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Waiting Room

Submitted by on April 17, 2012 – 7:33 pmNo Comment


Image by Paul Irving

Text Eric Northey

I first met the photographer Paul Irving at Arts for Recovery in the Community, a Stockport based charity which uses all kinds of creative practices to help people regain their self-esteem after a period of mental ill-health. (http://www.artsforrecovery.com/ ) The organisation encourages people to experiment with a wide variety of arts work – photography, painting, sculpture, writing, ceramics, drama, radio – and they have their own gallery which displays and sells the work of members. 

They also do some pretty impressive outreach work in various communities in Stockport. Paul was clearly very gifted from the start, with a very wide portfolio of fine work covering landscapes, urban areas, sporting events etc. And he was one of the first people I knew who took to image manipulation as a way of deepening the potential meanings that the photographic image can suggest. Building on this body of work, Paul recently sent off one of his images, Waiting Room, to the Open Competition of the Sony World Photography Awards 2012. It has been selected as one of the ten finalists, from 52,323 images,entered from 171 countries. It’s an incredible achievement for someone who has had a pretty tough life,with only limited support for his creative activities.

I’ve looked at Waiting Room long and hard and it really is quite a remarkable construct. The basic starting block is a simple bare room with a skylight, door at the centre and light streaming through. Over several years, there have been other, much simpler photos, where the walls are plain, there’s no figure, sometimes the door is worked in various colours and it’s either closed or open. All have a certain air of both menace and redemption which makes them striking. But this final one, with the added human figure, seems to bring Paul’s work to a new level of complexity. It’s like a fugue coming to a climax, with interweaving elements finally making something 

that’s just beyond words, from all its constituent parts. This is the first ‘political’ image that, as far as I know, Paul has worked on. I think it makes a big statement as to why history matters and how we should creatively respond to the past.

It’s not always easy to get into decoding visual images, but my own method is to let my eye wander around the image and pick up hints of contradictions, elements which appear to clash against each other as they vie for meaning. At some point, after a few minutes of looking, your mind begins to try and hold them all together. Waiting Room, I think, makes an extraordinarily powerful statement.

The wall on the left-hand side, Paul told me, was originally from a television drama set, but in this context, it seems to hold such menace. That indecipherable graffiti, the surface texture which hints at prison walls (as does the whole structure); and then, those barrels with their little Nazi insignia. For me, they induce a real, but ambiguous chill. They may simply be oil containers, but we know from history, that in contexts like this, and that little swastika, they hint at Zyklon B and unspeakable events in concrete bunkers. Then, down at the bottom, there are some dark grey petrol cans, stored in a tidy, military order. They hint at conflagration, of burning and the reduction of all things to ash. Then all that threat is somehow contrasted with the most mundane, every day element of a bike, casually propped up. It reminds us that ordinary human presences had their hands in the terror the twentieth century so specialised in.

On the opposite wall are what seem to be that century’s victims. This time, they look like Russian peasants dragooned into Cossack regiments from the First World War. Standing in a trench, they stare blankly and uncomprehendingly at the camera, many individual faces clearly identifiable as real people. We fear that they soon will be above or under the earth, as luck and breeze-fly bullets dictate.

Then there’s that bucket on a stone-flagged floor. It just holds such ambiguous menace. It could be simply a rural wash bowl, with a folded cloth at the side. But,      in this                                                                                                context, it carries, for me, that cold sense of buckets that held human heads, from the guillotine blade of Robespierre’s terror, or Dr Mengele’s surgery in Auschwitz. Either way, it hints at so many of history’s dirty secrets.

And what can we say of the figure, quintessentially English, sat in a garden chair in his panama, calmly reading a book? That’s us. Everyman. Head down, carrying on, wilfully blind to the terror around us, whilst millions go to their graves and a river of blood runs at our feet. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil,” said Burke,“is for good men to do nothing.” Paul’s visual image is as succinct an expression of that truth as ever Burke’s was. Is there any redemption for human beings? Is that what is promised in the radiant light, that streams through the open door from eternity? Or does that blinding illumination merely suggest the great nothingness to which we will all succumb, no matter how we have lived our lives on earth? That light somehow enfolds the whole image in such powerful and painful ambiguity, that truly, I think this is a great piece of work. It’s as profound a critique of human indifference as I’ve seen in the last forty years. 

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