March 8, 2010

Marking Time: David Farrell in Conversation (Part 2)

Innocent Landscapes Revisited, Wilkinstown, February 2010

Innocent Landscapes Revisited, Wilkinstown, September 2009

The story never really ended either, although the searches did – for a time at least, because perhaps no amount of searching could ever be enough. “There was a picture from Wicklow that was made on the last day of the search in 2000, of the bog cut away and I said to myself at the time – how much further do you go? Six inches? Six feet? How far do you go and when do you stop? Anyway, that was supposed to be it. There was a couple of small searches in the intervening years, and except for an accidental recovery nothing was found. I had noticed, again in 2000, that nature was reclaiming these places very quickly, making even the evidence of the searches disappear and I thought that in itself was an interesting metaphor about what the killers had intended, using nature to cover their traces, but it was also about healing and the passage of time.” The landscape itself becomes a surface on to which these larger questions can be projected. “Thinking about it on a fundamental level,” he said “I’ve used the landscape like a studio; the way that some people go to the blank wall is how I’ve used the landscape over the last ten years, in this and other projects.”

So periodically he began returning, to take account of every loss and every frustrated possibility, because despite maps we can never be sure where we stand – here all certainties are provisional. “I started then to do these annual re-visits,” he said “because it was such an unresolved issue, just to keep going back to these places seemed important, particularly as I might be the only one to return. But it became increasingly difficult to do so, which also highlights another theme within in this work, the real difficulty of sustaining a memory. Then literally by chance I came across this team of forensic archaeologists about two years ago while they were searching in Wicklow and it reminded me again of what had drawn me to the subject, that I had been right to keep with it, because other people hadn’t given up. At the same time, their intervention actually ruptured my time-line of a landscape being reclaimed, because in most cases they were going back into the same place and digging it up again, which I suppose is interesting too in that it’s kind of like having a scab and taking it off, in the hope that with time it will heal itself properly. The current landscapes, while they are often the same piece of field or bog, look considerably different, as their approach is so different, the pace is different. With the recent searches I’m seeing something stand still in so many different types of light, where as before you took whatever light was there on the day, because the searches went so quickly the landscape was radically altered between visits. While I’m more or less photographing the same thing from one day to the next, each time something has changed and I’m searching for what I feel is the maximum out of the subject. The sense of their presence (or absence) is much less immediate in the landscape now; the pictures have become more about the searches themselves, though you do remind yourself every so often exactly what you’re dealing with.”

If the searching in his first set of pictures had been a devastatingly accurate metaphor for violence, for the hidden landscapes of memory, and for disappearance itself, meaning the continuity of a place (its lives) irredeemably shattered by something – or rather someone – simply not being there, an absence breaking through the surface of the world, this incredibly sustained approach in how the new searches are being conducted (and images he has made of them) seem more like a way of marking time, as a measure of duration. Perhaps they become instead a way to describe the impossible task of accounting for the loss that they represent, as the observation of some endless of ritual – of not forgetting, and he keeps going back too, trying to refine the logic of this process. “Now you could go in and the first picture you make could be sufficiently strong,” he said “but for me it’s this drive to really get deep into the subject, like I say, you’re “excavating” something. One of the difficulties with photography is that making a picture, the gesture itself, seems so easy that you really have to feel the picture, that it has to be coming through the subject and into you. I’m aware now that certainly the work I’m making with the re-visits is probably slightly more refined in an aesthetic sense, that they have softened a little, though I’m still trying to hold onto that edge of tough beauty.”

Regardless of how persistent the searches are – and have been – it seems as if the ground will keep its final secrets, memory has its unreachable avenues after all, and some wounds might never heal, but it will be a useful comparison if, at some time in the future, these new images are gathered in book form, to see the distance that has been covered during the intervening years. This will undoubtedly be a large body of work and what of it has gradually been appearing seems at once as similar and as different as he says. The “edge” is still there, of course, the hint of some presence endlessly just beyond reach, insisting on the unstable nature of memory, on the spectre of loss, and on what cannot be brought to light – even more so now perhaps than before. Constant too is the quality that defines the whole of Farrell’s work on Innocent Landscapes to date, the tangibility of absence that is never satisfied by recollection, never made whole, or even just accounted for – time has changed too much, or has buried too deep whatever we hope to find, but the searches go on, because they have to, because even if no trace of those disappeared remain, we can still cut to the poisonous root of violence that fractures lives and the places we live.

(Continued from a previous installment. I'd like to thank David for his patience and for his co-operation in putting this article together. A blog charting the development of his latest work can be found here and his own site is here).