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Patrick Shanahan: Esperantis

06 July 2004 - 28 August 2004

Esperantis by Patrick Shanahan is a seductive and unsettling insight into the nocturnal face of the modern urban environment. These exquisite large-scale photographs explore imaginatively the notion of spatial estrangement, considering the formation of the urban landscape and its effect on us materially and psychologically.

For urban designers and engineers, modern lighting technologies offer inventive ways to invest the urban landscape with new cultural meanings, through the highlighting and suppression of physical spaces. By editing and colouring, for instance, they can create a setting that is hyper-real and illusory.

Shanahan’s photographs use a combination of the effect of such ambient artificial lighting, together with the ‘reciprocity failure’ of colour photographic film (the colour shifts that occur in exposures exceeding one second). Taken in Spain and Portugal between 1998 and 2001, these extraordinary scenes seem familiar and welcoming, yet peculiarly otherworldly and supernatural.

Patrick Shanahan is an artist photographer and visiting lecturer and Esperantis is an Open Eye Gallery Touring exhibition. A colour illustrated catalogue featuring the full Esperantis series, essays and interviews, accompanies the exhibition.

Artist interview

PS: Patrick Shanahan

BB: Bernadette Buckley, John Hansard Gallery


BB: Thank you very much for agreeing to do this interview for the John Hansard Gallery. Let’s just start by talking about Zelda Cheatle’s description of your work as “stark” and “eerie”. And the word ‘strange’ is also often used to describe it…


PS: I think it’s because of a combination of things. For a start, all the photography has been taken at night (or certainly at dusk or late into the evening) using mixed lighting – artificial lighting of the sort that street lighting, or sodium neon lighting provides. This lighting gives all sorts of peculiar colours when recorded on film. The human eye seems to absorb these colours and correct them to a certain extent, but the camera doesn’t do that, so you get all these peculiar things occurring that sometimes (well most of the time) can’t be anticipated. It’s a very hit-and-miss process, so I’m always very curious to see what will happen when I get the film processed and contact printed and see what’s there.


So that’s one aspect of the strangeness…caused by colour. And then there’s also the subject matter. Mostly it’s to do with the seaside, coastal areas. This particular project has concentrated mainly on Spain and Portugal – the Iberian peninsula mainly, so you’re seeing these landscapes in a context that you don’t normally envisage them. Normally, these places are full of people – very busy in the summer months, with lots of people on the beach and so on. But here, they’re deserted or almost deserted. Or where there are people in them, (because of the long exposures… maybe 20, maybe 40 minutes) the figures don’t just record in any simple way. People are moving through the photograph but don’t actually register, so again I think that adds to that sense of strangeness that is often remarked on.


BB: …And, as you say also, because of the colours generated by that process of long exposure and use of existing lighting. Which reminds me…do you on occasion, also point your headlights into the scene as well.


PS: No, it’s always the ambient, available light that is used. As I say, sometimes I don’t anticipate what’s going to happen, but from experience, I know that certain lights will give certain effects and so on. But it’s really about what is already there and the way that the film responds to it. With long exposures, you get what is called ‘reciprocity failure’ – which is when film doesn’t respond in the way you would expect it to, when exposed over a long period of time. So this causes the colour to shift. When I come to print the work, I do attempt to print it in as ‘neutral’ a way as possible. In other words, I try to get a colour balance. Looking at the picture you may not think that, but I do try to keep it as ‘neutral’ as possible so that the viewer sees the effect of the colours, or the lighting effect of colour lighting.


BB: And you don’t use filters?


PS: No I don’t use filters – except of course when I come to print I have to filter the pictures to make the enlargement. The prints in the exhibition have been made digitally – they’re light-jet prints – so the neg is scanned to make very large prints and the prints are then made on to photographic paper. People sometimes ask me if I’ve used Photoshop, or if I’ve manipulated the picture in any way. I do use Photoshop for an amount of cleaning up but not for major manipulation. The effect really comes through the use of the ambient lighting etc. So apart from getting a reasonable colour balance, maintaining a contrast and basically cleaning up the neg. (imperfections and so on), it’s pretty much a straight picture.


BB: And yet, these same colours keep on coming through in your work – that kind of El Greco green that fills the pictures – or that purple sky that appears in so many of them...


