A darkness on the edge of town
Dara McGrath's photographs dwell on the awkward spaces in our communities. They are a chronicle of a changing society, writes Aidan Dunne
Dara McGrath's photographs in By The Way, which won him this year's AIB Prize for an artist of promise, document the shapes and textures of an emerging Ireland. His subject is the Irish landscape, but it is not the familiar, mythologised landscape of unspoilt natural splendours. Rather he turns an unblinking gaze on the environment being generated by prosperity, a realm of anonymous motorways bulldozed through fields, of sprawling suburban housing estates deposited in rural settings, of cast concrete and AstroTurf, brutally functional landscaping and cultural incongruities.
If this sounds emotive, his work is emphatically not. He comes from a tradition not of journalistic reportage but of topographical documentation. There is a palpable coolness and detachment to his images. They depict very ordinary aspects of the world. "I gravitate towards subjects that have a lot of the mundane about them," he says with a smile. Given a moment's thought, his images turn out to be very deliberately and carefully structured, just subtly so.
A strange landscape created by numerous mounds of earth methodically deposited in a field at Oranmore in Galway, for example, seems to parody the "basket of eggs" topography of Drumlin country. The indentations of an exploratory archaeological dig on a motorway site could be dinosaur footprints. Residents have worn their own "desire path" at right angles across the paved path decreed by the planners in a bleak green space at Wyattville Junction, in south Co Dublin. AstroTurf laid down as a cricket pitch in Marlay Park doesn't quite fit. "It seemed to me like a jigsaw puzzle where someone has jammed a piece in the wrong place," he says. "That's the way Ireland is."
In the photographs, a hard, even light delineates everything with a clarity that borders on harshness. It is a conscious strategy. Morning or evening light might sentimentalise things, so he prefers to take photographs around noon. His work can be seen in the context of such US photographers as Robert Adams and Stephen Shore, pioneers of an objective, sharp- focus, highly detailed style of documentation. It also refers to the German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher and their former students, including Andreas Gursky and Candida Höfer. And he obviously likes Joel Sternfeld's eye for quirky, troubling detail.
McGrath, now in his early 30s, is intense and meticulous about his work. Born in Limerick, he trained as an aircraft mechanic with Shannon Aerospace, an experience he now regards as a false start. He'd been taking photographs since he was in his late teens, and he decided to study photography, initially at Waterford, with Christine Simpson, and then at Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design & Technology, with Anthony Haughey. He is full of praise for both of them as teachers. "Anthony was always very encouraging, very positive." After graduating he wanted to quit Dublin for a while and went to Cork, where he found work as a photographer with Crawford Municipal Art Gallery, a job he still does.
Photographing works of art is a fairly specialist, technically demanding activity, but McGrath always regarded the technical aspects of photography as crucial. He is clearly a perfectionist. Rather than being an artist with a camera, that is to say, he is a photographic artist.
Granted a Pépinière young artist's award, he travelled to Luxembourg for a six-month stay and began a project to document European border crossings. "Because of where I was staying, really. There were two different borders within 20 minutes of where I was. The border posts fascinated me because I expected something of the formality you associate with border crossing, but it wasn't like that at all. Within the EU there's no one to check things any more. The buildings are disused, some of them practically abandoned."
He is alert to the layers of history bound up in many of the crossings, from civil-war Spain - "It's almost as if it's still going on in places" - to the second World War. "People have asked," he says pre-emptively, "why I haven't tackled Northern Ireland." The answer is that he wants to wait for some distance. "People have done very good work in relation to Northern Ireland. From my point of view it's overdocumented for the moment."
His method for the Borders series is straightforward but exceptionally time-consuming. "I arrive at a place, pitch a tent, spend three or four days walking in the locality. By that time usually something has lodged there in your mind; it's as if something is bugging you, something is not quite right about one particular place. That's where I go, and I'll shoot three or four rolls of film there, just trying to get it exactly." The Borders series has grown and grown and is still ongoing, so he has amassed a sizeable, probably unique archive of more than 3,000 images documenting European border crossings.
He repeatedly uses the word "systematic" about his approach. The business of walking, of looking, of finding the right image is part and parcel of the process. He did the same for By The Way. "I park and walk the bypasses. I reckon I've walked every inch of every bypass in the country." He did this on and off for three years. "Probably about 11 months solidly out of that time."
Writing in the exhibition catalogue, Fiona Kearney compares his way of working to that of the sculptor Richard Long, whose work consists in large measure of walking through the landscape. "For me, though," McGrath points out, "it's not about the walk in the same way. I have a purely documentary aim." Rather than focus on the houses, he decided to look at the spaces between: the borderlands, the edges of motorways, the edges of estates, awkward spaces.
So in a sense it's another kind of borders series? "Funnily enough it is, and I think the impulse for that goes back to my childhood. I lived in Limerick, but out on the Clare side, so there was this sense of being caught between. I've always been aware of those divides, like the city and country divide that is so strong in Ireland."
Although his work is about the human impact on the landscape, and the way the structured landscape reflects human life on various levels, people hardly turn up as such in his photographs. They are there only, in that overworked phrase, in terms of their absent presence. As McGrath sees it: "It's about the landscape, how that reflects what's going on. And I want a sense of those desolate, in-between spaces. It's as if people don't really belong. And if you start taking photographs of people it becomes something else."
He didn't set out to photograph motorway building projects for partisan reasons. It was just that he felt the country was changing fundamentally and that it was worth looking at. "I'm not an environmental activist. But, actually, the experience has made me very critical of the way things have been done. We seem to have created such desolate landscapes. There's rarely any attempt to reflect the existing local environment. Arguably a lot of what is going on is transitional, but an awful lot is permanent.
"Sometimes it seems as if the whole country has become one big building site. It's quite scary. We're creating a legacy of problems, including big social problems, I think. It's as if these new kinds of environment we're making are trying to find their place, but I don't think they will. They will always be anomalous."
By The Way is at Draíocht, Blanchardstown, until August 31st