Echoes of remoteness and the surreal beauty of urban decay resonate when looking at the photographs of Emer O’Brien. Fascinated by the subtle antagonisms of her narrative that mingles the aesthetics of reduction and purity with allusions to a memento mori of a world gone lost, we’ll trace the artists ideas along her recent series „Contemporary Amnesia“. Born in Dublin and now based in London Emer O’Brien applies various media in her artistic undertakings – with installation and photography being key to her work.
O’Brien received her education at the Reading College of Art and Design and Goldsmiths College London and has since exhibited throughout the UK and internationally including: The Wapping Project (London), The Whitechapel Gallery (London), The Royal Academy (London), Williamson Art Gallery & Museum (Birkenhead), Kunsthal KaDe (Amsterdam), The Dutch Textile Museum (Tilberg), National Gallery (Prague), Art Platform LA (Los Angeles) and Laura Mars Gallery (Berlin).
Her images reflect on the redundancy of human artifacts when deserted by man and phenomena at the crossroads of technology, science and the natural. In all things photography she rigorously relies on analogue techniques and also attributes creative qualities to the hands-on process of developing film. These are still moments of magic and whizardry she’d never give away.
Exemplary for her approach and representing a centerpiece of her artistic production over the years is „Contemprary Amnesia“ – an ongoing suite of photographs that has been in the making for some years and is to be continued in the future. The series shows remnants of human habitat, sceneries that have once been filled with lives of ordinary people, identities that have been washed away by time and abandonment: we look at emty swaths of land, rusting baskets, structures of a former playground, a half-whithered shelter. Objects that serve as metaphors of melancholy but also have strangely turned into beautiful sculptures on an open-air stage.
This series is a critical observer of the darker side of modern life, of urban decline and social failure, isolation and alienation. It also makes reference to our relationship to time, carving out historical discontinuity or rupture and a heightened sensitivity to what is unique about the present. Looking at it as a continuous oeuvre and presented as a large installation – like in O’Brien’s recent show at Laura Mars Gallery, Berlin – this suite of photographs is also intriguing from a formal point of view: we can follow typologies and classifications that add another level to how we see and perceive reality.
Most striking is certainly the strong and coherent language „Contemporary Amnesia“ speaks: all of the photographs are in black and white and with similar ideas of composition presented in a manner that would not allow the viewer to be distracted from object and scene. There are no visual cues to where the pictures might have been taken, there are no people involved in the scene, there are even no hints to at what time of the day they were shot. In this respect as in many others you may say that the notion of absence is key in understanding how O’Briens images work. These unexpected sculptures of the abandoned are the residual frames of something that once existed at this very place, with a meaning that is now lost.
Metaphores of isolation and lonlyness present us with the challenge of questioning ourselves and the meaning of the world around us: we’re suddenly contfronted with emty spaces that exist and let us experience a barren vision of what life without substance and significance looks like. On the other hand notions of absence and void can turn out to be a productive means with respect to communication between artist and audience. Viewers are drawn into the pictures without distraction – they are presented with the pure message and nothing else and at the same time these moments of emtyness will trigger thoughts, meditations and associations to fill the gaps. The audience projects their own stories and imagination into the artworks and use them naturally as vehicles to form their own „customized“ experience.
Returning to formal aspects of Emer O’Brien’s work we were impressed to see Contemporary Amnesia presented as a grand wall-piece installation combined with three colored light boxes at Laura Mars Gallery in Berlin. This is the way to show the series adding the aspect of seriality, classification and typology to the works enabling reference and comparison between the individual scenes. It is fascianting to trace the formal similarities of these (post) industrial structures with variant examples of one common theme evolving before your eyes. The formal frontality of the individual images gives them the simplicity of diagrams, while their density of emotion offers encyclopaedic richness. At each site O’Brien also included landscape views of the entire scene, which set the structures in their context and show how they relate to each other.
These typologies show the clarity of an architect’s documentation, while the landscapes evoke the experience of life that once happened here. And though you are looking at a lost world, there is beauty here, too, and not just in the details: its the general approach of merging the aesthetic and the melancholic, the real and the sublime.
Images: Emer O’Brien, Spaceframe no 1: Dungeness B (Decommissioned), UK 2004 // Emer O’Brien, Trade & Distribution: Mao-Mahon, Menorca 2006 // Emer O’Brien, Spaceframe no. 19: Camber Sands, UK 2005 // Emer O’Brien, Spaceframe no. 59: Ringkobing, Denmark 2009 // Emer O’Brien, Spaceframe no. 133: Los Valles, Lanzarote 2015 // Emer O’Brien, Trade & Distribution: Lake Nipigon, Ontario 2007
Further information and reading on „Contemporary Amnesia“& Emer O’Brian:
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