Gothic realism in the here and now: haunted houses of a dead boom

Sat, Sep 1, 2012, 01:00

CULTURE SHOCK:IT’S A SIMPLE, three-letter word: “now”. It means our own time, the present tense, the moment we inhabit. And it suggests that this moment can be distinguished from what has preceded it; the past. Now is living; the past is dead. Now is us; the past is them. It’s a pretty fundamental distinction, not least in culture. It governs one of the basic distinctions, that between tradition and innovation. It also underlies a basic demand that we often make of artists: that they not be stuck in the past, that they deal with the Irish “now”, the urgency of a culture in crisis.

The problem is that it doesn’t really work in Irish culture. When people think of the idea that the past will not lie down, they usually quote William Faulkner’s line, redolent of the Southern dilemma, that “The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.” But, from Irish culture, Eugene O’Neill’s Mary Tyrone takes the thought one step further: “The past is the present. It’s the future too, isn’t it?” When the past is “now”, the artistic genre that cannot be escaped is the gothic. It is the form of ghosts, revenants, the undead – embodiments of the past that will not stay where they should be but insist on invading the “now”.

At the heart of the gothic is the haunted house. And it is almost impossible to avoid haunted houses in Irish visual culture right now. There are, in the DNA of Irish literature and art, three kinds of haunted house. There’s the big house: literally haunted in, for example, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu; metaphorically so in the 20th-century traditions where, for example, the main characters of Aidan Higgins’s Langrishe, Go Down are like ghosts that haunt their own lives. There’s the abandoned house, the half-derelict building left behind by mass emigration, so spine-tinglingly evoked by the poet Derek Mahon.

And now there’s a new version: the house in the ghost (telling word) estate. Irish society seems to have the capacity repeatedly to manufacture haunted houses from very different social processes: the decline of the ascendancy, the emigration of country people, the madness of the boom years. The trope of ghostly places is itself a kind of ghost, returning again and again to haunt the Irish imagination.

One of the effects of this is that the distinction between the “now” and the past becomes fuzzy. The ghost-estate house may be the most potent symbol of the present, but it can’t escape the accumulated resonances of its predecessors. Social realism becomes, whether it wants to or not, gothic. In Anthony Haughey’s recent photographic project Settlement, documentary images of unfinished estates glow with an uncanny, almost apocalyptic light. They are “now”, but they might also be images from the future, retrospects on the ruins of a lost civilisation.

Two recent visual projects have striking variations on this recurrence of Irish gothic. One is David Creedon’s remarkable photographic book, Ghosts of the Faithful Departed, just issued in paperback by Collins Press.

Creedon’s pictures occupy the middle zone of the haunted house, the one between the big house and the ghost estate. They are of abandoned cottages, houses and shops in rural Ireland. Creedon photographs these forlorn interiors in saturated, extraordinarily vibrant colours that make them feel eerily alive. Whole human histories sit on dusty shelves: one holds an empty Guinness bottle, a small statue of Our Lady and a framed membership of the Franciscan Mission Association in Union City, New Jersey. Intact radios and long-unplayed pianos threaten to burst into music. Shaving brushes and razors gather cobwebs and dust but seem also to remember the hand that held them and the face they smoothed. An unworn dress with its American label still attached hangs on the back of a door, hinting at an unlived life.

These images, though, are now doubly poignant. They conjure up the ghosts of the dead. But they also create a new irony. Sad as these abandoned homes may be, they did at least have a life. As Creedon notes in an afterword, “The new ghost houses are as silent as the ones I photographed, but at least the houses in this book were once homes.”

Another striking recent work is Aideen Barry’s startling short stop-motion animation film, Possession, which I saw at Kilkenny Arts Festival. In it, Barry plays a woman alone in a house that seems to be the only occupied one in a ghost estate. You soon realise that the title is a clever pun. The house is a possession, part of the consumer boom. But it also performs a demonic possession on its inhabitant, taking her over and turning her into its instrument.

This is a perfect comment on the situation of many of those trapped in houses with negative equity and no chance of escape. It sounds like a piece of documentary realism, dealing with the Irish “now”. But in fact it’s also utterly gothic; Barry actually uses the phrase “the gothic of the now” in describing her work and preoccupations. She acknowledges her interest in Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker, and Possession is a kind of horror film in which the invasive, ghostly presence is the house itself.

Apart from its technical brilliance, though, what’s significant about Barry’s piece is that it is hysterically (the word is deliberate) funny. Barry creates images that are at once terrifyingly mad and laugh-out-loud hilarious: the woman using an electrically controlled garage door to slice bread; the woman turning into a lawnmower. The idea of the past is very strong in the overall gothic form of the piece, but the images themselves are very much on the “now” side of the equation. They play both with technology and with Hollywood movies (The Exorcist is an obvious point of reference).

Barry’s humour is a new note. The replaying of the Irish gothic has tended to be haunting, melancholic and filled with a sense of stasis. Barry makes it surreal, absurd, technologically inventive and wildly energetic. In that, there is some hope that the perennial haunting might eventually become an exorcism.

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