Asleep at the Wheel

My creative body of work makes allusion to a kind of quiet, slow human catastrophe, where our way of life is in a state of crisis. My images are devoid of people, yet imprinted everywhere with human presence. They depict places that are, to my eyes, everywhere in regional Australia. There is an undertone that our human condition is comfortably sedated, lost in an effortless world of melancholic bliss. It is in this milieu that we seek spurts of temporary happiness through consumerism, where each new acquisition is packaged with a formulaic promise of contentment, and sealed with all but invariably false sentiments such as “have a nice day”.i This is a world shaped by a sense of loss, of not having enough; a world ultimately ruled by fear.

At the risk of quoting someone more emotive than academic, Russell Brand, the controversial satirical comedian turned social commentator, is no less evoking his own vision of this condition when he writes of his reunion with an old friend from his youth. He finds his friend with broken spirit and in a wheelchair, having been what Brand called “subject to the ordinary tragedy that bludgeons normal people”.ii Brand writes of the cause of his friend’s disablement:

"Administered the wrong drug at the wrong time by a knackered nurse during a routine visit, she’ll never walk again. All around us lives are squandered and dreams are unfulfilled".iii

The reality is that my creative work is imbued with the same kind of emotive sentiment as Brand, and is thus vulnerable to disparaging criticism and disapproval. It is nonetheless essential to me personally to say what I feel, and to picture what I see. What I see in my environment is serious and poignant, but it is not my intention to wallow in a state of despair. Nor do I wish to appear in any way superior or conceited by suggesting that I have solutions, but I can at least envisage one. In a time suffused with so much choice, we relinquish our right to choose; with unprecedented access to media and information, we sacrifice quality for quantity; and with so much to experience, we abandon effort for immediate gratification. My hope is that we will stop looking to the outside for help, such as from politicians or so-called leaders, and realise that only we can be the solution. Only we can want to get well, and only we can benefit from the insight of a melancholic moment to emerge energised and make a difference. My hope is that we move beyond sadness and fear into a greater awareness of our own condition. Until then, I suggest, we risk remaining asleep at the wheel.

These locations I photograph in regional Australia manifest as urban and semi-rural scenes that are also my home, where we turn a blind eye to the product of our neglect. They frequently appear lonely and uninhabited, but are rarely abandoned; often merely unpeopled for the moment I was there. My photographs are not quick snaps, but rather they are carefully considered compositions, deliberate and aesthetically disciplined. This might be the only beauty to be found in my images however, as the subject matter is invariably and inherently less elegant. Even without people, only places, these images primarily allude to the transience of human life, whilst signaling a sense of melancholy, rather than the traditional landscape’s more customary mood of sentimentality.

Logically, I photograph what I see, but what I see to photograph is often being drawn from a connection to inherent sadness. Thus what I photograph is something to which I also feel an emotional response. In a BBC radio interview, esteemed war photographer Don McCullin said:

"Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures".iv

I too prefer to photograph what I feel, and that tends to automatically filter what I see. Charlie LeDuff writes of his early days as a journalist in Alaska, not only learning to write, but also to report:

"So I went out… and wrote what I saw: stuff about struggling fishermen, a mountain woman who drank too much… Mexican labourers forced to live in the swamps. People managing somehow. My kind of people".v

I empathise with LeDuff’s attraction to his subject matter, and his need to report it, but not everybody finds such a frank account of what is around them palatable. My photographs similarly depict the places most people pass by, but no longer see, or at least no longer wish to see. LeDuff returned to his hometown of Detroit, a city in abject demise, and discovered the photography of Danny Wilcox Frazier. He writes of Frazier’s images:

Detroit, an almost impossible place, an American place from which Americans cast away their eyes. But giants throw long shadows, and having noticed it… [Frazier] got down to the work of staring cleanly into it.vi

In my project I have been drawn to photograph subject matter from which many people have similarly “cast away their eyes” as they pass by. I am depicting scenes as many others would perhaps see them, had they not stopped looking. My images aim to bear witness to what I am feeling in these locations, and to prompt us from an indifferent, or perhaps more accurately, desensitised sleep, perhaps to spark the awareness needed to confront our own condition.

A Momentary Death

"The circle of the return to birth can only remain open, but all at once as an opportunity, a sign of life, and a wound".vii (Derrida)

Sometimes in order to reach a position of awareness, we need first to submit to a sense of loss, or at least acknowledge a sensation of perceived loss and subsequent sadness. Sometimes motivation comes from seeing what we don’t want to see, to drive us to change. This is akin to recovering from a self-inflicted illness, such as one caused by excess or an unhealthy lifestyle, determined to improve our general wellbeing. The time out, unpleasant as it may be at the time, brings an opportunity to reflect on how we can restore harmony and balance to our lives.

