samuel laurence cunnane
samuel laurence cunnane
ambiguities Brian Dillon
a conversation Dorje de Burgh and Samuel Laurence Cunnane
ambiguities Brian Dillon
By the time, mid-lockdown in April 2020, that Samuel Laurence Cunnane and I spoke by phone about his recent photographs – he from his home in Kilgarvan, south Kerry, and I in London – I had already been thinking for weeks about the part of the world he is from and what it means to me. My mother grew up at the other end of the county, near the seaside village of Ballyheigue, where I spent my childhood summers. I was due to go back to north Kerry this May for a literary festival, but the pandemic put paid to that and much else. After many years away, I’d been looking forward to revisiting a landscape that seemed always the same and always new: where rock, sea and air never altered, but the rest was apt to change without warning or sentiment. New houses or entire estates, new machines and infrastructure, a fringe of concrete, steel and pebble dash bristling along the coast or extending inland among farms and market towns. It was a landscape that transformed itself much more readily than the city I was used to. After some years making work while travelling – many of his earlier photographs were produced during time spent in the Balkans, Turkey, Iran and elsewhere – Cunnane has returned to the county of his birth and set up at home a darkroom where he hand prints all of his colour and black-and-white photographs. Most of this new body of work has been made in Kerry, where he is drawn, he says, to the outskirts, to messy peripheries, the obscure edges of distinct places, sidelong glances instead of vivid or picturesque vistas. A few of these recent images derive from elsewhere. In Brussels – an eccentric capital uneasily carved up between languages and cultures, international bureaucracy and the scruff of real urban life – Cunnane discovers a boarded-up window at the rear of a redbrick building. In the resulting golden-hour photograph, so many surfaces overlap and contend: concrete, glass, brick, plywood and encroaching vegetation. And in the foreground a tiny point of blue (it might be a scrap of litter) turns the whole into a perfectly poised composition. Always in his work, there is this traction between skulking documentary and exquisite picture-making. Cunnane’s Kerry is assuredly not a place of drystone walls and cattle, yawning cliffs or alluring lake water, let alone the beaches and donkeys of postcard memories. His is in fact the
landscape I also recall of gravelled edges round new-built homes; the anonymous concrete of dwellings, farms and commerce alike; pebble dash walls and a variety of fences: chainlink, chickenwire, barbed and electric. At times in Cunnane’s work, the county resembles a modestly scaled version of the landscape of anonymous greys and brutal architectural forms that the New Topographics artists found in the us in the 1970s. It’s necessarily more true of Cunnane’s blackand-white photographs: Pebble dash (2019) depicts the corner of a building faced in roughcast slabs, blinds unevenly blanked against the windows, gravel and grass in the foreground. Cheap peripheral modern: it might be anywhere. More obviously Irish is a freshly built estate – pitched roofs, too-small windows – with a vast mound of earth still sitting in the middle of the site, amid construction vehicles. You could imagine an endless typology, or simply laconic study in series, of such sites. A decade and more ago, the speculative meeting of land, money and architecture quickly became a charged subject for artists in post-crash Ireland. But that is not really Cunnane’s concern, as you discover when you turn from these starkly accusing black-and-white images to his colour photographs of similar scenes. Something much more ambiguous is going on. Consider Decathlon (2019), another picture of a precast concrete wall, this time with the blue and white logo of the eponymous sports-goods store bisected by the top of the frame. The light is ravishing, the late-summer grasses turned golden, the concrete raked by a shadow out of which a few stems or seed heads stand tall and pale. Or Bird Statue (2019), in which a common sight on Kerry roads – concrete sculptures atop the gateposts of bungalows that aspire to the status of villas – is brightly estranged. For sure, there is a familiar quality of kitsch: this hawk looks more like an unhappy pigeon. But there is more (or is it less?) to the photograph; violently lit against a vacant field, blue sky and telegraph pole, it gives up its knowing documentary aspect to a more conscious sense of theatrical composition or design. The bird looks like a prop, and the landscape like a backdrop. It is even more true of Cunnane’s many photographs of plants: either massed vegetation or single examples isolated against more or less indistinct scenery. There is Ladder (2017),
