Open Frequency 2009: Ronnie Close selected by Russell Roberts

Open Frequency 2009: Ronnie Close selected by Russell Roberts Ronnie Close, A Hard Place, 2008. DVD Video Single Screen. Credit: Ronnie Close

Curator and writer Russell Roberts profiles the work of Irish photographic artist Ronnie Close

The art of Ronnie Close focuses on a political history that has its roots in the bloody tensions between 'the British' occupation of Ireland and Irish Republicanism. The results of this ongoing project have combined first-person testimony from political prisoners with objects salvaged from institutions associated with the Troubles such as the Long Kesh/HMP Maze in Lisburn, County Antrim. Using photography, video and installation, Close has created a distinctive archaeology of place that extends over several years. These range from photographs of the demolition of the Maze, views of darkened interiors within 'H-Block', to the scanned pages of library books once circulated amongst inmates bearing Republican slogans, names of prisoners and doodles. The cumulative effect is a sense of deep collective commitment to an ideological battle interwoven with individual experience.

This is undertaken in a questioning rather than unequivocal partisan manner. That said, the artist's own proximity to events referred to is never really clear; we are unsure of whether this is some long-harboured fascination with the Troubles from an emotional distance or a more entwined, autobiographical relationship. In each case Ronnie Close offers a series of narratives that need time to register the full extent of a historical moment so heavily defined by mainstream media accounts but punctuated here with a complex insight into the psychology of sectarianism.

A strategy that the artist uses to great effect is a shifting and contradicting sense of political time and personal space. Tensions between freedom and imprisonment, between amateur film and photography, and more sinister forms of surveillance recur throughout. Cannibalising cine footage, dissecting the brief instant of the snapshot, typed out conversations, the scans of pages from books that make an artefact of the everday; each belongs to separate time zones, rituals and encounters, each commanding a specific association with public and private memory. Using materials and iconography associated with 'hard evidence', Close layers fictional devices on top creating an unsettled reading of 'the facts'. The work of Ronnie Close has a genuine sense of historiography embedded within it and the use of fiction to illuminate or revisit the past is part of projects such as 'A Hard Place' (2008) and 'All I Could See' (2008), to more recent work like 'Night-Time Room' (currently in production). In the latter the dialogue is composed from a number of interviews made with the survivors from the 1981 Hunger Strikes; the central character is a composite through which is revealed characteristics of the paramilitary mind-set that pushed many towards self-sacrifice.

A catalyst behind much of this work is the frequently produced snapshot of Bobby Sands which is recontextualised as a fragile print suspended from a rope in a room in the Maze Prison. Martyrdom and commemoration inform other pieces of work. In 'A Hard Place' (2008), a mirror image of the fire from a Loyalist bonfire from the annual July 11 celebrations marking the defeat of James I at the Battle of the Boyne (1690), becomes hypnotic, beautiful. But this lingering gaze of fire becomes invested with a more sinister almost diabolical presence as flames merge to create fleeting demonic images. The implied narrative here is perhaps too near to a political position, close to being judgmental, it treads a fine line, but seen in relation to other pieces a map of competing politics, rituals and related iconography emerges.

What arises from this concentrated, moving and surprising encounter with more recent developments in Northern Ireland, is that it does reinforce the historical dimension yet disturbs the stability of various narratives and myths of assassins, victims and martyrs. Above, it is the process of creating and re-writing history that characterises the distinctiveness of Ronnie Close's work as a discursive politics of aesthetics with substance.

Russell Roberts, October 2008

Artist's biography

Ronnie Close is an Irish photographic artist currently based in Bristol. Since 2004 he has been developing an extensive body of work as part of a practice-led PhD. He has participated in video and photographic exhibitions and screenings throughout Ireland, the UK, Europe, USA, Canada and Syria. In 2008 he was awarded the Scripted Notions Scheme and is producing an artist's film with Picture This Moving Image Agency. Exhibitions include: Northern Bounds, Videographe Art Centre, Montreal, Canada (2007); The Most Curatorial Biennial of the Universe, Apexarts, New York, USA (2007); AVE - Art Video Exchange - Festival, Kunsthall, Bergen, Norway (2007); The 9th Syrian Photography Festival (2006); Photo London, International Photography Fair (2006); Darklight Film Festival, Irish Film Institute, Dublin (2006). Close has featured in several journals, including The Source Magazine and Journal for Media Practice. He co-founded the artist's discussion group 'Format' and is a member of the board of trustees and a studio artist at Spike Island, Bristol. Currently he is a Senior Lecturer in Photographic Art and a member of the European Centre For Photographic Research at the University of Wales, Newport.

About Russell Roberts

Russell Roberts is a curator and writer. Born in Cosford, Shropshire, he studied in London for his BA and MA before joining the Department of Photographs at the Victoria & Albert Museum as an intern from 1990-92.

Early curatorial projects included Memory & The Archive – Photographs/Images/Documents (1995) at the John Hansard Gallery at the University of Southampton, and the acclaimed international touring exhibition In Visible Light: Photography and Classification in Art, Science & The Everyday (1997) at MoMA (Oxford).

From 1998-2006 he was Head of Photography at the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television (National Media Museum), where he is now Honorary Fellow in Photography. As a curator he has worked on projects for festivals and venues such as Arles, Photoespana and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Nederlands Fotomuseum, Tate Britain, Moderna Museet and the Finnish Museum of Photography amongst others. Between 2003 and 2006: he was an advisor to Arts Council England; Research Associate at the Pitt Rivers Museum Research Centre at the University of Oxford; Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Wales, Newport; project director for the Museums, Libraries & Archives Council subject specialist network for photography; consultant to the National Galleries of Scotland and The Photographers' Gallery; and Chair of the Committee for the Jerwood Photography Prize.

In 2006 he joined the Centre for Photographic Research at University of Wales, Newport, in a unique partnership with Ffotogallery, Cardiff  to work on developing a national centre for photography in Wales. Recent projects include Material Industries: The Photographs of Maurice Broomfield (2007). He is currently working on an exhibition and book on the archive and legacy of Mass-Observation in contemporary art with Photoworks and Steidl, and a book on 30 years of photographic art in Wales between 1978-2008 for Ffotogallery.

Research interests include: histories of photography, curating and contemporary art/photographic practice as historiography, documentary aesthetics, the cultural politics of exhibitions and collecting, and contemporary photography & the Museum.

Open Frequency keeps you in touch with new developments in contemporary art practice from across the UK. The artists are selected and profiled by leading curators, artists and writers, presenting the work of artists to watch out for over the coming year. Open Frequency represents a forward-looking glance today of the artists who will be setting the agenda tomorrow.