“When the soul of a man is born in this country, there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets”
(James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)
James Joyce’s autobiographical novel “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” is an example of a ‘bildungsroman’. The German term (meaning to shape, formation) refers to the way in which philosophy and education combine to result in a maturation of the main character both physically and mentally. In “Portrait”, the main protagonist, Stephen Dedalus’ quest to become an artist sees him freeing himself from the shackles of family, religious and social constraints and eventually leaving Ireland for good.
Bildungsroman usually end in an epiphany and at the end of the novel Dedalus declares:
“Amen. So be it. Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”
This body of work, “The Otherwhere” is intended as a kind of photographic bildungsroman. The German word ‘bild’ means picture. It is an artistic, poetic and sometimes whimsical journey through a watery landscape in which themes of childhood, religion, migration, a quest for home and the complexities involved in finding ones place within the world flow through the pages in an oceanic rhythm. Using a non-linear elliptical narrative, the work relies on symbols and motifs to represent these ideas through a carefully considered placing of portraits, landscapes and still life images. It is a body of work, not based on the straightforward recording of reality of everyday life, but one that provokes wider and more complex questions around nationality and belonging. The water, a metaphor for the Island, symbolizes how the country is both freeing and enslaving. It is represented most clearly in the changing light on the ocean- the light and darkness of the sea becomes bound up with the hopes and despair of a nation.
“ This, I think shows what being free means. Not cutting off ones ties with others but making networks out of these connections in cooperation with them. Emigres become free not when they deny their lost homeland but when they come to terms with it. “
The German philosopher,Vilem Flusser examined the notion that communication and identity are rooted in the concept of self-determination and self-realization through recognition of the other. As I embark on a journey away from Ireland to set up home somewhere else, I set out on this final road-trip to understand the place I have grown up in and am leaving. Instead of focusing on the familiar things we leave behind- home, family, friends- I decided to rely on chance encounters with strangers who in turn become representations of other journeys, like the inward one of the poet who constructs words on a page or the ‘messiah man’ who wears a crown of thorns that I met sitting in an outdoor café on a hot summer afternoon. The portraits of these strangers -short and intimate- occur on streets, at beaches, in forests and along rivers and bogs, in baths and on beds.
Connecting with strangers allows the work to also explore the concepts of chance and determinism and their relationship to human freedoms and happiness. Many of the portraits represent a quest for an ‘other’. The four year old girl growing up so fast, stands like a model before the camera representing how fleeting our childhood is. In contrast, the two workmen show a vulnerability in their pose, a reference to the fragile economic state of the country and the uncertainty of employment. The
work also makes references to escapism as a form of protest. While one man uses dressing up and recreating battles to escape from daily realities, another man’s escape from personal grief is represented by his nakedness.