for example: a vividly green arrangement of deciduous and conifer, an expanse of stucco or pebble dash, a small glimpse of blue sky through the foliage, and the curved summit of the metal ladder of the title. It is the kind of ladder you might see in a swimming pool or on a fire escape, the stuff of countless Hollywood scenes. It is just one instance of something it’s perhaps too easy to call ‘cinematic’ in Cunnane’s work. There are the black-and-white, exotic and eroticised plants that behave, visually, like sharply lit film protagonists in a shallow depth of field. A stand of tall grasses in Seaside (little bird) (2019) recalls a bamboo grove, which Cunnane has cited as a reference point, in Metin Erksan’s 1964 film Dry Summer. A spectre made of cloud or fog, a clump of earth reared up where a tree has gone down: it’s hard not to think of the consoling but somehow also too lush, almost monstrous, vegetation in certain films by Andrei Tarkovsky. When Cunnane photographs a transparent plastic bag of cut grass spilling onto grass of the same colour, I’m reminded of Michelangelo Antonioni painting the grass of a London park a more vivid green for a famous scene in Blowup (1966). (An aside about this ‘cinematic’ element. There is a series or suite of four, Untitled (Parents), that Cunnane made in 2010, showing his own parents dancing together, embracing, listening, laughing. The pictures are black-and-white, grainy, the space around the couple containing a few other figures, celebratory balloons, mostly shadows. When I saw these photographs I thought immediately of a scene in Peter Lennon’s 1967 documentary film The Rocky Road to Dublin. The cinematographer Raoul Coutard – who worked most famously with Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut – trains his camera on young couples dancing slowly in a Dublin nightclub or dancehall. Coutard focuses on one couple in particular, stays with them for what seems an age as they hold each other awkwardly. I felt sure that Cunnane must have based the images of his parents on this extraordinary scene, but I was wrong: he has never seen the film. Instead, the art and ethos of postwar cinema is simply ingrained in his art.) Obvious artifice is one thing, but Cunnane’s work remains a kind of documentary: a mode he embraced early. In 2012, he worked with the late Albert Maysles on the filmmaker’s
Bag of cut grass, 2016
Untitled (Parents), 2010
photographic archive in New York. With his brother David, Maysles was responsible for some of the most innovative works that are now seen a little too simply as direct cinema: they worked with lightweight cameras and newly portable tape recorders to produce intimate portraits of individuals or milieu. If there’s an influence in Cunnane’s photographs from such Maysles films as Salesman (1969), Gimme Shelter (1970) or Grey Gardens (1975), it’s surely in the way Albert Maysles’s camera frequently lights, meditatively, on stray elements of the scene. A dreary hotel interior inhabited by a travelling bible salesman, dreaming innocent faces at the Stones’ deadly Altamont concert, the melancholy overgrown outskirts of Grey Gardens. Documentary doesn’t necessarily look directly at its subject. Nor does it have to see things clearly – in fact, Cunnane is a connoisseur of things that get in the way. His work is full of veils and shadows, frames and filters, impediments to sight. All of these are actual, aspects of the world he photographs, not aesthetic or conceptual distancing mechanisms added later in the darkroom. When he photographs plants they are frequently merely shadows, as in two darkling images of plants inside windows that he made in 2016. In earlier work, path to obscurity was more direct: Cunnane looks at the world through a car’s wing mirror, and everything around this silvered image turns completely dark. A man photographed in the botanical gardens of Hamburg, in 2014, is the merest suggestion of a figure, almost obliterated by lush vegetation. And then there are the doorways, windows and curtains in which Cunnane’s early studies of people threaten to disappear. In Camera Lucida (1980), a book I love almost without reserve, Roland Barthes says something about colour photography that I have always thought quite stupid. All the photographs that interest Barthes are black-and-white; colour seems to him like ‘a coating applied later on to the original truth of the black and white photograph’. This still feels wrong, but looking at some of Cunnane’s pictures I begin to get a sense that colour itself might be for him also a kind of veil or barrier. There are two photographs especially that invite this idea. The first is House in Morning Light (2019): a bungalow shot from low down on a sloping lawn to that the house seems little perilously perched. But it’s the colours that are most striking: or rather the
