“This exhibition doesn’t have any of the clichés people might expect Irish photography to have,” says Vivienne Gamble. “I want it to give a viewpoint of the country that a lot of people wouldn’t necessarily expect.”
The director of Peckham’s Seen Fifteen Gallery is talking about Triptych, an exhibition showing in Paris from 09-12 November in association with Centre Culturel Irlandais. The exhibition, which will be held across the three levels of the Espace Lhomond gallery just across the street from the CCI, features work by three of Ireland’s most promising photographers: Ciarán Óg Arnold, Megan Doherty and Martin Seeds, each of whom is showing photographs deeply rooted in their homeland.
Óg Arnold and Doherty’s selections aim to create truthful representations of young Irish identity, examining the isolation, claustrophobia, and boredom that can come with the rapid deterioration of small towns and cities, particularly in the wake of financial crisis. Seeds’ work meanwhile explores the tension and unease that lingers in the landscape and minds of those who have grown up in an age of fragile peace in Northern Ireland. Together, the three works subvert preconceived notions of identity across the island of Ireland.
Seeds’ collection, Assmembly, which is seen on the ground floor of the gallery, is comprised of photographs taken around The Stormont Estate in Belfast, the seat of the Northern Irish government. The moody, mostly black-and-white images focus on the trees and plants on the grounds, and are intended to act as a reflection on the fragility at the core of Northern Irish politics and the symbolism of its associated buildings. Born in Belfast and now based in Brighton, Seeds is examining the lingering tension in Northern Ireland, and the way that tension is deeply rooted in the identities of those who grew up during The Troubles.
“It gives such a real perspective of what it felt like to grow up in Belfast. As a child of The Troubles you grew up with a tension you didn’t realise other people didn’t have. And that stays with you. He’s used the trees, the seasons and the transience of leaves to suggest that there is a fragility around the peace process.”
From the ground floor to the downstairs mezzanine and basement of the gallery, Ciarán Óg Arnold and Megan Doherty’s collections examine concepts equally rooted in place and atmosphere, but on a more intimate level.
Gamble has shown Óg Arnold’s work twice previously, having been drawn to his raw photography by the title of his 2015 collection I went to the worst of bars hoping to get killed. but all I could do was to get drunk again. Shot in the darkened pubs, corridors, streets and alleyways of the town of Ballinasloe, Co. Galway, Óg Arnold’s portraits and documentary shots portray an atmosphere of desperation, formed out of the loss of opportunity in Ireland after the 2008 financial crisis.
The effects of the recessions are still felt across the country today, with emigration, unemployment and suicide rates remaining high. In his book and in the selection of new, unseen work that will be shown in Paris, Óg Arnold captures the desire for intimacy, the crisis of masculinity, and the drink-fuelled hobbies born out of the boredom, loneliness and the need for escapism that comes with such trying times in cut-off places.
“The word he uses a lot of is ‘claustrophobia’,” explains Gamble. “You get a sense of that in a lot of the shots of dark corridors and of doors where you don’t know what’s on the other side. They’re ominous and a little bit ambiguous. There’s an atmosphere of being trapped or isolated, unable to escape. With a recession that bad, with that many people leaving, there’s a knock on effect for those who are left behind because the places feel so much emptier. The prospects feel even bleaker.”
The diaristic nature of Óg Arnold’s book is part of what makes it so effective, says Gamble, who draws similarities between his style and that of Corinne Day and Nan Goldin. Despite that, the new images will focus less on portraits of the people he spent his long days and nights with in Ballinasloe, and more on atmosphere and space. “They focus on the notion of being trapped,” explains Gamble. “It’s less about the people and more about the world they exist in.”
What Gamble has found fascinating about Óg Arnold’s photography is the appeal it has had to male audiences, who seemed to immediately understand the troubled, desperate masculinity it so honestly presents. “There are a lot of nuances to it that stood out to men that I didn’t necessarily notice,” she says. “There’s a lot of aggression: the fights on the Saturday night in Ballinasloe, the loneliness, the search for something. It gives a very male perspective.”
It felt natural then, she says, to show work from Megan Doherty’s Stoned in Melanchol alongside that of Óg Arnold, with both artists creating a darkly cinematic atmosphere to reflect the need for escapism in uninspiring towns. In her native Derry, the Magnum Graduate Award 2016 shortlister creates a fictional, highly textured and colourful world in which, like with Óg Arnold, recurring characters are played by friends. In her work though, the scenarios are largely composed, depicting an imagined, vibrant culture of young adulthood from a distinctly more female perspective.
“There’s a story in each of her images,” says Gamble. “They’re obviously better as a series but there are certainly ones where you can find a whole narrative just in that one photograph.
“She creates an amazing atmosphere in her photos with her use of saturated colour and blur. She really blurs the boundary between social documentary and something more cinematic. She has a similar intent to Ciarán in the escapism from a world that is perhaps drearier and less full of colour. The atmosphere is sort of fabricated but what she creates takes you to that bigger urban environment, to somewhere like New York.”
And just as the sense of space is crucial to the collections themselves, it was also vital to the installation at the Espace Lhomond, says Gamble. The downstairs mezzanine and basement levels of the venue, in which Óg Arnold and Doherty are showing their work, has a dark, ‘clubby’ atmosphere, for example, which emphasises the nocturnal, mysterious and diaristic nature of both series.
“I want it to be a nocturnal, eerie experience,” she says. “Ciarán and Megan’s both have a sense of nighttime to them. They feel almost fictional.”
Triptych opens on Thursday 9 November and will run until Sunday 12 in Espace Lhomond. https://www.centreculturelirlandais.com/en/agenda/ciaran-og-arnold-megan-doherty-martin-seeds