Friday, February 25, 2011

Gallery visit of the week: Paul Seawright at Kerlin Gallery

Paul Seawright is one of the most well-known contemporary photographers to come out of Northern Ireland; his work in Belfast in the 80s and 90s helped viewers re-define the narratives of the Troubles. More recently, he spent time in Afghanistan for the Imperial War Museum and did work in north Africa on slum cities. His series Volunteer, shown at the Kerlin Gallery, Dublin, is his attempt to re-frame ideas of the Iraq war, looking at it in his signature oblique style. He traveled across the United States, photographing sites of Army Recruitment offices. The photographs are stark and often devoid of human figures; they speak of the fear of loss many families with soldiers face, the last resort the army represents to many recruits, and the current economic despair facing many in America.

 Container, Paul Seawright, 2011

Trailer Park, Paul Seawright, 2011

I visited the exhibition for a talk with the artist. Seawright spoke very eloquently about his desire to make images about the war without depicting the war; his works are more about the tensions between the state and the people, about the reasons for joining the army by ordinary people, which usually has little to do with the reasons for the war espoused by the government. 

When walking in, I didn't actually know that this series was taken in America, but he manages to capture scenes that are, if not iconically, at least recognizably American. The first image I saw (unfortunately I don't have an image of it) was a surprise, as it was so clearly a scene of a small-ish midwestern town, without there actually being any specific labels. As an American, it was interesting for me to look at each image and identify the visual vocabulary through which the scenes were marked as American and more specifically as Southern, Midwestern, etc.

I've written about Seawright's work extensively before, having used many of his Belfast series for my undergraduate thesis. It was a pleasure to hear him talk about his work and describe his experiences in the states as an outsider, given that so much of his earlier work was dependent on his status as an insider interrogating his own upbringing and experiences.

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