Viewing the world through a camera produces an estrangement; the viewer becomes, in Susan Sontag’s phrase, ‘a tourist in other people’s reality’. This is complicated further when the photographer uses film, a medium where the image is captured but delayed, revealed only at a distance from its original time and place. Samuel Laurence Cunnane finds metaphors for these separations in a deployment of occulted strategies, and, more particularly, in the depiction of bridges. In Light reflected underneath a bridge (all works 2016) the underside of an overpass is softly caressed by iridescence, a halogen dawn breaking against a concrete mass. In Tina by the bridge, Serbia the human subject is like a sentinel, holding a camera of her own, and the ground between two worlds.
This estrangement is promoted by Laurence Cunnane’s habit of travelling to take pictures and, more subtly, in the way this self-confessed ‘documentarian’ creates new worlds out of the given. In the artist’s debut Kerlin Gallery show in 2015 themes as prosaic as ennui and urban alienation were given shots of poetic life. Though allusive, it was possible to find paths through the undergrowth. Similar themes are more sublimated here. To get to the heart of these small, hand-printed images is to recognize that they don’t have one. Things fall apart, but in an oeuvre fixated on moments of transition there is no centre to hold on to.
A thicket of bare branches makes an irregular framework for a scattering of tiny, olive-coloured leaves. As well as the framework of branches, Leaf contains a window frame. We look through the window to a street outside, or maybe it’s a courtyard – the tree obscures our view so it’s difficult to be certain. In the quizzically titled Bosporous, also composed through a window frame, a calligraphic smearing on the dirty glass collapses the space between the frame and the blurry distance beyond. In Red line, Istanbul the windows of a white van are covered in soapy suds, its front end sharply cropped by the picture plane. Something awful has happened here, or something banal, and we’re not sure which is worse. Made while travelling in the Balkans, Turkey and Iran, the no-man’s-land these images construct is a territory of layers and obfuscation. Despite the befuddling obscurity – perhaps because of it – this cryptic territory is a compelling place. Look over here, it seems to say, like some wily old crone out of Beckett, look over here, and see nothing.
No one circles the void quite like Beckett, but I sense a kinship with the Foxrock nihilist all the same. In Men in park, two figures are lying together under a tree. We see them from an elevated vantage point, boots off and disheveled, amongst the remnants of a frugal meal. Vladimir and Estragon, asleep between the acts. The figures appearing elsewhere are typically alone, in shadow, or in reverie. They are identified as ‘Man’, or ‘Woman’, or alternatively by given names. Some situations appear spontaneous, while others feel more composed. In an atmosphere of slippery unease, it’s difficult to distinguish between friends and strangers, the set-up and the surreptitious.
The claustrophobic Man in car conveys the intimacy of the familiar, while the aforementioned Tina by the bridge, Serbia feels more like a chance encounter. ‘Celia’ appears twice. In Celia looks out the window, she is wistful, a naked waif wrapped inside a gauzy curtain. In Celia talks by the door she is a pensive young widow, leaning in line with the doorframe, all in black. Accepting these ‘Celias’ are one and the same (in the shadows, who can say?) she is the closest thing this un-showy show has to a star. Mary on the other hand, arms crossed before a curtain of beige leatherette, shares the limelight with a box of Cheerios™. Though naturalistic, this downbeat milieu is ultimately a fabricated one. The artist (interviewed in the exhibition catalogue) views the everyday world as ‘fundamentally a stage with props’. Freewheeling reality is frozen into a series of ambiguous tableau.
While allusions to the stage invoke theatre – and my comparisons with Beckett re-enforce this – the dramatic influence most evident in the work comes from the cinema (in essence, accelerated photography). The sepulchral lighting and skewed angles of Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa find a visual echo in two images named Shadows of plants inside a window. Abbas Kiarostami might be a more topical influence. The late Iranian auteur, like Costa, liked to mix fact with fiction, folding real people and events into his constructed mises-en-scène. In the final minutes of Close-up (1990) two men ride through the busy streets of Tehran on a motorcycle. Filmed from inside a van, the moving image is variously fractured and obscured, the camera’s changing viewpoint seeming to mimic the ambiguous gaps and overlaps of the narrative itself. Laurence Cunnane’s still images can also feel oblique to the main event, but his method of image-making is less determined by a narrative sense. Like a persistent but badly briefed gumshoe, his attention seems drawn away from the action, discounting obvious clues in favour of seemingly innocuous detail.
Kiarostami’s denouement is animated by flowers, carried by one of the men, pink blooms flowing through the final frames like a pulse. Flora is prominent here too, a cast of cultivated greenery vying for equal billing with its human and non-human counterparts. In the anthropomorphic Bag of cut grass, a stuffed plastic bag looks like a slumped body, divesting its contents through a gaping mouth. In Plants inside a restaurant colour slides from the broad leaves of a rubber plant and melts into a psychedelic haze. The plant in the eponymous Plant inside a bank pirouettes between a glazed screen and a corporate visage, a curiously animated interlocutor. The word ‘inside’ appears often, the photographer, separated from his subjects by a series of interceding layers, is on the outside looking in.
In his prose work, Ill Seen, Ill Said Beckett writes of things too closely watched, ‘who move to preserve their distance’. Writing about these self-effacing prints – responding to Beckett’s crone – they also refuse to be pinned down, moving to preserve distance, or to conjure Sontag again, moving ‘against interpretation’. Perhaps it’s okay to preserve distance, to understand that not everything is understood. The viewer, like the photographer, is also on the outside. As night encroaches his scene, Beckett writes how, ‘The light leaves to be desired’. At rest from looking, and the search for meaning that goes with it, the eye preserves its hunger.
Samuel Laurence Cunnane was on view 29 September – 9 November 2016.