from the scene (viz W Benjamin, Little History of Photography), it also subverts the essential ratification by photography of what we see (viz R Barthes, Camera Lucida). Indeed, we may not accept the truth of the words either. Except that the words would not let us. Their power is cemented by the ironic clash of the visible and verbal, regardless which appears more believable. It is that clash that matters. It is what it is, it is what it is not, it is also its own past and future. Significant value of this slippage is the lightness of being, certainly  not a value habitually associated with the Troubles. Byrne positioned the power of a joke over the grave condition for living in Northern Ireland. Jokes about who knows what and when are venerable weapons of those who are deprived of freedom of thought and assembly by oppressive regimes.

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