Monday, 11 February 2019

Nothing Matters..

File:_T7A1950 Nothing Matters George © Richard Ansett 2018
File:_T7A1842 Nothing Matters George © Richard Ansett 2018
The huge challenge of attempting to illustrate the complex and bespoke nature of mental health, especially through such a limited 2 dimensional medium, has led me to the realisation that perhaps photography in its purest sense is not enough and I am deluding myself if I consider that somehow I am 'making a difference'. Don McCullin (who does not define himself as an artist) admits that his images will make no difference to the subjects he has taken, many of whom were either already dead or would soon be. It does beggar the question 'what are we doing this for ?' and this is an intellectual anxiety at the fore front of the mind of the empathic artist. Conscience and responsibility are part of the self negotiation in the representation of other people.

Depression is hard enough to define in any medium and perhaps so much exposure to it has allowed it to infect my own confidence. Being around complex and overwhelming mental issues does take its toll for a sensitive and confluent person. I have been known to say that I do not care about my subjects but this is a conceptual statement only, their identity is less important than the message I am attempting to communicate through them. I am attempting to detach the conventional narrative that helps us to easily define and therefore compartmentalise the subject as 'other', so that we as an audience can potentially imagine this hell for ourselves.

For example, without wishing to pull back the Wizard's curtain too swiftly, this man's name is not George, it is in fact Edward; it doesn't matter, nothing matters. I find confidence to declare my process through the anecdotes of other artists and I recently read that David Hockney re-named the cat in his most famous painting 'Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy' because it sounded better. 'Nothing Matters Edward' doesn't have the same flow either.

I spent some time recently alone with George, he is so consumed with ennui and despair at the loss of his mother that he inspired an attempt to define it, or perhaps to attempt to capture something of it, bottle it or worse pseudo-scientifically observe if the molecules bouncing back from him and onto the cold hard plain of my image sensor convey anything of his suffering to you or even me. Can his emotional and physical pain that is so visceral in the moment be captured within the boundaries of the conventional photograph? My practice is defined by this challenge. I am not looking to redefine the craft but create new and original work within traditional boundaries.

Margaret Atwood accidentally came close to defining depression when she stated that "There is always hope. Otherwise why get up in the morning." Similarly, to believe that “if one thing matters” to quote Wolfgang Tillmans “everything matters” noble as it is, sentimentalises a starker reality, that the fabric of our existence is a fictitious human framework to help make sense of our insignificance. Depression is a consequence of this awakening from this delusion. Depression can be defined as progress as we awaken into a hopeless realisation.

As in the myth of Daedalus and Icarus to face this realisation is to risk destruction. Depression is a bespoke emotional and physical destruction, the pain of imprisonment of self through a failure to rationalise truth.

The awareness of the hopelessness of reality and our existence within it, is something we must negotiate but this awakening can come as a terrible shock to the unprepared. As an artist I deliberately place my hand in the flame. Mortal anxiety is a catalyst to this process and how we manage our relationship to it defines us as unique, complex individuals.

The paradox is that there is hope; the irony is that there is only one thing that can help us come to terms with 'the hell of existential loneliness, OTHER PEOPLE. We are both the problem and the solution.

SEE FULL SERIES HERE: Nothing Matters George, 2018 

Monday, 5 November 2018

..Everything Matters

An 4m glycee print, perhaps the largest I have seen, is hung impossibly, delicately by what seems like 4 pins at Wolfgang Tillmans vast archival show at the Tate Modern early this year. Shot on a hi resolution camera, the image is of a common little weed growing through a crack in the pavement in a shadowy corner of a London street. It is monumental but equally tender, verdant and incredibly beautiful, classically composed equal to any still life or landscape master work but defiantly and unashamedly 'photography'. The title of the show pronounces 'If One Thing Matters Everything Matters'.

The work is both deeply autobiographical and political. It is clear from the immediacy and genuineness of the image that Tillmans is responding in the moment, his subconscious gasping at otherwise meaningless and ignored objects that are elevated to the desirable.

The success of a work is in direct correlation to the risk of failure, holding back the narrative to allow the audience our own epiphany, our own discovery of meaning and therefore a sense of ownership. It creates a huge bond between the viewer and the work, it is in line with Gestalt practice; the idea of assisting others towards seeing new patterns in reality space through self-discovery. The artist subjugates his ego in the pursuit of a bigger conversation. 

I have empathy for this pathetic, unwanted weed. Tillmans has come to terms with his non-heteronormative sexuality and is an immigrant, I imagine he has had feelings of disenfranchisement. The otherwise unseen, uncared for and reviled is held up and glorified. In so doing Tillmans shows great knowledge of the power of photographic imagery in the representation of what we consider normal. He reminds us of the nature of prejudice and how easy it is to be complicit in the oppressive status quo in documenting reality. 

