The Illusion of Purpose

In conversation with Victoria J Dean

My father was an influence on my photographic journey from an early age. His interest led my parents to buy me a small instant camera at the age of six, and I showed such an interest in taking photographs that they bought me a semi-automatic SLR for my tenth birthday. For as long as I can remember I’ve been passionate about art – I even remember as a young child, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I was sure that I wanted to be an artist.

My father has always had a strong collection of photo-books – mostly documentary and photojournalism – and I remember spending hours as a teenager after school, studying his books and gaining an insight into the world through photography.

A year spent on an art foundation course confirmed my passion for photography, and in 2000 I embarked on my first photographic degree. On graduating, having lived in England for my university years, I returned to Northern Ireland and continued developing my practice as a photographic artist. In 2017, I graduated with an MFA Photography from Ulster University.

Photography gives me a way to take a step back, to observe and question the world, and a way to communicate visually.

What kind of photography are you interested in?

Broadly speaking, work that explores place and space interests me; how we construct, interact with, manage and interpret space and place.

I am fascinated with the order that humans attempt to bring to the world. In recent years I’ve become increasingly interested in photography’s relationship with sculpture, architecture and form, particularly as photography is a two-dimensional medium in contrast to the three-dimensional world we live in. I look to all art forms for inspiration, particularly sculpture at the moment.

Black and white photography often influences me, even though I work in colour – perhaps it is the subtle tones of grey, black and white that inspire my subdued colour palette. I have always been interested in conceptual documentary photography and “quiet” photography which provides a space to contemplate and observe over time, rather than shouting in high contrast and bright colours. Thought-provoking work, rather than work that has instant gratification, is the kind of work I am most interested in.

Let’s talk about your project. What was your motivation behind it?

As we now spend so much time with screen-based interfaces, a restructuring of our communication methods and the way we interact with our environment is occurring.

We are interacting less with the space around us and more with a two-dimensional screen. The structures in The Illusion of Purpose represent monuments to previous technologies that were firmly rooted in the material world. The quietness of these structures and their slowness in revealing their original purpose, if at all, highlights a widening gap in understanding older technologies as we move away from traditional methods of interaction with the world.

With newer technologies advancing towards the hyper-real and instantaneous, we are constantly bombarded with information. In contrast, these structures lie silently, dormant. We don’t initially know what we are supposed to do with them or what they are for. They have the effect of changing the space around them, the natural coastal landscape, thus giving the connection between each structure and it’s site particular relevance.

While making the work, were there any moments that stand out to you now?

The first structure I came across was the subject of Untitled XX, the red wall with the buttress. It was the structure that the rest of the project was based on. I had stumbled across it on a coastal walk on holiday in the south west of England and was drawn to its sculptural qualities and strange relationship with its surrounding landscape.

Around the same time I was becoming increasingly interested in the sculptural work of Rachel Whiteread and Antony Gormley, and how we as human beings relate to objects, sculptures and structures relational to ourselves. Both artists have created site specific work in isolated landscapes.

The red wall’s sculptural qualities had come to the fore with the loss of its intended function. I revisit this site each year and as the structure reveals itself in the landscape, I get a feeling of familiarity and excitement. It is like meeting up with an old friend. It’s interesting to see how it changes over time with subtle colour differences and paint peeling off due to exposure to the elements.

Recommended us something…

Paul Virilio anticipated how communication technology would change our interaction with each other and the world around us. Geometry and spatial relations have been superseded by the speed of communication, eliminating the physical dimension of space and challenging our whole structure of understanding our place in the world.

Jean Baudrillard is another thinker who wrote about technology’s influence on everyday life, with instantaneous information condemning space, place and time to disappearance. As he described it, “The world is hiding behind the profusion of images”.

Antony Gormley’s On Sculpture provides an inspiring insight into his sculptural work and philosophical thought processes about how we as human beings relate to space and place.

Tell us about one piece of art that has strongly influenced you.

The work of Rachel Whiteread, particularly House situated at Grove Road, East London (25 October 1993 – 11 January 1994) has made me think differently about space and the medium of photography in the last few years. Whiteread cast in concrete the interior space within a house that was to be demolished. This negative space that we normally occupy became a positive structure, forcing the viewer out of the space, only able to look on from the edge.

This has parallels with the process of analogue photography (the medium in which I work), with the negative becoming a positive print, but has also led me to reflect more on the process of making a two-dimensional photograph of three-dimensional objects.

We view photographs as onlookers, excluded from the space photographed, able only to look into the photograph from the edge. Whiteread’s work has inspired me to think more deeply about our relationship with space and certain objects, and question photography’s role in representing the three-dimensional.

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