Man in Botanical Garden, Hamburg, 2014
Celia talks by the door, 2016
fading of grass, sky, roof, walls and windows to a delicately washed out palette. The same range of ‘weak’ colours appears in Sand (2019): a photograph of a damp bunker in a pale, almost lunar, golf course. As Cunnane explains, the colours are partly a matter of morning light – but they also suggest a membrane or curtain placed between artist and object, between us and the world. The colours in Sand and House in Morning Light, says Cunnane, are also the colours one sees in some photographs by Luigi Ghirri, the Italian photographer who lightly combined conceptual wit and commitment to colour as such. Along with William Eggleston, Stephen Shore and Saul Leiter, Ghirri is among a handful of colour photographers you could point to as reference points in Cunnane’s work. (Maybe ‘influence’ is itself an obscuring veil, to be deployed theatrically when the artist chooses.) More important than its historical provenance, I think, is the effect of Cunnane’s adherence to hand printing his colour work, clinging to the density (as he puts it) of the analogue print. Along with his relatively small print sizes – they have begun to expand in recent years – it allows him to maintain a necessary degree of obscurity. The natural world, wrote the late Tim Robinson, essayist laureate of Ireland’s west coast, ‘is largely composed of … recalcitrant entities, over which the geometry of Euclid, the fairy tale of lines, circles, areas and volumes we are told at school, has no authority.’ Instead, landscape reveals itself to the minutest accidental scrutiny; but this is also a kind of theatre, a matter of art and artifice. As Cunnane points out, he lives in a part of the world where the existence of a historical connection to the land is a cultural, political and aesthetic truism. But perhaps we have always been disconnected, in need of better frames and veils by which to look at the landscape. If we are lucky, or have like Cunnane made things less easy, less natural for ourselves, then something is always in the way, vexing us to see.
Brian Dillon’s books include Essayism, In the Dark Room and Objects in This Mirror. His writing has appeared in Artforum, frieze, the Guardian, the New York Times and The New Yorker. He is UK editor of Cabinet magazine, and Professor of Creative Writing at Queen Mary University of London.
Green River, 2019
House in Morning Light, 2019
Site 1, 2019
Seaside (little bird), 2018
Annina bruise, 2019
Plant study 1, 2018
Plant study 2, 2018
Plant study 3, 2018
Plant study 4, 2019
Boarded window, 2019
Hand print, 2019
Siobhรกn 1, 2019
Siobhรกn 2, 2019
Red Plant, 2019
Metal bar, 2019
Pebble dash, 2019
Small truck burning, 2020
Bird Statue, 2019
Steel Rope, 2018
a conversation Dorje de Burgh and Samuel Laurence Cunnane
Samuel Laurence Cunnane by Dorje de Burgh
Dorje de Burgh by Samuel Laurence Cunnane
DdB So, question one: how do we talk about photography, or art, in a time of absolutely unprecedented global crisis? SLC It feels like at a time like this, to make work is one appropriate response, especially as we’re encouraging social isolation, but to talk of work that was made before our reality seems odd, like seeing clips on tv of people hugging and shaking hands, it’s unnerving. I suppose this is the response to a crisis, we go into a heightened state of awareness of the here and now. I have a question for you, what do you think of this now widespread turn to the internet and the online space, safe from Covid-19, where we can continue to disseminate and continue our affairs? DdB Well I mean it’s a paradox. On one level, it’s an incredible opportunity for humanity, to have these technologies at the fingertips of so many people in the midst of such a universal crisis. It provides so many basic needs – community support, communication, dissemination of information, continuity of response etc – while also opening the door to the potential for collective re-appraisal, the sharing of ideas as we (hopefully) move past the worst of this situation towards the healing phase, and then, with luck and courage, into one that includes the potential for some kind of re-imagining of the social / global landscape. On the flipside however, our already pretty Baudrillarian world has suddenly gone full-virtual, so many people in their rooms staring at a Ballard novel unfolding on their screen and out the window, in between Netflix binges and porn breaks. It’s just very uncertain, from where we are now, where it will all lead. To bring it back to the work – you’re a self confessed analogue-fetishist, and your process bar promotion pretty much ignores the digital. Do you feel that you would still be drawn to make art, make photographs, if the virtual space was the only avenue open to share the work? And if so, do you think you would change your working methods?
