Renowned for his astute aesthetic and known for capturing riveting scenes of conflict and war, Irish photographer Paul Seawright boasts an internationally acclaimed body of work. Represented by Kerlin Gallery, Paul regards Dublin as his home base, though his work has also been featured in esteemed sites around the world. While his last solo show in Ireland was the celebrated ‘Volunteer’ exhibition in 2011, Kerlin Gallery is proud to present ‘‘The List’’, a series of new work by the artist. In anticipation of this exciting event, we sat down with Paul to discuss the background, process, and motivation behind this remarkable project.
In ‘The List’, your upcoming solo exhibition at Kerlin Gallery, you photograph neglected, abandoned, and overgrown locations across America. What inspired this choice in subject matter?
The locations photographed are drawn from the public list of convicted sex offenders after their release from prison. The laws on registration in the USA prohibit ex-offenders from living close to certain types of buildings – churches, schools, public parks, bus stops etc. Their address must be registered and made public on an online database – ‘The List’. These restrictions make finding a home in major cities difficult and unintended clusters of ex-offenders have emerged in the post industrial and rural towns of America’s rust belt. The locations in the photographs are a glimpse into that world.
‘The List’ is the third in a series of works produced in the USA. Can you briefly describe the first two, and, additionally, the relationship between the three?
My work has been for some years concerned with conflict and social fracture. For several years I worked on a series titled ‘Volunteer’, landscape photographs made at the locations of army recruiting stations all over the USA. They attempt to reveal how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are made visible in the States, particularly in those states in the south where the majority of recruits are enlisted. These are often the poorest parts of the country, with high unemployment and immigration. They are also the states with the highest number of fatalities in the war. The second project was also an examination of how America has represented and engaged with those wars in a domestic context. ‘Things Left Unsaid’ is a series of photographic works produced in television news stations across the USA. The technology of the TV news studio is presented as an allegory of modern warfare and develops Virilios writing around war, technology and mass communication.
So all three are connected by my interest in how these global issues are largely invisible in society, kept in a sort of half light, things we wish to forget about or distance ourselves from. The photographs prick the surface of that normality and open up a dialogue about those things that we find difficult to discuss or acknowledge.
Furthermore, as an Irish artist, what has attracted you to America?
I only intended making one body of work in America. I had made work in Afghanistan (Imperial War Museum commission in 2002) and wanted to make more work about the conflict without actually going back there. Also the involvement since 2001 of the USA in global politics has grown to enormous proportions and more than ever, decisions made in DC affect us all. After spending so long there producing work, other ideas and concerns presented themselves and the other series just evolved.
How long did ‘The List’ take to complete? What was the most memorable experience or location throughout the process of the project?
‘The List’ took 3 and a half years to complete – going for a month at a time twice a year. Some of the interactions with both ex-offenders and indeed those living next door to them were memorable. The work doesn’t take a position and the longer I worked on it the more blurred this became. At times I agreed with tight restrictions and am horrified at what I have discovered and at times I felt great sympathy for men who were trying to move on and rebuild their lives in circumstances that are almost impossible. More than once I would arrive at an address on ‘The List’ and the house would be burn’t to a blackened shell or windows would be broken or boarded up.
In 2011, you had another solo exhibition, ‘Volunteer’, also at Kerlin. How did you begin working with the gallery? How have your two experiences with the site compared with one another?
I’ve been working with the Kerlin for 20 years. They saw my work in a show in Paris in 1995 and offered me an exhibition.
In your work, you tend to focus on scenery and setting rather than on the people that would inhabit such space. Has this always been a preference of yours?
People are absent in almost all of my work. I’m essentially a social landscape photographer. Therefore the photographs are always about people without ever needing to see them.
In this exhibition, you additionally depict details of the various landscapes’ features, such as “plants, fences and water damaged walls.” Did the series’ subject matter inspire this decision?
The black and white detail images are from the gardens in many of the locations. I started experimenting with ways in which I could expand the narrative. The locations and landscapes of these dispossessed individuals were powerful and evocative places and I felt that when I was there working, but I still felt I needed something to represent the darkness of the subject. So literally I returned at night and made these images that could be seen as metaphors for the absent victims in the project.
And, lastly, in what ways do you hope ‘The List’ resonates with its viewers?
The whole idea of the work is to present a kind of surface normality, with a slight sense that there is something wrong about the place photographed. That was often the case in the early landscapes I made in Belfast, normal on the surface with a sense that there is something enormous and significant hidden beneath. I’d hope the viewer gets that in the pictures and that it helps question how we look at the places we inhabit. I also hope it creates some debate about the impossibility of redemption in contemporary society and the acceleration of unlawful behaviour in an electronic age.
‘The List’ is on view at Kerlin Gallery, Dublin, from 30 January through 21 March 2015, with an exciting opening reception on Thursday 29 January from 6-8pm!