March 1, 2010

Marking Time: David Farrell in Conversation (Part 1)

Innocent Landscapes, Coolgagh, 1999

Innocent Landscapes, Wilkinstown, 2000

Innocent Landscapes, Balynultagh,1999

David Farrell’s Innocent Landscapes is a monumental work about the search for those who “disappeared” as a result of the political tensions in Northern Ireland, only to be buried anonymously across the border. In 1999, as part of the peace process, the IRA finally admitted the “killing and secret burial” of ten people from a possible list of fifteen missing. At the end of May that year they released a roll call of locations that were said to be the burial places of nine people from the list. Of course, the crucial twist in this inventory was that all the locations were in the South of Ireland. These people had been exiled in death, somehow uniting North and South in relation to the conflict – a dark stain lurking under the “peaceful” landscapes of the South. Searches were carried out in 1999 and 2000, with photographs by Farrell published in a volume entitled Innocent Landscapes in 2001 (a result of winning the European Publishers Award for Photography). It is a work he has found difficult to walk away from. I met with him to discuss this ongoing investigation.

Perhaps like opening the body of time, opening memory, we find our darkest secrets, our unspoken tragedies, all held in layers furthest from the surface. The photographs themselves manage to accommodate all that, and more, reading collectively as a profound dialogue with absence. I asked David about his first visit to one of these search locations: “It was a beautiful summer’s evening,” he said “and I just remember it was this country lane, with a slight hill at the end of it. You went over that and came into this landscape that looked like some force had roared through it. The visual shock when I got there was of this landscape having been violated, with all the trees uprooted, and that somehow being a metaphor from the violence of what had happened to these people, their disappearance. So it was a really powerful sensation to be there, feeling how the mind projects emotion onto something and this landscape was so torn apart, it looked like the search had been quite desperate really, just the nature of it. I made some pictures that first night, but it was purely that I was there and I should make some pictures, because at the time I wasn’t sure, feeling maybe that it was too powerful, that I wouldn’t be able to do anything with it. But there was something about the pictures I made, something in the quality of the colour that convinced me to continue, so it was a simple act then of deciding just to go and look at the other places, seeing what happened, seeing what was there.”

There is a distinct – at times quite uneasy – pull between the aesthetic richness of the images and the violence implied by the searching, these fractured landscapes, that lends a unique power to the work. “In truth I probably didn’t know what I was doing for the first six months, other than simply going there, responding, obviously with my brain, but also in an emotional way, trying to frame images that had a certain tension to them, something that was working off the beauty – I always feel that those pictures have a sort of tough beauty. It was a case of going out and sometimes not really having – or not wanting to have – too much of a direction, because often if you put a box around it before you start, you’re going to miss something. It’s a crude metaphor maybe, but useful in this context, of excavating a subject, digging and digging and digging, until I felt like I’d reached the point of almost having exhausted it, I had to keep going back, photographing the same thing over and over again. It was a momentum of going to make pictures and then thinking about it as you’re making the pictures, as you're working through it, to see is there anything emerging from the dialogue you're having with what your photographing.”

From the buried layers of our collective memory – and of collective forgetting, the landscape seems to contain all the fraught interdependence of place and memory, the forces that shape a culture (its histories), moving restlessly under a charmed surface, present and yet not. There is also a sophisticated narrative thread that draws you into the haunting complexity of these images, with a structure that moves through the broken landscapes – and through the searches themselves – creating a powerful sense of some incipient, but crucially unrealised, discovery. The cumulative structure of the book, a kind of gravitational pull between the images and across them, brings a forceful clarity from this cutting into the landscape’s hidden core that has both a formal and emotional rigour. There is arguably some lingering influence too from his training as a research chemist on how Farrell has subsequently approached making photographs. “When you work in science you have an idea, you set up an experiment to test this idea, you gather all the data, you take it in, you assess it, you formulate something, and you go and test it later on. So I sort of do the same thing now as I’m making pictures. I actually have to go out and make as many pictures as I feel I’m responding to, take them in and then begin this process of editing. So while I’m looking at – and I almost hate to use the word – the “strength” of an individual image on one level, I’m really interested too in the dialogue it has with the preceding image, the facing image, the one after and the next one again – because I’m always thinking of the book. Narrative is very important to the way I make work, certainly between the pictures, but also within each picture.”

(Part 2 can be found here).