SLC I’m glad you raised the question of analogue photography, because I wanted to get your thoughts on this too. I am, as you accurately point out, a total fetishist when it comes to all that is related to the celluloid and chemical parts of the history of photography and film. But beyond the pure aesthetic question, which I increasingly find the less interesting part of the comparison, it is the act of the process itself and what’s involved that I love so much. The act of disappearing into a completely darkened room (in the case of colour) to print, and focusing entirely on touch and habit, where no screen, and so no outside information, is permitted, is a kind of sanctuary. The physical nature of the cameras, the loud shutter, the clicks of the aperture rings, the tactile nature of the prints… all of these are reminders of a physical existence. Having said that, I use digital to make video and sound recording and I’m cautious about not making too big a deal about the ‘object’. Colour carbon prints for example are probably the most beautiful colour chemical print possible but I think the immediacy and universal language might be lost the further the object is a result of such a difficult process. Normal colour and black-and-white darkroom work is really quite easy. As for whether I would still make work this way if the only wall available was the virtual gallery wall; most definitely. My biggest concern with the online space is that I feel my work adds to the deluge of imagery assaulting everyone on the internet. My question to you about the analogue process is do you ever worry that the aesthetic inherent in the analogue process sits too readily on top and gets interpreted first and gets in the way of a deeper consideration of the work, that it ultimately distracts? DdB I mean, on one level, it’s all just picture making, although I do just prefer the actual look of pictures made on film, and hand printed. But then, there is also, when you really analyse it, a definite difference, and that’s in the realm of the latent image – a digital sensor and a frame of film work in pretty much the same way, in terms of how light inscribes what’s in front of the camera. But then the digital image is compressed into binary and sped away onto a memory card to make room for the next one. Whereas of course the film itself moves,
wound along, so the latent image – the chemical fingerprint, the index, remains an object in the world. Even before processing, the trace is there. Which I feel has some kind of ontological value. The inscription of the thing photographed is also an actual solid thing, not just a bunch of digital data, squashed and flattened and sent about the place, and then re-interpolated back up into some depressingly flawless inkjet. Now to be clear, there’s obviously ontological value in the compression and velocity, it’s just a different thing, of a different register. But I do believe the result is different in its resonance – flatter, deader. I think it all depends on what you’re trying to do with the work – if the analogue process, or the digital, or a hybrid, or a photocopy, has some kind of integrity in relation to your practice, or to what image making means to you, to what you are trying to say or achieve with the work, then fine. But if you’re just using a 5d because it’s faster or cheaper then the work will probably be quite boring. I’m not answering the question though… I think if the process is a part of the work’s conceptual logic, then fine, but it’s problematic when used as a false barometer of authenticity or value. How do you perceive it, on the frontline of the fine-art gallery-system? Do you feel your way of working sometimes becomes disproportionately emphasised, ahead of the actual content of the work? SLC Yes I definitely agree with you, the medium and the way of working all has to make sense in terms of the conceptual logic as balanced with a process that you would actually want to do day in and day out. Eventually these second hand cameras we use are going to break down and the skill set and knowledge to repair them will disappear. At what point does the amount of effort required (mixing raw chemicals, making homemade paper and emulsions and building your own camera) to keep a practice alive begin to take up a disproportionate amount of time compared to actually taking photographs. For now, the balance – because of the ease of use and the availability of materials – makes this still possible for me personally, but I’m interested to see what happens next.
