Encounters of a looking-glass kind
A new photographic show is an attempt to mirror the way 'children see things differently', its curator, Fiona Kearney tells Aidan Dunne.
Through the Looking Glass, at the Glucksman Gallery, draws together the work of six artists who use the medium of photography to gain an insight into childhood. Into, that is, the state of being a child, as the show's curator, Glucksman director Fiona Kearney, puts it. In Lewis Carroll's sequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Alice finds herself in a world beyond the mirror, where everything happens back to front.
"Her dilemmas," Kearney notes, "relate to her own transitional state and her evolving sense of identity."
In selecting work for the show, she looked for artists who somehow managed to transport us to that world behind the looking glass, where nothing is quite as we expect it to be. "Children see things differently. Yet although it's something that we all share - we've all been children - everybody seems to have their own distinct idea of what it is to be a child."
Kearney admits that it was partly her own more recent experience, as the mother of a two-and-a-half-year-old, that gave her the idea for the exhibition, which has itself been two years or so in gestation. For the most part the children in the work are a good deal older than two, but they are not adolescents.
"With adolescence you're into a whole other area," she says. "What I had in mind was that magical, transitory period, when you give everything huge consideration, because you've never encountered it before, it's all extraordinary, and you're trying to accommodate it all in your mind. You're finding the limits of your own imagination as well."
Childhood, though, is changing, she adds. "I would be sympathetic to the views of sociologists who argue that childhood is not a given, 'natural' state, but is constructed in relation to various cultural and historical contexts."
Kearney points to the contemporary desire to insulate children from the world. "There's a temptation to see the world in terms of an evil that children must be protected against," she says. "It's like a simplistic but very seductive narrative. Identify the baddie and everything will be okay. Currently, there's a kind of moral panic about paedophilia, for example, that can amount almost to hysteria. It's disproportionate."
She is emphatic that she was not trying to make a show about issues surrounding childhood, or a show that would be overtly controversial. "I wanted to avoid the twin problems of taking a voyeuristic or a nostalgic approach," she says.
While Through the Looking Glass is a photographic show, it is so in a special sense of the term. Most of the images take the form of carefully staged tableaux, and many of them are extensively manipulated digitally. For example, the German-born artist, Loretta Lux, who has achieved extraordinary international success in the last few years, has said she thinks of herself as a painter rather than a photographer. Her startling images are carefully engineered composites and sometimes incorporate painted backgrounds.
THE WORK THAT refers most specifically to Alice is Anna Gaskell's, which takes Carroll's text as a starting point. But Gaskell's dynamic photographic sequences allude only obliquely to narrative episodes. Instead, she conveys playfulness, a delight in vigorous movement and boundless energy, evoking the feeling of being lost in one's own imaginative world. For Kearney, the physical quality of Gaskell's work recalls the gestural exuberance of American Abstract Expressionism.
Although he is Irish, Martin Healy's set of staged photographs featuring his younger brother is surely informed by the gothic strain of fiction in American writing, cinema and television, often involving children as protagonists.
Healy has elsewhere dealt more explicitly with the darkness of American Gothic and, while his studies of his brother, wrapped up in his own world, whether playing Nintendo or daydreaming, are innocuous enough, the staging and lighting do convey a sense of unease, not least in raising the question of our own viewpoint.
David Farrell's portraits of Dublin communicants fit into an established genre, documenting the ceremony of a rite of passage. Perhaps the only surprising thing in the Irish context is the mixture of races celebrating the events.
At first glance, Rineke Dijkstra's photographs of young bathers, at beaches in eastern Europe and in the United States, seem straightforward and are literally so, consisting of central, head-on views of their subjects. In fact, every apparently subtle choice Dijkstra makes contributes to the exceptional power of her images. Each bather is delicately caught in an in-between space, between the realms of water and land, in either of which he or she would blend in with the crowd. As Dijkstra isolates them, we gain an amazing sense of their individual physical presence and their view of themselves. You could almost describe it as awkwardness, but it is not exactly awkwardness, more a nervous self- consciousness.
"If Dijkstra invites us to think of Botticelli's Venus rising from the waves," Kearney suggests, "Lux reminds me of Raphael."
Certainly the carefully controlled colour and the pinpoint focus of Lux's images recall the most precise of Renaissance portraitists, achieving a heightened realism that is somehow unphotographic. Although the children can seem a bit lost, dreamy and displaced, there is nothing even slightly twee or sentimental about Lux's work. The visual quality imparts a vivid sense of what it's like to find yourself in a strange place like the world. It's as though the children are changelings, somehow at one remove.
VISUALLY LESS EXTREME, Wendy McMurdo's images are also digitally manipulated. There is often a seriousness and deliberation about the way the children in her work address their surroundings. In one sequence of work she uses the formalised representations we encounter in museums to stand for the world at large. In one of her best pieces,Helen, Backstage, Merlin Theatre, she has digitally cloned a duplicate of her title subject, and confronted her with herself. We can interpret the theatrical setting as alluding to the theatrical nature of photography itself, and also, perhaps, to the idea of invented or constructed selves.
Kearney also reckons that McMurdo had in mind a nod towards the Lacanian idea of the "mirror phase", a developmental stage when infants aspire towards idealised, integrated images of themselves. And it's true that what comes across consistently throughout the exhibition is how attuned children are to images, to themselves as images and to their own images of themselves.
Through the Looking Glass is at the Glucksman Gallery, University College Cork, until Sep 28 (021-4901844)