The Weed, 2014 © Wolfgang Tillmans

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

The Heteronormative State

Grayson Perry - BIRTH MOTHER © Richard Ansett 2018

It might feel comfortable and safe to sit within the confines of a clearly defined existence and judge others but it is not secure ground. Certainly the previously dominant structures that set out our world are now seen increasingly as merely other ways of living and in a free society even bigots are welcome as we recognise the pathetic hubris of their superiority.

The complications of accepting personal responsibility for our lives and the accompanying existential loneliness are prices we pay to break free of oppressive forms of traditional identity. We increasingly exist in parallel to the passive aggressive bully that is the stereotype and 'minority' is an increasingly archaic term.

'Queer' has evolved from the reclamation of an abuse to become an inclusive definition that allows us all to share in the complex relationship to what has been identified as the 'heteronormative state.'

The heteronormative state should be defined as the oppressor not just of those broadly defined by sexuality. It is the fabric within which we all function evolved over centuries, the historic legacy is stitched into the foundations and structures that frame our lives. It cannot be torn down so easily like a statue but we can scratch and nudge at it with tools like the zeitgeist.

In my latest collaboration with Grayson Perry the focus is on the tireless motif of mother and child for the 21st century. Claire is not a natural mother, it is a trans- immaculate conception.

A very limited edition giclée available through SINGULART

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

The Fertile Void

Boy Walking with Two Women, Ukraine © Richard Ansett 2011

I am possessed by a disproportionate level of certainty with a camera that is challenged by what feels like an emotional Newtonian law of equal and opposite reaction in hindsight. In photography the easiest part of the process is in the initial creation and only then does the hard work start in analysing the processes that led to that creation. In my mind an image continues to have a present value long after its creation and remains 'active'. What might otherwise be considered 'finished' works are altered on a molecular level by time and space, often taking on new meaning or any meaning at all 'after the fact'. It is an argument for never destroying our archives. Photography as first and foremost a documentary record is of no interest to me and is the subject of great anxiety when I come to present my work to others. 
A framework for thought and discussion can be created on other dimensions that feel more valuable than the physical nature of any immediate image but persuading others of that is another matter entirely.

I document the lives of strangers and their journey in the normative universe as creatures somehow more complete than myself; I have come to realise that it is what led me as an adopted young person to photography. My work continues to reflect the need to explore the lives of others from the outside, through a diminished lens celebrating those lives regardless of the level of their own suffering as more 'whole' relative to my own. I am still trapped in this gilded cage partly of my own making as willing participant in my own fucked up psychology, its a form of Stockholm syndrome where I am in love with myself as the perpetrator. It is a self love that has created a dogma that brings great joy and mortal satisfaction.

I assumed that being lost was my unique space but my ego was built on what turns out to be shared foundations. I have a new more informed persona now but this is still persona and as much a defensive cliche against the world as any other. My 'poster boy for the disenfranchised' is not really lost in the way I observe in many of the most vulnerable I am exposed to. To be free from persona is the ultimate goal artistically and personally but I fear I may not reach it in time, I am not trying hard enough obviously. There is no finished article just different degrees of progress to be recorded. All life is still arrogantly defined and recorded as relative to my experience but this is less about ego now and in older age is closer to a clumsiness that acknowledges my presence as an equal failure.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Manchester Bombing - After the Attack

Erin in her bedroom, from series After the Attack, 2018 © Richard Ansett
Erin in her bedroom, from series After the Attack, 2018 © Richard Ansett

Shot just before the first anniversary, this image of Erin is from a series of portraits of the young girls affected by the Manchester Arena bomb. The series attempts to capture something of the emotional and psychological impact that a traumatic event can have on the present for a survivor as they attempt to move forward with their lives. The effect of PTSD is unique to every person but a common reaction to this particular event has been a fear of returning to any large public space and in these studies the otherwise innocuous bedroom locations acknowledge that in many cases survivors can find leaving the house difficult. Part of the healing process is a need to withdraw.

In photographing vulnerable subjects a circle must be squared; an instinct to protect with an equal and opposite responsibility to capture something of their struggle in the moment. Empathy is both inherent and learned and is an essential component in the process towards any potentially great portrait but sympathy can limit the necessity to press a subject towards a representative state.

When attempting to capture any expression that reflects complex humanity we must be vigilant of the conventional rules of engagement and resist the instinct to treat the contract between artist and sitter as normative. It is important to be constantly aware when photographing a subject that they are equally aware of us and any emotion we capture is a response to that relationship as evidence of the complex relationship the subject has with the wider world.

