Wednesday, October 1, 2008


These musings were the "Gallery Notes" I contributed to a photo exhibit at UMass Boston in November of 2007.

~New work from Dublin photographer Fionán O’Connell~
Harbor Gallery, University of Massachusetts Boston
Curated by Andrea Souza, November 2007

Titling this show IN THE HEART OF THE HIBERNIAN METROPOLIS, Fionán O’Connell makes a statement at once as bold and as playful as the photographs that we see on exhibit here in the Harbor Gallery. It is a bold statement because, ripped from the headline-punctuated “Aeolus” episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses, the phrase locates O’Connell’s work in some sort of relation to the towering figure of Joyce, whose literary inscription of Dublin as it stood on June 16th of 1904 established the benchmark for any and all artistic depictions of the city. As Joyce told his friend Frank Budgen while working on Ulysses, “I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.”

But it is also a playful statement because O’Connell himself displays none of the anxiety of influence—or even of confluence—that such first-generation post Joyce ergo propter Joyce writers as Flann O’Brien and Samuel Beckett experienced and expressed in their work or that such latter-day writers as Roddy Doyle and Dermot Bolger have had imposed on them by Joyce-centric readers. Thus while some viewers of O’Connell’s photographs might see them as palimpsests, afterthought images laid over the century-ago streets of Joyce’s etched-in-typeface DEAR DIRTY DUBLIN (another of the Aeolian headlines), O’Connell himself can maintain a blissful obliviousness to Joyce as he goes about his photographic business: the Joycean title of this show is actually the afterthought here, a bit of tongue-in-cheekiness on O’Connell’s part that matches the spirit of the individual photographs that make up the show.

And yet might the show’s title still have a pertinence that runs deeper than the eye-catchy nature of a borrowed headline? After all, is Ulysses not a novel which in large part reminds readers—through Joyce’s concentration on the sensibilities of its three main characters, Stephen Dedalus, Leopold Bloom, and Molly Bloom—of the myriad ways in which we know the world . . . in which we see the world? In a letter Joyce wrote in 1919 to his patron Harriet Shaw Weaver, he defended “the various styles” of the novel’s eighteen episodes, explaining: “in the compass of one day to compress all these wanderings and clothe them in the form of this day is for me possible only by such variation which, I beg you to believe, is not capricious.” Set in a newspaper office, the “Aeolus” episode illustrates this point exactly: interrupting the otherwise conventional linear narrative with those boldface headlines—THE CROZIER AND THE PEN, OMNIUM GATHERUM, RAISING THE WIND—Joyce illuminates how the medium of newspaper rhetoric (and layout) operates as both message and massage in our edge-of-consciousness processing of ordinary daily experience.

Fionán O’Connell, too, focuses on how we see the world . . . but not just through a camera viewfinder. Rather, directing his lens to record the “streets broad and narrow” of “Dublin’s fair city” not as touristy postcard panoramas but as one-off curbscapes—peripheral glimpses of crosswalks, shopfronts, doorframes, billboards, architectural cornices—he produces, or reproduces, the effect of a typical Dubliner unselfconsciously registering the undistilled spirit of the city on a typical day. Coincidentally, in Stephen Hero, an early draft of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce had his protagonist describe this sort of liminal awareness with regard to the clock of the Ballast Office: “I will pass it time after time, allude to it, refer to it, catch a glimpse of it. It is only an item in the catalogue of Dublin’s street furniture. Then all at once I see it and I know at once what it is: epiphany.” Not fixated on the epiphanic per se, O’Connell aims more for a photographic image that “shows forth” the metaphysical dimension of some physical detail of the city simply by his capturing that detail, usually nondescript, in an aesthetically pleasing composition.

No less than Joyce, however, whose aesthetic transcribes urban texture into urbane text, O’Connell looks for ways to replicate in his photographs ordinary street-level sensation. One recent development in his vision—an attentiveness to the way that shop windows both reflect and refract not only their own interior displays but also the exterior world of the city—involves, again coincidentally, a Joycean aspect. Often shots of stylishly decked out mannequins, these photos bring to mind specifically that scene in the “Lestrygonians” episode of Ulysses when Leopold Bloom, hungering for both food and sex, pauses before a presentation of lingerie in the window of Brown Thomas on Grafton Street: “Gleaming silks, petticoats on slim brass rails, rays of flat silk stockings.” Joyce’s friend Frank Budgen recalls that when composing this scene the author set for himself the challenge of finding not just the Flaubertian mot juste but also “the perfect order of words in the sentence.” Joyce explained the challenge thus: “Seduction appears in my book as women’s silk petticoats hanging in a shop window. The words through which I express the effect of it on my hungry hero are ‘Perfume of embraces all him assailed. With hungered flesh obscurely, he mutely craved to adore.’ You can see for yourself in how many different ways they might be arranged.”

Ditto for Fionán O’Connell’s expressive “arrangement” of visual detail even in photographs taken seemingly by chance from the ultimate Dubliner’s perspective—the saddle of a moving bicycle. In a note to his show at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC in 1992, O’Connell described this intrinsic dimension of his creative vision:

In Dublin, it rains a lot and the buses are slow and unpredictable. So, from a very young age, the bicycle seemed the best way of getting around. Cycling in the rain used to deter me from taking a camera out at all until I realized how I could incorporate the rain and the bike into my photographs. The showers and constant drizzle did something to color, and so began my long affair with double yellow lines, striped traffic cones, traffic lights, signs, puddles, manholes, and low light blurs.
Clearly, a century removed from “Joyce’s Dublin”—and from Dublin’s Joyce—Fionán O’Connell can stake his own artistic claim in the new “heart of the Hibernian metropolis.”

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