art
 and 
context
Island Odyssey
April 2015

Clare Langan’s current show, The Floating World, at VISUAL in Carlow features a new version of her 2013 single channel video. This is a looped, fifteen minute, three screen installation which fills a wall in VISUAL’s smaller gallery, the Digital Gallery. The installation is therefore quite intimate in scale; it doesn’t insist on spectacle or overwhelming effect. Work complementing the video, still photographs and a poem by Kerry Hardie, is shown in the adjacent Gallery. The transition to multi-channel allows Langan to combine original shots or sequences with iterations, reversals, combinations with one screen blank, and straight repetition of image, all of which add to the atmospheric qualities that she seeks. Langan’s output over the years is notably consistent. Her short video works are central to her practice. In these works the camera follows landscape first and foremost; then there are the deserted or near-deserted building interiors and the odd, isolated human figure filmed from afar. A storyline which might provide explanation whether visual or verbal seems latent, but it never arrives. There is an absence of narrative, text, or voice, bar the title. Langan’s imagery is supported by synchronized music and sound works and these are important to the sense of mystery which permeates the whole. Mystery is registered because our normal sense of relations in and of the world, the order of things, is absent.

When compared to her earlier work the outstanding difference with The Floating World is the clearly flagged identification of place. She uses three specified locations which occur sequentially in the video as Skellig Michael, Dubai, and Monserrat. Only Skellig Michael is obvious in the video; Dubai is shot in fog and the Monserrat section concerns the effects of volcano eruption, or more particularly the camera focuses on what were once homes after the emergency evacuation, the eruptions and spasmodic volcanic activity. The two latter locations are filmed in such abnormal conditions that the place is effectively unidentifiable and it is left to the supporting documentation to name them. Nevertheless, since this naming of unique geographic areas is new to Langan’s practice, it begs further investigation.

The opening section is at face value a conventional take on Skellig Michael. After an opening which focuses on the wake made by a boat crossing water, we have various shots of the immediately recognizable island of Skellig Michael, shots from Skellig Michael of the smaller island and the mainland of County Kerry in the distance. Then we see the winding stone steps created by the Early Christian monks in order to negotiate the dramatic elevation of cliff from landing bay upwards to their monastery, church, and habitable quarters. We catch glimpses of the sole human figure in The Floating World as little more than a dot looking out over a cliff, and as a moving thing in the middle of the screen walking the steps. We see the areas where the monks lived and worshipped such as the famous stone, beehive cells. With the monks’ evacuation of Skellig almost a thousand years ago few vertebrates apart from the birds are willing or able to withstand the harsh conditions of residency on the island. But birds do not feature in the video; rather, it is the remains of human habitation and evacuation that seems to be the objective and will recur at another location.

Crucially, the filming of Skellig Michael is less tourist board material than it might seem. Langan now feels almost obliged to emphasize that the filming, done in both clear weather and in mist, was with an infra-red camera which means that tracts of the island seem to have a covering of snow and this contributes in a major way to the ethereal effects of the video. Such a natural event is highly improbable and a source of confusion for the audience which Langan sees fit to clear up. The infra-red camera turns any green on Skellig to white, hence the ‘snow’. For Langan this is important because the use of the special camera means she herself has not made conscious decisions to distort what is there; what comes up in the camera viewer as ‘effects’ is part of the filming process, not a retrospective, post-production ‘distortion’ of decisions made on site. There is then a self-consciousness about over-aestheticizing and a desire to retain direct contact with the place.

As the global city which best epitomizes twenty-first century capitalism and consumption, Dubai seems the most unlikely location for Clare Langan. But hers is not the Dubai of travel brochures. Langan chose to film during a specific point of the year, in October, when for a few days the city is enveloped in fog. The filming looks down onto the tops of skyscrapers—literally—which are peeking up through cloud. These skyscrapers, devoid of human presence and lacking any corporate identity or signature, have no more substance than Lego blocks on a cushion of foam: they are as islands floating on empty. By contrast, the location in Monserrat is shown as a place which once had social fabric but the evidence of community is now covered in layers of volcanic dust. The Monserrat section of The Floating World is given over to the southern part of the island which has been affected by volcanic activity; it is the Exclusion Zone which as the military-style title suggests is vacated and where visiting permits are issued only under certain conditions. The camera pans homes—furniture, clothes, photographs, utensils, books—which are suggestive of the speed of the evacuation, of life once lived, and of life stopped.

At one level The Floating World can be seen as allegory as the video moves from the spiritual retreat that is Skellig Michael, to the excess and artifice that present-day Dubai represents but which is buried by fog, and from the beautiful to the sublime that is the southern part of Monserrat as it is frozen in a volcanic time warp. As Langan puts it the earth reclaims itself, and this unfolds at each location. But of equal importance to an allegoric understanding of the work is the concrete nature of its making: the choices made while filming at each location or the choices made while integrating image with music and sound. The infra-red camera also generates meaning and produces a different kind of narrative to the conventions of cinema. And even where the effects of infra-red are less dramatic, the imagery points to other considerations. For example, the opening sequence of movement on water is formally linked to the video’s closure: a pixilated still of water, sun and sky at dusk. The world may be more unstable than we want to imagine but there remains the perennial problems of visual art such as how to visually represent time and space.

 

 

Note:

The Floating World by Clare Langan at VISUAL Centre for Contemporary Art, Carlow, 10 January to 03 May 2015. Some details used in the above are based in a public conversation between Clare Langan and Orla Ryan which took place at VISUAL on 25 April 2015. Accreditation for The Floating World is available at clarelangan.com.