To evolve in the pursuit of an atypical genuine and complex emotion is to continually feed new experience and education into practice. The self awareness that comes from learning about the hidden forces that motivate behaviour leads to an evolution in every aspect of external persona that attracts the projection of the feelings of others. We can literally (and often silently) become a vessel to receive the emotions of others by recognising (and in some cases) removing the obstacles to our emotional progress. Humans are incredibly sensitive readers of each other on a subconscious level, certainly in trusting someone with our most difficult feelings but a cognitive understanding of these signals free of infection and denial can only be learned.

To capture something genuine that offers insight into the subject, ourselves and something representative for the human experience is the holy grail and requires great commitment which may very occasionally be rewarded.

Monday, 7 May 2018

Monocultural Monumentalism

The project 'Lynching in America' distills a horrific national legacy down to the simple collection of soil by the descendants at the site of a 16 year old boy's murder in a woodland glade outside LaGrange, Georgia.

Ironically the blog Wakeupscreaming has invited me to contribute to their issue themed 'The Great Outdoors' with this series, which feels more micro rather than macro and is the
 antithesis of what might be defined as great.

The photographer and environmentalist Ansel Adams' iconic monochromatic works shot at Yosemite National Park are the personification of 'The Great Outdoors' and continue a romantic tradition of representing US landscape. Free from any presence of humanity these monumentalist cliches offer a simpler more palatable monocultural language, a bigger 'universal truth'. The chaos, pettiness and failures of humanity seem too complicated for Adams and he withdraws to contemplate an alternative utopia free from our parasitic species. So vast are the mountain scenes that I can no-longer make out the noble attempts of individual truth and reconciliation being played out in our intimate landscape (at the same time the flaming torches of the marching fascists are drawing the gaze of the worlds media just down the road in Charlottesville).

When defining beauty by natural rules we should take time to comprehend the terrible cost in Darwinian terms in its evolution. At the end of her life, Leni Riefenstahl similarly withdrew from the world to an undersea paradise in her trite films that accidentally re-enforce her fascist credentials.

I am suspicious of representations of the natural world without some acknowledgement of the presence or impact of humankind. To be representing the present we must start to perceive the chaos and mess of contemporary society as a beauty too. The romanticised representation of the natural world is a dangerous meme that threatens a complex democratic and free thinking society.

Frances with soil, LaGrange, Georgia USA (from series Lynching in America) © Richard Ansett 2017

Yosemite National Park, Ansel Adams

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Random Acts

Me and Patrick Mateer filming on the streets of Hull for Are You My Mum? © Hollie Rosa Warren

Working with the the Random Acts team to put together the film Are You My Mum? was an opportunity to re-engage with the original project in the same way but also in a new way.

Returning to the location of my unknown mother's home is always a difficult emotional experience and I need to be motivated. I am consciously connecting to the loss and the rejection both at birth and again in my attempts to contact her in adulthood. There is a subconscious and not fully explored emotional reaction still, which is a combination of sadness, an existential loneliness and an unresolved anger that is accessed in returning to Hull.

Part of the opportunity presented by the film was to take a further risk in my direct engagement with the ladies of Hull, which has been (up until the commission) a distant connection expressed in the early photographs and posters. This distance as metaphor, reflects the literal paradox of being both near and far from my mother emotionally and physically. The film introduced a direct connection to women of my mother's age and because this was beyond the parameters of the original work, it felt like we were making a different project inspired by the original work to assist others to empathise with me; I had become the subject. 

There is a genuine sense that any women of a certain age could be my mother so spending intimate time with the ladies on the street was a valuable opportunity afforded by working in this way whilst meeting the expectations of the Random Acts brand. My interest has always been to be challenged by limitation and continues to be an exploration of the possibilities within much tighter and restricted boundaries than film. I find a fluid timeline particularly limiting, I prefer to freeze a moment of time and present a subject abstracted in aspic to be studied but not fully understood. It is not possible to bring a project designed for one medium successfully into another medium and I feel the success was in identifying this early enough. I was happy to hand over the direction and editing and be an advisor and subject, so long as the project core aims and message were protected.

The film may steer away from the original work's idea of a universal shared sense of not knowing and this message has been lost in translation in prioritising a communication of my internal psychology but this is a sacrifice required to make it work and I am ok with it, we needed to make something work in a limited time and budget and it needed to be something more than a documentary about the original work. We have been successful in communicating to people that adoption is complex beyond the singular positive narrative; a double sided coin that is both love and rescue recognising the trauma of loss and abandonment.

Ultimately the broadcast, designed specifically to be launched on Mothers Day to maximise the potential for any visceral connection, offers an opportunity to deliver a meme reaching a wider audience than any of us could have imagined. Are You My Mum? as an original deeply personal project may have never been seen had it not been for Hull winning City of Culture 2017 and without this film an audience would not have the opportunity to understand what might motivate any of us to create work and bring it to the world.