A Round Now (2013)
by Chris Fite-Wassilak

We begin, as always, in a room. A gauze of a brownish tinge reflected off the rectangles around us, though what we can see isn’t known for sure. Uneven geometries and indeterminate shapes seem to take centre stage. Between them, we can find some recognisable remnants in the intent of these screens: what might be rocks, trees, a gathering of small skulls. Some of these shapes echo each other, like approximate rhymes. And there’s an insistence in their missed repetitions—despite the silence, there is an urge towards communication; if we could imagine them as sentences, they would be short, simple statements, their wording calm, even, and slightly awkward in the mouth. The words might seem slightly off, might sound like something you know but don’t quite comprehend. A language offshoot, a parallel mime.

A word now about documentary stories.

When you’re doing this kind of story, this is pretty much exactly the kind of moment that you dream of. Everybody’s acting the way they act when there’s no tape recorder present; it’s intimate, it’s alive, you feel like you’re hearing these people as they really are, even though, you know, there is a tape recorder, and a boom microphone – like a huge one, a foot and a half long—and a stranger. And to get to this kind of point you have to spend hours with people, get them used to you. Get them to point where they’re actually bored of being recorded. i

‘Documentary’ is a loose locust of a genre, a term that when you pick at it crumbles away with various claims; on truth, reality, objectivity. Despite this, or maybe because of this, Ciarán Murphy’s paintings have always had the aura of the documentary about their imagery. They are obviously not documentation, or photorealistic endeavours of any sort. But the feeling of the nature television programme seen at 2:36 a.m. or the old discarded photo found at the back of a relative’s dresser hovers there, halted and held up to the searching scrutiny of his circling brushes. The familiarity, the atmosphere of uncertain recognition that other commentators have identified in his work, I believe stems from that aura. More recently, though, the subjects within his paintings have been elusive, obscured, central but absent—and that aura still remains. It is, on one hand a sense given by the figurative clues that do remain in the frame. The angles, bulbs and curves still feel as if they are, at some point, photographically derived, indexically tied to some frozen instant that existed before the painting. It is bound to what the late Allan Sekula called ‘the folklore of photographic truth’: ‘Vision, itself unimplicated in the world it encounters, is subjected to a mechanical idealization. Paradoxically, the camera serves to ideologically naturalize the eye of the observer.’ ii Which is to say, the point isn’t so much whether the paintings are or aren’t photographically based, but that we, by virtue of their accident and precision, feel that they are. Murphy’s images in and of themselves each bear the mark of the effect photographic media has had on our consciousness, holding it back up to us in via the medium it hypothetically surpassed.

They had recorded the band’s first few concerts on the tour, and asking to continue with them, the band agreed. They began filming the moments between: hotel room waiting, meetings, photo shoots, phone calls. They had been planning, and shooting, a straight-up live music documentary film. Five cameras at each gig. The last gig was bigger - twenty cameras on site that day. It was only at that last concert that things changed. Things hadn’t gone to plan. He had just merely kept his camera on, filming the crowd. After everything that happened, they knew straight away they couldn’t make the music documentary they’d imagined, had given up the project as lost. A week later, back in the offices going through the prints, it’s only then they found that the defining event was right there, captured on film. Showing it back to the band in the editing room, the most they can muster is a few grimaces and a ‘Well done, Sonny.’ iii

The feeling of unease, of restlessness that comes from experiencing Murphy’s work isn’t located in any one image. It’s an accumulated sense that grows walking amongst a gathering of his paintings, a shifting sense that the looking being done isn’t just on the audience’s part. More important than the sense of documentary found within each image is the activity of the documentarian instilled by them as a whole. Making a ‘documentary’ generally involves choosing a subject, turning on a recording device, and being present. The main qualities of a documentarian, then, may be said to be activation, and patience. But as in the examples from This American Life and Gimme Shelter above, there is more than a small part of alleatory, seemingly pointless searching, and chance: the most insightful documentaries are those that didn’t even know what they were looking for, that just happened to catch an instant that in turn shapes a whole knot of experience. The phrase ‘accidental discovery’ sounds too revelatory, when perhaps what I’m seeking to define is a stance that is by necessity transient. Both Glass’s insistence that he’s capturing ‘these people as they really are’, or likewise Albert Maysles’ dictum that ‘There is a connection between reality and truth. Remain faithful to both’ iv, indicate the desires that linger behind documentary affectations. But in Murphy’s screen, we can see a reckoning of the image that acknowledges those desires while keeping them at bay; that activates our need to find things recognisable, and makes that finding itself his subject matter proper. Murphy’s practice is in the motion of settling on a moment. It never quite settles, and never quite stops, a quiet, constant activation. His canvases have the cumulative effect placing both himself and us on the same level, cautiously observational but openly searching, in the position of the documentarian of an unformed reality.

i Ira Glass, This American Life, Episode 14: Accidental Documentaries, Chicago Public Media, February 21, 1996.

ii Allan Sekula, Photography Against the Grain, Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1984, p.56.

iii See Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, Gimme Shelter, Maysles Films, 1970.

iv See Albert Maysles’ Notes on The Documentary, on the Maysles Films website: [url=http://www.mayslesfilms.com/albertmaysles/documentary.html]http://www.mayslesfilms.com/albertmaysles/documentary.html[/url]