This body of work aims to kindle just such an appreciation of what we can achieve, by first triggering a moment of sadness, a temporary state of melancholy from which we can emerge aware and motivated. My intention is that my creative works hold the potential to elicit melancholy in the viewer, as indeed I suggest most photographs possess the same inherent capacity for the melancholic. This idiosyncrasy of the photograph is manifested by two things, which are outside of the mere inanimate nature of the photographic object.

The first of these is the photographer’s subjective intentions and subsequent creative decisions behind making the photograph. The second, which is equally influential on the outcome, is the viewer and what they bring to the reading of the image. My work investigates these notions of subjective intention and response to connect with a melancholic experience prompted by a photograph.

It is the bittersweet nature of the melancholic experience that makes it so important in this context. In the satirical preface of his book The Anatomy of Melancholy, first published in 1621, scholar Robert Burton wrote of this dual, sweet and sour nature of melancholy:

When to myself I act and smile,
With pleasing thoughts the time beguile…
All my joys besides are folly,
None so sweet as melancholy.

 

When I lie, sit, or walk alone,
I sigh, grieve, make great mone…
All my griefs to this are jolly,
None so sour as melancholy.viii

The Ouroboros is a symbol dating back to ancient Egypt, which depicts a snake in a circular position eating its own tail. It represents an energy that recreates itself, a cycle of end and renewal. The symbol illustrates the natural rhythm of the cycle of life, and I suggest that it is at the point of renewal that lessons can be learned and changes can be made. A key vehicle to this point of renewal is melancholy.

Most of my images represent a transitory point in the life cycle of the landscape they depict. They capture only a brief moment of the subject’s existence, but for many this moment is indicating a low point of sadness and decline. However, the images do not attempt to predict what might become of the subject, only that it is currently experiencing what could be termed as a kind of mini-death, from which they may or may not recover. It should be noted that “mini-death” does not necessarily equate to “small death”, more commonly expressed in French as la petite mort, especially when it is interpreted as a metaphor for orgasm. Although there could still be much overlap between a mini and a small death in terms of the broader reference to a part of something dying, as in a loss subsequent of change or neglect. Michael Kearl aptly explains a mini-death as the process of sleeping, from which we awaken “resurrected”, revitalized for a new day. He writes:

"Individual and social systems go through cycles of death and rebirth. And why not? Is it not the rhythm of nature that in order for there to be the rebirth of spring, there must be the apparent death of winter? Do we not each day go through a mini-death (sleep), only to be resurrected (awaken refreshed) each morning? And are there not times in our lives when we wish to shed some used-up portion of ourselves?" ix

A mini-death can be so small as to be the moment between an inhaled and an exhaled breath, a constant cycle of cessation and revival. An inhalation resuscitates us with a “new breath of life”, just as a reflective pause can realise a previously unseen awareness. This reflective interlude can provide the “breathing space” we need to contemplate an idea, and it transcends that brief moment of melancholy that recurs in the natural cycle of life. So the mini-death is part of a life cycle, and sometimes it allows us to descend to a reflective moment of anguish or distress, so that we may emerge more aware, mindful and alert to our condition.

Kearl goes on to say, “Whether cultural time is seen to be cyclical and regenerative or linear and entropic similarly determines the status of the dead in everyday life”.x I am referring to the regenerative notion, with death an integral part of a life cycle. This is reflected in Native American Indian culture, which also believes that an illness is essentially a mini-death, an opportunity to take stock and reassess the way we are living. Timothy Freke writes of this conviction:

"In the Native American Indian way of life, there is no death, only a passing on… We also feel that illness sometimes has to occur to bring balance to our lives, and that this is a time to readjust our thoughts, a time for visions”.xi

Indeed the Native American Indian culture is not alone in believing there is no finite death, only a “passing on”. This is not to say they are in denial of a corporeal death, in fact they prepare for it in life by seeking balance and harmony with the world. Once they achieve this equilibrium, death is not seen as defeat, but rather, a “natural part of the cycle of life”.xii

The photograph itself is a kind of mini-death. Roland Barthes writes of his response to being photographed, feeling himself transitioning from being a subject to an object (namely the photograph itself). He observes:

"In terms of image-repertoire, the Photograph (the one I intend) represents that very subtle moment when, to tell the truth, I am neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object: I then experience a micro-version of death (of parenthesis): I am truly becoming a specter. The photographer knows this very well, and himself fears (if only for commercial reasons) this death in which his gesture will embalm me".xiii

The photograph is a frozen moment, seemingly real, yet extracted from time’s continuum. The subject continues a linear progression through time, but leaves behind this phantasm, a ghost neither truly alive nor dead. French writer Pierre Mac Orlan raised this concept as long ago as 1928 when he wrote:

