From its earliest known mention in Buddhist scripture, the parable of three blind men describing an elephant, each from their own limited tactile experience, illustrates the inability of an individual to grasp the bigger picture. The elephant that is Covid-19 and its impact has remained so stubbornly amorphous, that attempts to describe it have produced disconnected fragments of day-to-day recording, with acts of coping too similar to contribute to an overall understanding.
Dorje de Burgh’s recent exhibition, ‘Under the Same Sky’ at South Tipperary Arts Centre (STAC), presented an installation of over 50 (mostly) black and white photographs – portraits of a town, its people, and surrounds, which loosely adheres to that act of coping, the marking of lockdown time. Subjects vary – lounging youths, blank walls, the back of a sunlit head, an empty motorway, a field – but for the most part, all are situated outdoors, out there.
Walking into the gallery, we follow the uncertain creep of the photographer’s lens, from its first rude barring by motorway railings, to its recoil behind frames blurred with wafting curtains and wavering bushes. Irregularly spaced, simply framed, unframed and pinned to the wall, or held at the corners with ragged black tape, the presentation of photographs echoes the hesitant path of the watcher.
The passing of time registers in shifting light and shadow; the seasons are marked by the clothes of fellow travellers – thick jackets and hoodies, or shorts and t-shirts – glimpsed as they slouch or amble aimlessly. Their faces are unsmiling, often half-obscured (by a hood or a raised hand) or turned entirely away. The subjects’ averted gaze is matched by images of a bleak townscape of cracked or peeling blank walls, deserted sheds and warehouses, and peaked roofs taking half-hearted bites out of a low sky.
Nature, our supposed balm and saviour, is all about – in the foliage tentatively edging our view of a field, bleached by the sun and scribbled with withered potato roots; and in the mud-caked verges that tell of passing traffic. Bare tree branches fragment our view, fill the frame, or reach wildly out beyond it, compounding a sense of restriction, and even fear. Later, a tree trunk scored with carvings of initials is relegated to the background. In a field, a ghostly white horse stands heavy-lidded in the sun; at our feet, a dog trots by, yawning.
Early on, there are one or two moments of near clarity: a house, blinds down, stands detached; elsewhere, a tree appears stark against a washed-out sky. But the narrow depth of field closes in, and the lens retreats to empty spaces, defined by dilapidated buildings, undistinguished fields, misty rivers. Eventually, a sense of lifting. Someone – a friend? – stands by a window, head bowed, close enough to touch. A young girl lies across three chairs set against a breeze-block wall, smiling. But resolution remains out of reach; the girl’s eyes are closed, the motorway is still barred, a crow sits broodingly on the wire.
The seemingly random scenes captured, along with the exhibition’s open-ended narrative and eclectic presentation, suggest an un-anchoring from all that is known. The assumption that the photograph, in its stillness, might, as David Campany wrote, “calm the flux of a restless world” is challenged, and the camera’s inherent untrustworthiness is revealed.¹ It is an eye as blind as our own.
German photographer August Sander said: “a successful photo is only the preliminary step towards intelligent photography…[which]… is like a mosaic that becomes synthesis only when it is presented en masse.² In deemphasising the ‘successful photo’ in favour of an uneven mosaic, De Burgh has undermined the ‘lockdown diary’ format of individual experience in a way that effectively captures the faltering uncertainty of that time. While ‘Under the Same Sky’ doesn’t describe the elephant exactly, it describes the feeling of encountering something strange, big, and grey. Perhaps it is the sky, and how can any of us grasp that?
Clare Scott is an artist based in Waterford.
¹ David Campany, On Photographs (London: Thames & Hudson, 2020) p 8.
² Gustav Sander (ed.), August Sander: Citizens of the Twentieth Century, Portrait Photographs, 1892-1952 (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1986) p 36.