PS: Well that purple colour was something I didn’t anticipate. It’s a result of a combination of unusual atmospheric conditions and the effect of street lighting. (Sodium lighting tends to give that green cast to everything). And, in the picture of the old Olympic Stadium at Barcelona for example, on that particular evening, there was a heavy mist that came in from the sea. It was very unusual for August. It was a very hot day and suddenly there was this change in atmospheric conditions. The mist started to envelop everywhere – including those buildings that you see in the distance. When I took the photograph, most of the available lighting was sodium lighting, so when I came to print the picture, I tried to neutralise as much of that as possible and take the green cast out of the foreground. In so doing, it turned the sky that sort of red magenta mauve colour. So, that colour didn’t exist in ‘reality’, but it was created through the printing process. A happy accident.


BB: And yet it seems so appropriate here – it lends to that atmosphere of isolation in the pictures – of alienation even?


PS: Yes and that’s also because I’m working in the in-between spaces between the ‘Imagination’ and the ‘Real’. The work often tends to deal with these very vague spaces in between Imagination and the Real. Baudrillard writes a great deal about this of course. I have my reservations in some respects about what he writes, he’s such a polemicist! For example, the idea that there’s no such thing as ‘reality’ anymore, or that everything is hyper-real, simulacral…that sort of pessimistic accent is not something that I necessarily go along with, but the work is nevertheless dealing with unreal, hyper-real spaces.


BB: One of the things that occurred to me about your work (and perhaps this relates also to the point at which you separate from Baudrillard) is how reminiscent it is of certain paintings. I’m thinking here of Surrealist paintings in particular – say Dali’s Swans Reflecting Elephants or Magritte’s Human Condition. On the other hand, the Surrealist works don’t necessarily disturb one because it’s so obvious that they are the product of particular artists’ imagination. What’s disturbing about your pictures by comparison, is that one feels that perhaps some kind of future is being hinted at. They make us uneasy because they send us back into our own experience and make us remember being in places similar to these. So one can’t detach from them in the way one might from say The Persistence of Time or some such…


PS: Yes, the Surrealists were very interested in photography and you might think ‘well why should they be?’ After all photography supposedly deals with the ‘Real’ and the Surrealists were dealing with the Imagination and with psychology and so on, so why the interest in photography? Well interestingly enough, Man Ray, who was a photographer, greatly admired people like Eugene Adget. And again, Henri Breton wrote about photography in L’Amour Fou . So photography had a certain fascination for the Surrealists and I think this that was to do with the blurring between ‘reality’ and imagination’. For me, this has a lot to do with the ‘uncanny’, the unconscious as a kind of double – because the photograph is also a kind of double. And of course, the Surrealists were interested in what Freud had to say, so I think there were a lot of links there too. But I think that my photographs do deal more with that sort of fear – that anxiety about the future. It addresses those kind of issues.


BB: This is where I see a link between your work and Situationism also – and in particular with Situationist détournement tactics, with which artists were trying to disrupt our half-dreamt, non-involved experience of the world. There seems to be something of this in your work too – the pictures attempts to disrupt, to shock us out of our apathetic view of the everyday world.


PS: Yes yes. The Situationists’ idea of tactical engagement was to deform conventional, or dominant space and photography is very good at deforming space because it can distort and contort. It can manipulate perspective and so on and as a strategy –or as a tactic I should say –it’s very good at disrupting dominant space and in creating an ‘alternative’ kind of space.


BB: …at making interjections into what is already there?


PS: Yes


BB: One of the other writers I wanted to talk to you about also was that of Barthes and in particular, about the text in which he looks at the Winter Garden photograph. After his mother has died, he looks at this photo of her as a younger woman and has a kid of revelation of about photography. The photograph he says, is powerful because it’s proof that that which was photographed was once there. And this is where he’s so different from Baudrillard of course, who would not accept this at all. And yet, its very hard to discount that kind of ‘revelation’ that Barthes had – because he’s talking about his now dead mother, in a very human, a very touching way. And this seems to be where many arguments about photography end. On the one hand, the Baudrillardian who would imply that the distance between ‘Reality’ and the ‘Imagination’ has altogether collapsed (if indeed it ever existed) and on the other hand, the Barthesians who would say ‘No there is still some kind of link between the photograph and ‘the real’.


PS: Yes I find Barthes’ account here very moving and I suppose that what he is saying, at the end of the day, is that all photography is about death because it’s always a record of something in the past. Photography does privilege time. It has that hold over the past, which we cannot, in a sense, get away from – we’re always aware of this when we look at a photograph.


BB: But your photographs have a very particular relation to time. In some ways, they seem to be suspending it. That is, in your photographs, everything seems to be frozen in time and space. But this is paradoxical also, because in another sense, the work seems to be pointing at a time in the future that perhaps we ought to be a little anxious about?