As for whether I feel the analogue process gets disproportionately emphasised; all I can say is that if it does then I am definitely complicit because of the care I take in printing the work. I will often reprint an entire show, just to get the tonal range across the works to sit together. But even the sizes I choose to print help to emphasise the small meticulous nature of the print and so I think it’s a register I’ve very much emphasised myself. I have another question in regard to your practice: we would have both started off making work that was informed by a certain relationship to a certain lived experience, where we recorded unstaged moments of everyday life. I often feel that as I’ve gone on making work, I’m less interested in what’s actually going on in the frame but now I’m interested in what it feels like to look at it and how the looking at it changes the scene itself. Do you feel a similar shift away from making work like we did, constantly ready and waiting for something to occur? DdB Hmm. Yeah it’s strange. I suppose you could say our work diverged quite heavily in the past few years – on a certain level. Maybe not in how we think but in practical terms. Through the nature of my disastrous life-trajectory my work became quite explicitly personal whereas I feel you perhaps stepped back into a more ambiguous sphere, leaning towards a meditative concern with the formal construction of the image and how that could be utilised in communicating mood or emotional register… though please do correct me if I’m wrong. I do feel we both, as you say, have moved away from a reactive decisive-moment image making process, but, for myself, I’m still finding the language around where I’ve moved to. My last work was created on the fly and instinctively, but in a very slow way, making images around an event (death) that in that particular instance was happening very slowly. So you’re kind of just making images in which nothing happens. I feel that as your work has developed it has become quite deeply concerned with the act and process and practice of looking, tied into an economy of means and method, coinciding with your move back to the south of the country. I know you still make work in cities too, but do you feel the meditative environment of West Kerry has contributed to this turn inwards,
towards the bare bones of image making? And I’m interested in what you say about the act of looking changing the scene itself: would you like to elaborate on that? Do you mean by the act of framing, photographing, transposing the scene into a viewable object – or merely by being present, in phenomenological terms? With the photograph as an incidental by-product? I’m also interested in how you feel about the idea of the ‘story’. This is something photography is so often tied up with, particularly as one is educated, even under the remit of ‘art photography’. What is the story / what is the narrative?, etc. Which we both kind of always hated. The idea that photographic work had to have some kind of explicit or didactic throughline to be comprehensible. SLC So yes, first off, I’ve definitely, like you, resisted the idea of the linear immediate story thread. I would prefer, if the work had to be read as though through someone’s eyes, that it be interpreted more akin to a series of recollections or memories that time has murked and blended together. Having said that, some concise works with strict parameters and definite linearity are among my favourites, A Criminal Investigation by Watabe Yukicki for instance. As for your first question about how my work has changed, no I think you’re right, I think my work expanded on something I was already interested in back then, which was the gulf between a concrete real and our experience of it and what part seeing went into this. In other words, how the eyes, and by extension the camera, felt like tools we controlled but whose results we couldn’t understand. They are analogous because of the barrier they create between experience and witnessing it. Our brains are so limited at actually taking in what we’re seeing that I always feel there’s lots to explore in that and as a result I certainly took a more detached perspective. I like it when I manage to make work that feels like it’s been made by a floating eye. Having said that, there are personal elements in my work (I photograph my mother a lot for instance) but even then I want the camera to play a part that affects the scene. It’s a bit like when I said that looking itself changes the scene. I’m not sure if it manages to be reflected in the work but as you say, the framing and composition, the being present and altering it in a physical
sense, but even to the extent that if I’m witnessing this scene, there is the numerous others I am not photographing at that point, they become present in the work as a kind of blindspot. DdB To circle back a little bit to our immediate situation, we’re all going to have to start thinking local in this new future – which is seemingly even more cancelled than we could have imagined when we began this conversation. How do you now feel about the potential avenues for sharing work – analogue or otherwise – in a world in which the reintroduction of communal cultural experiences (in the forms we are used to) appear so much further away than we previously thought possible? The street as gallery? Photobook chain mail? Or just endless virtual gallery walk-throughs for ever? SLC I think if we’re lucky and with some tight controls, people will visit some shows in person and get to see the real thing in the next few months, but beyond that I can’t help but feel we’re accelerating an already ongoing trend. This will first be experimented by the market and the art fair, if the viewings of works and transactions can still occur at a similar rate, then it will move online surely, where the running costs will be a fraction