A Round Now (2013)
Time after Time
by Luke Clancy

“The maps in our hands don’t match the territory. Thats why we’re upset.” — Bruce Sterling, 2010.

The Argentine time traveller and translator, Jorge Louis Borges, recalls an acquaintance, or, more honestly, a friend of the family, Ireneo Funes (known as el memorioso) who railed against the paucity of the world languages. Why was it that there were so few words for objects: why only, for example, one word for dog when, seen from different angles, at different times of the day, in different emotional states, the thing we call dog was clearly a multiplicity of creatures, an uncertain network of lines and shade the configuration of which at any moment is a matter of probability, rather than fact.1

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s View from the Window at Le Gras, from 1826 or 1827, is, at time of writing, asserted as the mankind’s oldest photographic image. Through a process enlisting chemical technologies that were already available to the civilisations of Ancient Egypt, Nicéphore Niépce applied time, captured in the form of light passing through an upstairs bedroom at his Burgudian estate, to a semi-permanent medium.

The image, captured on a prepared pewter plate placed at the end of a camera obscura, shows the direct effect of sunlight on a coat of bitumen of Judea. Over a period of 8 hours, the effect of light from outside striking the plate hardened the coating in bright areas of the image (namely the sky) leaving the darker areas (namely the adjacent structures of the built environment) of the image easy to wash clean in order to produce a “positive” image of the world outside. 

The resulting image has excessive abstract force, but only the vaguest suggestion of power in the realm of representation. Little surprise then that subsequent developments aimed at closing that gap, reducing the former in service of the latter. Eventually, around about now, the difference between Nicéphore Niépce’s technique and those that superseded it, turned out not to be a deficit, but somehow the opposite. It is as though at that early stage in its development, photography is already capable of inscribing something that the evolution of technique, the installing of a representative tradition that culminates in the cameraphone, will remove its ability even to see.

Ciarán Murphy’s paintings reverse, or at least work against the effect of, two hundred odd years of photographic images. Indeed, a description of View from the Window at Le Gras, an image in which the romanticism of its gesture (looking through a window always suggests both a moment of poetic distraction, and an image of our human subjecthood, looking out from “behind our eyes”) is tempered by processes, technological and philosophical, that pull in an opposite directions, also provides a formulation for one approach to Murphy’s paintings.

Pictorially, the superficial struggle is often a familiar one: a certain reflux between what is the positive and what is the negative of the image, a repeated reintroduction of the question of whether what we are seeing is an extrapolation, an index of some sort, of a world, or a copy of the world. This optical process with all its precise, intense uncertainties, comes to stand in for, in Murphy’s work, more epistemological uncertainties about the constitution of vision, and the constitution of the subject. Times passes. Soon enough, our habitual sensing becomes an evidently unsatisfactory way of seeing the image, and we are forced to improve on it, or redefine our terms.

The artist constructs his paintings from found images, collected and archived, resurrected formally as the basis of a new work, used as hints about the possibilities of formal relationships. But those unseen images, that unseen archive, remain more or less pre-production issues. Something may or may not lie behind an image, or inhabit it, but it has always been erased, overwritten or simply replaced by what has been painted and unpainted, leaving a sense that is not quite of loss, or absence, but rather the presence of a non-thing.

To some extent, all three possibilities seem to have lien on the same sensation, or interrogative process. Where is that space we are looking at in the image? Most of the evidence suggests that it is at the very least depicted in an image in front of us. But even what should be a most basic insight is unstable here. The painter’s work has been to mobilise some uncertainty, despite the evidence, that these images are even external to our perceiving selves, rather than some part of our thinking. Like the shape that haunts Contours of a thing (2013), In / Around (2013), Light-on (no.1) (2013) and perhaps Holding together (2013), the status of what appears is always a reappearance, a re-disturbance, something of the viewer’s authorship, a way of sensing with which we are here, in this image, being reacquainted. 

We assume that there is a set temporal flow in the appearance of spectres, namely that they are, in some senses an afterimage, a haunting, a trace. But in an era in which the greatest spectre is a monstrous technological future, it is as easy to accept that spectres can come from any temporal direction, that they may not only be detained in a landscape or an object, but loom into their past to meet our future, collide with our not-yet-happened.  This is not a neutral effect for us, either. For the spaces these spectres encounter, they bring back to us when they arrive in our lives already patinated, scuffed, damaged from a future we have yet to live.

Ciarán Murphy’s spectral images, his ghost shapes and almost disintegrating (or never even forming) objects come from a place into which we are all heading. They are speculative paintings, in that they share with speculative fictions an ability to peer imaginatively into a future and in the act of looking, call that speculation into being. In this, the paintings propose a way to explore figuratively the limits of our understanding, to offer objects that undermine our understanding of objects, objects that dramatise our expectations not just of comprehension, but of sensing.

This piste is one that has been notably taken in music of recent years, with musicians and composers who foreground an uneasy relationship with the uncanny aspects of recorded sound, and particularly its ruptures, alongside a sense of displaced histories. The resulting sound explores nostalgia and discovers the embodied, achingly felt sense of loss, and the consequent compulsion (always impossible, always to be resisted) to reestablish a familiar ordering of time and space.

This process too, tends to collapse a distinction between past, present and future making our traditional approaches to understanding less tenable than ever. Murphy’s images are, in the same light, about knowledge, though hardly in the sense of Ghost Box roster. The genre, and even less the impulse here, is not what Bruce Sterling has called “the Frankenstein mashup” the “punky, atemporal collage”. Murphy’s images appear, however, to arise from related impulses, a related moment. In Screen (2011) minor surface effects are organised into interference patterns, so that the screen has a fizz of broadcasts past. The painting might recall, too, Sugimoto’s Theatre images, where once again, light (and that is, once again, time) is given free rein on the photographic plate, even if that means it renders as a glowing, unreadable whiteness. In all of these cases, time is the (it turns out highly plastic) material in question, and knowing is the thing that lives in time. Remove, remould or restructure time and knowing itself must forcible change its constitution, evolve or perish or find itself in new forms.

Funes remembers everything, and that is his curse. Our knowledge, it turns out, is patterned from what we forget, as much as what we can recall. We exist in what never reaches that minor part of us in the conscious spectrum, as much as in what does. We are also what hides in blanks, gaps and aporia, in outlines, skeletons, in anticipation and afterimage.

(1) This text possibly relies on a misreading of Borges, JL, Funes, His Memory. It is accurate as best as the author can remember.