PS: Yes. It is looking to the future. I’m not sure whether its fear of the future, or almost idealistic desire for the past. But there are certainly elements in the photographs that give that sense of suspended time. For example, it might depict a concrete block floating in water, in defiance of both gravity and time, or rocks by the sea, that are ‘floating’ in the mist…One suspends time and defies nature and gravity in this way.


BB: That sense of a time gone by seems to be created with reference to the Modernist type of architecture that appears in your work – a Modernism of the 50s, 60s and 70s that is very outmoded now. It looks at a kind of ‘modernity’ that is no longer full of hope, but is now very shabby.


PS: Yes I think the photographs do have a kind of positive hopeful optimistic feel about them. I certainly don’t think they have the Baudrillardian pessimism that thinks that everything is going to implode. O tjoml O generally have a fairly positive disposition and I think that that comes through in the photographs. This sort of redemptive aspect in the [hjotographs, coulms thgouth in what I’ve called the “luminous uncanny”. Its to do with the way life used to be. And in a way, there is a certain kind of paradoxical element to the photographs. On the one hand, we’re dealing with a landscape which can be fearful, which one can feel alienated in. Even as an artist working in that landscape, one can feel quite fearful, being in an unfamiliar place with a camera and expensive equipment. One could so easily be mugged and there’s always that sense of fear in the back of one’s mind. But I think there is also that sense of fear experienced through the photography as well – of fear and alienation. However countering that sense of fear, there’s also that sense of the thrilling – that seductive quality that the pictures have. So I think its this sort of paradox, this frisson between the fearful and the thrilling that provides a kind of intellectual shudder – a shudder of recognition – and which in some ways I suppose gives a kind of redemptiveness.


BB: And perhaps that’s why this work started me thinking about Caspar David Friedrich? Perhaps the two bodies of work are linked by way of the ‘sublime’ – that which has the capacity to be both amazing, redemptive and wonderful and but which at the same time, holds a kind of terror for us?


PS: I’ve considered the ‘sublime’ in relation to my work and I’ve come to the conclusion that the work is more about the uncanny. In a sense, the uncanny is a kind of sub-genre of the sublime. The sublime is about aspiration – it’s about awe and I think some photographers perhaps deal much better with the sublime than I do. I’d say that my work is dealing more with the uncanny though there are photographs that hint in that direction. I’m thinking in particular for example, of that seascape. When you first look at that photo, you’re disorientated. What you see (or what you think you see) are rocks in the foreground and then in the distance, a sort of mist (which could be low clouds) and then in the distance again, there seem to be lights moving about. You can never be quite sure what the picture is about. People have often said to me ‘Did I take the photograph from an aeroplane or a helicopter?’ because it’s almost as though one is looking down on this from above, from the Alps or somewhere.


BB: And this disorientation that the viewer has, is a physical disorientation almost, isn’t it?


PS: Yes there is that ambiguity of scale that’s being played out there. Is it mountains? Is it rocks? Is it a close-up even? And that mist that might also be cloud…


BB: Perhaps this again is why these photographs send one back to painting so often? Because when you look at them, you sometimes wonder if this is single point perspective that you’re looking at. As in that photograph of the island…San Sebastian…it’s as if it’s a painting done on the verge of discovering single point perspective. The island is floating of course, but in the way that characters in some Indian miniatures do and it’s almost as if it’s not built on a post-Renaissance perspective.


PS: Which is quite interesting, because the camera is, by its very nature, that single-point perspective. Somehow, through scale, and perhaps through colour as well, the relationships between different planes and different objects change.


BB: You like to keep the viewer in this queasy, disorientated position don’t you?


PS: Yes I think that as an artist, one is reflecting and responding to the lived environment – the environment that we all inhabit. I want to question that environment, to raise issues about modernity, about spatial estrangement as a tactical manoeuvre, and I think this is a very good way of engaging the audience.


BB: But this engagement with the landscape is of a very different kind to that of, say, Smithson, or others of the Land artists of the 60s, who worked as lot with ‘natural’ forms. Not always of course, there were always works like Partially Buried Woodshed – but Smithson’s work led the viewer into a different kind of engagement it seems to me …


PS: Yes I’ve always admired Smithson’s work and his interventions in landscapes. His work is being re-evaluated at the moment and as records of these environments are published and exhibited, so too is Smithson’s work as a photographer. But for me, I have less of an intervention – I work on what is there.


BB: Your work reminds me more of Smithson’s writings rather than his photography – his writings on spiral jetty are very troubled and filled with images of blood….


But let’s move on now because I want to ask you also about the particular moment at which this work is being shown. The EU has been extended to accommodate ten new member-states, Tony Blair has just signed the UK up to a constitution within this larger European Union and here we are looking at photographs of Euroland. Even the title of this exhibition – Esperantis –recalls Esperanto as a potentially common European language – albeit one that like Atlantis – is now virtually buried beneath the sea.