of what they were before. As for the public institutions and educational possibilities, what better way to bring art to people who are normally deprived of it for geographic or socio-economic reasons, than by putting these public collections online along with educational tools. But as for how it concerns us, I think you’re right, the opportunity to use spaces on the street to show work in a safe outdoor environment could be an interesting development. Not to mention using temporarily empty premises recently vacated by businesses that have failed and won’t be filled for the foreseeable future (until tourism returns which might be a while) to showcase art works in the interim. These might encourage a return to a localised practice that can situate itself nearby. DdB Agreed. The one potential plus that could come from this nightmare is the resurgence of local / diy scene aesthetics – art and music and culture created only for the immediate
audience, maybe even without the a priori dream of global fame, discovery, going viral, whatever. But I think you’re right, if that does happen it will be parallel with an everexpanding online ecosystem. Bifo Barardi’s forlornly hopeful take on how to combat the semio-capitalist endgame is a version of just that – small scale, local political organising, knowledge sharing, reading groups…. So maybe there’s some room for optimism. Ok, last question: a writer friend of mine said the other day that she is finding it impossible to work on the book and screenplay she had started before the pandemic, because everything she was concerned with – thematically – now seems quaint and dated. Like a period piece. Now I understand this is perhaps a difficult question as we are having this conversation precisely on the occasion of a presentation of your work created in that very circumstance… but how do you feel this strange moment – of collective grief, pain, uncertainty – will potentially affect how your work, or work in general created pre-pandemic, is read? SLC I think it’s a very good question and although I can’t pretend to know how or even guess how anything will be read by others, I can give a glimpse about how I might look at it in the current context. Part of my reasoning with making this work was that I wanted to turn my attention to the landscape I grew up in and make it my own. To use this backdrop of a certain vernacular architecture, pebble dash, rain, damp undergrowth and the almost sinister vegetation we have down here, and from there hint at what it feels like to look at it, exist in it, and outside it. In some ways, I think the work was about how being disconnected from the environment and the landscape is not a new phenomenon but a result of our inability to perceive it. The environment has an agency of its own and I think this is vaguely threatening. I often think about it as the outskirts, be the outskirts of towns or landscapes, or even our vision or consciousness. The outskirts or periphery is what we don’t want to look at directly. Now, I’m not going to say that my work is made any more relevant, but on a personal level maybe what the pandemic shows to me is just how vulnerable we are to this ‘undergrowth’ and everything that dwells there,
and I don’t think this is because we’ve somehow lost our way from a lifestyle more in-tune with it, I think our consciousness has always been outside of it, kind of cast out from nature as it frankly goes on oblivious to us, it’s quite humbling I think and maybe a bit lonely. I think in fact we might be on the outskirt looking in. DdB That’s an interesting idea – the human as outcast from nature. There’s definitely something in what you describe about the periphery of vision or consciousness, and the periphery of landscape as possibly operating analogously to that…. I think it was in AntiOedipus that Deluze and Guattari talk about the brain’s main job being to ignore stimuli, filtering information that it deems unnecessary to the task at hand. I feel that in our historical moment – where everyone has a camera and everyone is visually literate – operating on a deeply engaged register with photography actually gains more weight and meaning, as opposed to obsolescence, as people often seem to think (or say at least). Do you feel that the act of shifting your focus, and thus the viewer, to that which might commonly be ignored, to scenes in which nothing tangible perhaps is really happening, maybe gains more relevance as an act of resistance – even on a personal level – to our saturated media-sphere of the ‘event’? SLC Yes exactly, the brain is constantly trimming down the excess, making shortcuts, reaching conclusions by well worn paths of biases and throwing out so much of what is actually perceived. I’m not sure I would say what I’m doing amounts to any real act of resistance in terms of how our current world is, but if I am resisting anything, it’s the part of my brain that wants to fleetingly and nervously dissect the perceived real into convenient disjointed impressions and move on. If you’re not finished with it photography can be a way of holding on to a moment before it gets swept downstream.
Published by Kerlin Gallery, April 2020 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photography, recording, or any other information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher. All works © Samuel Laurence Cunnane All words © the authors Design: Tony Waddingham Kerlin Gallery Anne’s Lane South Anne Street Dublin 2 Ireland tel: +353 1 670 9093 e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org www.kerlin.ie
Samuel Laurence Cunnane This e-book which includes a new essay, 'Ambiguities' by Brian Dillon, Professor of Creative Writing at Queen Mary...
Published on Apr 28, 2020
Samuel Laurence Cunnane This e-book which includes a new essay, 'Ambiguities' by Brian Dillon, Professor of Creative Writing at Queen Mary...