Photography Review: I Went to the Worst of Bars Hoping to Get Killed. But all I Could Do Was to Get Drunk again, Ciarán Og Arnold (Mack, 2015).
It is undemanding to look at the photographs taken by Ciarán Og Arnold after the financial meltdown of 2008 and regard them as sad signifiers of life in a distressed small town in the Irish midlands suffering the throes of economic collapse. There is no work for young people but not everyone can emigrate; ergo: hopelessness, ennui, barely suppressed anger and frustration for those left behind on the scrapheap. The Celtic tigers were stuffed with greed, corruption and a venal populace and alongside the dead skin lies the human wreckage. Oh, what a pity.
This is the pound-shop moralism of the ‘beautiful soul’ that Hegel descried in The Phenomenology of Spirit. It’s too easy and comforting to feel you are standing on the outside, not needing like Pontius Pilate to wash your hands, as if somehow you have nothing to do with the wretched cultural wasteland that produces the deprived micro-community so sorrowfully captured by Ciarán Og Arnold.
The male angst and sense of despair depicted in his photographs epitomise the rage that resides inside Irish society, a visceral response to life that goes beyond mere economics. If Joyce’s Dubliners presented a dark side of early twentieth-century life then I Went to the Worst of Bars… does something similar for the early twenty-first century.
The temper of these photographs is immanent for there is no outside, and in place of a simplistic dualism of subject – a photographer – and object – desolate dance clubs, dismal alleyways, inebriated older men, aggressive younger ones, two goats in a field, girls dressed up for a weekend night out – we see a totality that fuses facts with values, poor lighting with a poverty of opportunity, crappy wallpaper on a wall with horribly stunted horizons, budget-priced film stock with a culturally bankrupt environment.
Ciarán is the sound geezer who has clicked the shutter on his camera but the photographs are communal: the zeitgeist of an Ireland that goes largely unrepresented or, when it is acknowledged, is mediated by the perspective of an Irish media that would have us believe we are all paid up members of that middle-class constituency so piquantly evoked by George Harrison:
Everywhere there’s lots of piggies
Living piggy lives
You can see them out for dinner
With their piggy wives
Clutching forks and knives to eat their bacon
Ciarán Og Arnold does not show us these people but they are the audience silently confronted by the faces, the furniture and vegetation, the cheap clothes and the empty bed that he presents us with.
‘You would go into one nightclub on weekends’, he says, and ‘there’d be no one in the entire place except for these guys in the corner with the boxing machine, getting out their aggression on a punchbag and a massive empty nightclub behind them.’
Dealing with the piggies and punchbags is not something to be left to economists, something Ezra Pound had brought home to him when he spent ‘one of the most illuminating hours of my life’ in conversation with Arthur Griffiths in London in 1921.
Griffiths was there to negotiate the terms of Irish independence and Pound was trying to convince him of the benefits his theory of Social Credit would bring to a new Ireland. ‘At a certain point Griffith said, “All you say is true. But I can’t move ‘em with a cold thing like economics”.’ What could move people are Ciarán Og Arnold’s photographs.