Critique | Claire Murphy, ‘Here Is Where I Am’

South Tipperary Arts Centre, 3 July – 21 August 2021

Claire Murphy, Untitled II, 2020, Hahnemuhle Photo Rag on Dibond, ed. 1/3, 70x50cm, courtesy of the artist. Claire Murphy, Untitled II, 2020, Hahnemuhle Photo Rag on Dibond, ed. 1/3, 70x50cm, courtesy of the artist.

The title of Claire Murphy’s exhibition, ‘Here Is Where I Am’, at South Tipperary Arts Centre suggests an acceptance of both the present and of being present.

17 photographs of four different sizes (ranging from 70x50cm to 50x40cm) in both portrait and landscape orientations are displayed around the low-ceilinged walls of the gallery space. The pieces are printed on Hahnemuhle Photo Rag on a Dibond backing and have a dry surface to them. The images are shot on 35mm film and retain a naturalism and softness through this medium. The works are all ‘Untitled’ and numbered individually I – XVII, the artist offering no descriptive guide, suggesting the works are equal parts of a whole.

Thematically, that whole is based both on being present and being somewhat enclosed within a specific geographical area during an undisclosed period of time. Impressionistic individually, the works build up to form a collective viewpoint together. The subject is a house, the domestic elements within it – family life, food, worktables – and then the exterior, a green thicketed forest and grassland area. 

Although there is no overt reference to the COVID-19 lockdowns in the images, we do glean this from the gallery information provided. Salient also in this regard are two images involving a young child, the recent arrival of whom is also noted in the gallery notes. So, there are essentially two lockdowns involved in this work; the public lockdowns that the country and world faced during the last 18 months, and the private lockdown period for any parent as they accommodate their new arrival. These two events have coincided temporally, and now play off each other within the presented body of work.

The sense of removal from the day-to-day world is suggested by some distancing effects in the images. Murphy reframes some (including Untitled II) by shooting from the exterior through window or door frames into a kitchen or hall, bringing attention to her observer status. Vertical and horizontal lines within the images enclose the subjects. We with Murphy seem to be outsiders. However, one would wish to note the allied idea of protection here also. In many of the images, especially those external to the house, we see again the verticals, of trees, thick foliage and even a horizontal bank of mist in a field, all of which seem somewhat impenetrable. The photographs suggest there is a natural protective structure around the house, a barrier to the exterior world – both protection, safety, and at its extreme, a benign imprisonment.

The viewer searches for further narratives and imagines a fable being woven – of a great plague, a young child being born, and a family moving to a house in the forest. Is this fanciful? Despite cinematic tropes of a man reading a story to his child (Untitled XV), a figure walking silently into the woods, a dead moth and the shots of over-ripened fruit? In all likelihood, such a reading is a conflation. This work tends towards the domestic and day-to-day ordinariness, to which poet Eavan Boland bemoaned “no visionary claim could be made”.

The lockdown has forced us all to be more present. With travel curtailed, our geographical sphere has reduced, and this has localised our ability to pursue our interests. Murphy’s images reflect the public enforcement aspect of lockdown and the personal choice of the parent to be present for a child. This creates a dilemma of sorts for Murphy and any photographer, as to be present requires one to participate in the moment. The camera acts as a barrier to this, a mediating tool – ostensibly an interference in which documenting takes precedence over what is being documented. 

But one can always stretch this and view the camera as part of the act of ‘being present’. The documenting process can be naturally part of what a family does, as simply as eating or going for a walk. In this photographic series, Murphy looks to retain the external designated role of artist/observer, while also holding on to the participant/subject aspect, integrating the camera and the photographic process within her own family life.

Brendan Maher is Artistic Director of the Source Arts Centre in Thurles, County Tipperary.