PS: And ‘Esperanto’ means hope as well.


BB: Do you have a particular anxiety about the future of Euroland?


PS: No, I’ve worked all over Europe, in Eastern Europe and indeed as well in North America and the Middle East. Most of the works in this exhibition are shot in Spain – in North Spain in particular, as I know that region quite well. I guess what attracted me to this location was the fact that Spain has been going through some major changes – post Franco and since it joined the EEC and so forth. A tremendous, rapid modernisation has occurred and it seems that wherever you go, you see these contrasts between the old and the new. It’s that sort of juxtaposition that fascinates me and that’s probably the main reason why I’ve chosen Spain and Portugal in which to work. But having said that, I’m a Europhile. It just so happens that the show is on at the moment and there is a lot of debate about whether or not the UK stays in the EU, but from my perspective, there’s no conscious attempt at raising these sort of political issues through the work.


BB: I wondered because, Spain and Portugal are such popular holiday destinations for people travelling from the UK. And the reputation of the the English at these places is not particularly good, as amplified by recent events in the European Cup Final. So I wondered if there was a certain perspective here to do with Englishness – by default almost?


PS: I see what your are saying. No I don’t think so. I don’t think I need the work to related to defining a certain kind of Englishness. The modern world is so cosmopolitan and so small these days – you can fly to Spain so quickly – I think there is a certain internationalism that is conveyed by the photographs. The fact that they have been made in Spain and Portugal is of less importance. I could have included work from other countries that I’ve been to. I could have included work from Cornwall where I live, or from Italy. But it just so happened that that particular body of work, made over a 3-year period, seemed to hold together very well and had a cohesive aspect to it.


BB: You do have an admiration for a particular group of English photographers, don’t you?


PS: Yes. My first experience of photography really was with the American Topographic Photographers. I did a first degree in Fine Art and I was working mainly in sculpture and in installation – not in photography at all. Photography was always the by-product of the other 3 dimensional work I was making. I had a very good tutor who had been a sculptor and was now a photographer making photos. He was very influential and suggested that I should look at certain peoples work. At the college I was at, we just happened to have a very good library of photography, so I started exploring a lot of these photographs made by people I’d never heard of. I became more and more interesting in photography and I discovered people like Eugene Atget, Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander and all the Modernist American and European photographers. Then in the mid 70s there was a new kind of movement – the New Topographics. People like Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal etc were looking at a landscape in transformation and that work really interested me. But equally, at the same time, a lot of English photographers like myself were doing the same sort of thing. They were very influenced by this new movement, so in the late 1970s, early 1980s, there were a lot of photographers interested in this – people like John Davies Ken Phillips…


BB: And was there an attempt to Anglicise what ws predominantly an American movement – to give a British spin to American landscape photography?


PS: This is something that David Brittain and I have spoken about, interestingly enough, but I don’t think we’ve ever come to any decision about this. Has there been an English version of the New Topographics. I think that what happened was that poepole who were influenced by American Topographics moved on into other areas. So there was never that strong movement like there was in the States. And there were other photographers whose work I also admired – people like Raymond Moore and so on – people who are perhaps not given the recognition that they deserve.


BB: And finally, could you tell me something about your current project – the body of work you are developing around the Eden project.


PS: Yes I’ve called it Paradisos – which means The Garden of Eden or paradise. It picks up on some of the ideas in Esperantis but also moves them on somewhat. I stared working on this project at the same time that I started working on Esperantis. I worked in Spain and Portugal during the Summer months and then in Autumn and Winter I worked closer to home, but Paradisos took a bit more time to develop.


The Eden Project is probably one of the most important tourist sites in the UK today and it has grown in recognition over the last 3-4 years. So the book I’m producing (which is at the dummy stage at present) has gone through several different changes. The latest version really describes the transformation of a post-industrial landscape – from a Britain that started to decline in the 1970s to a post-landscape which is very much to do with the simulacra and artificial nature. Eden, as you know, is a site which creates (or re-creates) all different climates and areas from around the world. So it’s a kind of globalism in a very small area. The themes of the artificial and the simulacra continue, in a sense, from the Esperantis work.


BB :The title Paradisos reminds me of Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. And I suppose in common with the latter, there’s something almost metaphorical about the way that you’re picturing these places – is that fair to say?


PS: Yes, it has a certain allegorical content in that it’s an allegory for modern living.


BB: Thank you very much Patrick Shanahan for allowing us to conduct this interview for the John Hansard Gallery.