Insulating images from the digital-age onslaught

 

Visual Arts/Aidan Dunne:It is a paradox of contemporary culture that, just as we are witnessing what appears to be the triumph of the image, images themselves are becoming a debased currency.

Imagery pervades our environment to a degree that would have been unimaginable in a pre-digital age. Unimaginable even to Walter Benjamin, though the current boom in the art market suggests that a central point made in his influential essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, hit the nail on the head. The proliferation of copies, he suggested, would tend to enhance the aura of the original, lending it an enhanced mystique.

In her thoughtful installation a whole new architecture of reality, Doireann Wallace addresses the paradox of ubiquity and debasement that characterises the image today. An eclectic, kaleidoscopic array of hundreds of photographic images is arranged in flowing patterns on the gallery walls. They are drawn from one of the many electronic image banks now in existence.

Wallace point out that subscribers don't buy images per se, they buy a service. While there is a cap on the number of images you can use, the number is huge. But, in being robbed of their context, reduced to the status of mere visual filler, the images are largely drained of meaning and, even more, power. They become interchangeable and generic.

A SINGLE, ORIGINAL artwork such as a painting has a built-in defence against this kind of process. Photography, particularly in a digital age, is obviously much more prone to it even when, in the fine-art context, it is barricaded by limited-edition status and other precautionary measures, such as archive-quality printing. One of the problems facing photographers who view their work in an art rather than a journalistic or advertising context is to find a pictorial strategy that prevents what they do being just more fodder for the image bank. The two photographic exhibitions currently at Draíocht, while quite different in aims and character, exemplify ways of doing exactly that.

David Blackmore's Detoxconsists of a series of beautifully atmospheric studies of contained urban spaces of various kinds. They include part of the arts block in Trinity College, the reception area of the Dublin Metropolitan Children's Court, a corridor in the Four Courts, and the X-ray department in the A&E at the Adelaide and Meath Hospital, incorporating the National Children's Hospital, together with a multi-storey car park in Brighton, the toilets of Cologne's Museum Ludwig in Germany, and other locations.

All are utilitarian places, intended for everyday use, though they are depicted unoccupied, out of working hours. They have something else in common as well. All are illuminated, in whole or part, by a cool blue ultraviolet light, which gives them an eerie, otherworldly quality.

Those who have had reason to visit such locations will probably be aware of the reason for the UV light. The theory is that, in making it difficult to distinguish the lines of veins against skin, it deters the activities of intravenous drug users. Blackmore's images are tied to their meaning in a literal way, and they draw you into thinking about that meaning. Yet there is much more to the photographs as well. The light transforms the spaces quite strikingly, prompting us to look at them anew, and perhaps to think in terms of the expression of institutional authority through architectural language. In the segregation of each UV enclosure as a space apart, there is also an evocation of the drug users' recourse to another, more bearable state of being and, by implication, the idea of alternative states of being in wider personal and social contexts.

Blackmore notes the influence of Bernd and Hilla Becher, who promoted the widely used typological approach in contemporary art photography, through their own extraordinary Types of Industrial Building project, and as teachers. Each typology is a series and sets up a comparative dialogue between members of the series. By its nature it singles out an aspect of the visual environment and subjects it to sustained, analytical scrutiny.

But it's not simply a question of applying a methodology. Blackmore has real visual flair. It's interesting that he cites artists Yves Klein and Mark Rothko as influences, and he's not just name-dropping. The richness of the visual textures he achieves suggest a considered appreciation of the centrality of colour and, particularly with regard to Rothko, light in their work.

THE OTHER SHOW at Draíocht, Dianne Whyte's Amharc Fhine Gall IV, consists of photographs commissioned by Fingal County Council as part of its five-year arts plan. Selected from a panel of emerging artists, Whyte's brief was to depict cultural activities in Fingal.

That amounts to a typology in a loose, approximate sense, but one difficult to conceptualise. At the outset, Whyte declined the most obvious approach in deciding to portray cultural activities "without necessarily showing the people themselves. This proved very challenging." It surely was challenging, and probably not to everyone's taste, and it was brave of arts officer Rory O'Byrne and his colleagues to back it.

They were right, of course. To put it bluntly, the commission could have resulted in something formulaic and bland, something at home in an image bank. Instead, Fingal has emerged with a first-rate, significant body of work. Whyte's photographs, made with a medium-format camera, have a poised, studied presence. In her views of internal and external places there are, as she says, no people, but in each case we are made aware that what we see is the focus for intense activity.

The yellow-painted classroom in Artist in Residence, for example, strewn with the paraphernalia of its young pupils, is alive with a sense of energy. We see the musical instruments of the Young Dublin Sinfonia but not the players, yet the picture's composition, a veritable maze of interlocking angular lines and colours, is vibrantly musical.

What Whyte has ingeniously done is to provide us with a sense of cultural activities as spaces of possibility. To over-simplify it somewhat, you could say that we are invited to inhabit each scene, to take to the stage in Draíocht's theatre, for example. The dense accumulation of materials, tools and sheer stuff in sculptor Vincent Browne's studio is an irresistible invitation to make something. Each image is like a breathing space, a moment between spells of intense activity, and each is also quite beautiful.

Reviewed

A whole new architecture of reality, Doireann Wallace, The LAB, Foley Street, Mon-Sat 10am-5pm. Until April 17, 01-2225455

Detox, David Blackmore, and Amharc Fhine Gall IV, Dianne Whyte, Draíocht, Blanchardstown Centre. Until April 21, 01-8852610