"It is through the mediation of photography that we are permitted to seize the unreal forms of life, which demand, at least, one second of motionlessness in order to be perceptible… The greatest field of photography, for the literary interpretation of life, consists, to my mind, in its latent power to create, as it were, death for a single second. Anything or person is, at will, made to die for a moment of time so immeasurably small that the return to life is effected without consciousness of the great adventure".xiv

Photographic emulsions and camera shutters are significantly faster nowadays, making Orlan’s “one second” a mere fraction of a second, but the idea of a momentary death remains. Orlan was also considering that after the subject had been photographed, or in the case of Barthes, had become temporarily objectified by the creation of an apparition of the subject, a “return to life” immediately followed this momentary death. Thus within an ongoing cycle of life, the photograph becomes a mini-death, bringing with it a time out for contemplation and an opportunity for a consciously reinvigorated future.

From Melancholy to Malaise

My urban landscapes represent places that are all part of a cycle of life, many amidst their own mini-death within that cycle, but at the time the camera’s shutter was open there was little way of knowing what will become of them. Some of these environs will emerge refreshed, ready for the next phase of their cycle, others linger in limbo, barely clinging to a thread of hope dashed by neglect. For the purposes of this investigation however, I am not as focused on what happens to these specific environs as what each of their mini-deaths can tell us, assuming of course, that we are prepared to look. I am interested in sharing the melancholy to which the urban landscape has succumbed, in search of an awareness that might inspire a better, healthier way of doing things. For me at least, the subjects of my photographs have become emblematic of the human condition, which itself appears to be in an anxious state of uncertainty. The mini-deaths paused by the photographs in this project offer melancholic moments of reflection, which highlight a condition of disharmony, perhaps even an illness, from which we need to take stock.

My first solo exhibition in this project was aptly named Civic Melancholy. My own critical reflection on that show contributed to the evolution of this exhibition, which is labeled with the slightly more vehement title of Civic Malaise. Whilst both terms can insinuate a relatively temporary condition, malaise suggests that the melancholy is a more widespread unease that can apply to a society in general. The photographs in Civic Malaise are arguably more confronting and direct than the earlier works, mirroring my own deepening concerns about the state of my regional environment. (This marginally angrier, perhaps more brutal vision is also reflected in some of the tracks on my vinyl LP Anarchy Bureau, which I completed mid-way through the project).

It should be noted that the title Civic Melancholy was termed independently of a paper written in 2003 by Eric Gidal called Civic Melancholy: English Gloom and French Enlightenment, which investigates 18th Century adversarial cultural criticism between the French and the English. Gidal notes, “This essay revisits the clichéd opposition of the splenetic English and the lighthearted French found in travel writing, novels, and political and cultural criticism throughout the eighteenth century”.xv Gidal’s theme is taken further in 2011 by Jeffery Hopes, who tells us that French writers of the time considered the English to be ill-humoured and petulant, and the French to have a happier and more light-hearted disposition. Hopes writes, “The term most frequently employed in French to describe the Englishman’s condition is melancolie”.xvi He sums up this common portrayal of the English with an anonymous quote from 1770:

"It has been decreed for all time that the Englishman will be philosophical, serious and taciturn, and that he will kill himself in cold blood out of pure boredom; and that the Frenchman will be … thoughtless, playful, scatterbrained, high spirited almost to extravagance, and that he will only ever risk his life for his king or for the futile principle of a so-called point of honour".xvii

This perceived English propensity for melancholy, according to Hopes, was so wide spread that English writers eventually endorsed it as well. He writes:

"So pervasive is this stereotype that it comes to be adopted by British writers themselves. When George Cheyne published his treatise devoted to ‘nervous diseases of all kinds’ in 1733, he consciously integrated the view from France, promoting melancholy above the scurvy and venereal diseases as the condition now designated by the words of his title, The English Malady".xviii

It is not impossible to stretch the imagination to consider that my images depict some kind of freakish product stemming from an English malady. It is certainly indisputable that very little visible in a regional Australian urban landscape, at least in terms of human construct, was there before the English colonised the country. However I am not seeking to attribute blame for the past, only responsibility for the present, and that rests with all of us in the here and now. Further, a malady is a disease, inferring a sickness so entrenched that it might be terminal, whereas my images have a glimmer of hope for a recovery. Thus my final exhibition stops with the title “malaise”, which is a less specific illness pointing to an anxious unhappiness, but out of which there is a chance for a harmonious and balanced way of living. Without this, I become a mere doomsayer, and my work becomes posthumously prophetic like a canary in a coal mine.

Jamie Holcombe
June 2015