Arthur Laidlaw / Razed Ruins
October 2016 Interviewed by Henrietta Landells
Arthur Laidlaw is a London-based artist and recent graduate of the City and Guilds MFA programme. His recent exhibition Razed Ruins presents a potent and self-critical re-examination of an earlier body of photographs taken during the artist’s travels through Syria, Libya and Lebanon, originally shown as part of his 2009 debut exhibition, Odyssey, at Lennox Gallery. Newly emergent iconoclastic, political and tragic meanings, and feelings of loss stirred by the razing of many of these classical monuments, are explored through manipulations of the original photographs. A multi-stage process of aesthetic obfuscation references dually the decay of the subject as well as the distorted lens through which we understand, remember and narrate history. Razed: Syrian ruins was sponsored in part by the Asfari foundation, and raised over £20,000 for the White Helmets, a group of civilian Syrian rescue workers.
Below, Henrietta Landells recently spoke to Laidlaw about the motivations behind the creation of this multi-layered body of work.
HL: The series of images shown in Razed: Syrian Ruins presents to the viewer a striking, yet meditative re-working of an earlier body of photographs. Since they were taken, representations of these architectural monuments seem overshadowed – on a more collective level – by sentiments of loss, in relation to recent acts of destruction.
In light of the personal nature of this project, do you see photography as an effective tool in bridging personal and collective, or political, responses to these troubling events?
AL: As I moved further away from that journey and the 2009 exhibition it became harder and harder to reconcile my experiences with the news from Syria and many of the surrounding countries. The 4000 or so photographs I took seemed to be ‘honest’ representations of the objects I saw and the places I visited; I never conceived of my photographs or drawings as ‘political’, and it’s been unnerving to watch the images take on new, unintended meanings.
I do believe that some of the sense of loss expressed at the destruction of these ancient ruins can be traced to the classical language of architecture, which many ‘Western’ countries (such as our own) have adopted for their own imperial ambitions. As a result, almost every street you walk down in London is likely to have a classical molding across its facade, a mock-pediment over its windows, or a faux-portico surrounding its doorway. The aesthetic of classicism has, unconsciously or not, become the aesthetic of much of the ‘Western’ world—and therefore the destruction of its origins feels somehow personal. As the conflict in Syria developed, I was driven to reflect particularly on the idiosyncratic focus on classical architecture that formed the backbone of my journey.
HL: Architecture as monument, vis-a-vis the photographic document as some kind of monument… does this play in to how these images have then been reworked and reframed for the current exhibition?
AL: One of the things I wanted to try with Razed was an attempt at undoing the solidity and factual nature of photographs. Yet in discussing the work I worry I may be stretching this idea of artistic ‘foresight’. The idea that I in any way ‘saw it coming’ is so far from the truth. I am just as stunned by this subject, and how it has evolved over the past seven years, as any viewer of my work. Photographs (especially our own) help us to build ‘concrete’ histories of ourselves; they help to create our own, solid narratives – even when our actions at the time were far from preemptively decided.
Most of my time as an artist is spent fumbling about in the dark, trying to clarify (and then blur) what was ‘real’, and what is now imagined. By the time photographs arrive in the gallery space, the viewer reads a kind of intentionality in the images, which is basically untrue. The editing, framing, and curation suggests a narrative arc to the events depicted and to the artist’s choices at the time, neither of which were ever really there.
HL: Did an awareness of this discrepancy play into the creation of these images? Could you talk a little bit about how you made them?
AL: I slowly developed a method for working onto the surface of the image which involved obscuring the photograph, and layering different processes onto the picture-plane, until it became difficult to tell where the actual object ends and the distorted memory begins. I showed five photographs ‘simply’ as photos. The twenty remaining works began as photographs, and were then masked by tape, obscured by painting, and eventually drawn onto using a weird mono-printing process, in which I draw from memory into a black plastic sheet covering the photograph (the pencil pushes black lines of etching ink on the back of the sheet onto the surface of the already distorted image). The layers are a direct reference to the decay and destruction of the subject, but they are also a reference to our own decaying, prejudicial memories. The work examines this gap, between a lived experience of a place, and a fragile, fading memory that gets pushed around by the narratives of politicians, newspapers, and countless other self- interested forces.
HL: Is there perhaps an ‘archival impulse’ at play here? A drive towards constructing an alternative archive… or what has been called an ‘anarchive’? There is something inherently open-ended about this project, beyond its presentation as a series, perhaps it relates to that?
AL: When I first got back from the journey in 2009, I actually wanted the photographs to be added to an existing archive (like the Beasley Archive at Oxford), which really demonstrates just how conservative and old-fashioned I was in my aesthetic approach to these places. It only occurred to me much later, as the events of the last seven years have played out, that these images might merit their own independent archive – an ‘alternative’ archive, as you described. Now, with so many of these places changed irreversibly, parallels to the ‘anarchive’ are equally hard to ignore.
In the years since the photographs were shot, I have pushed their implicitly ‘factual’ nature further; the treatment of the photographs has been a deliberate attempt to create the appearance of an historical, ‘credible’ archive, which is completely alien to the flimsy and fluctuant nature of my memories. The process of making the ‘paintings’ has in large part been about undermining and disassembling these icons of ‘historic beauty’, most of which are seen in the photographs through my naïve, unquestioning lens. Undoctored, the photographs remain the products of a forceful, pervasive culture of colonialism and imperialism – a culture which underpins much of modern teaching, politics, and intellectual discourse throughout the ‘Western’ world… I hope the photographs from my journey around Europe and the Middle East can be seen as a record – but as a certain type of record. A record that reflects some of the biases, prejudices and aesthetic leanings of our age.
HL: James Elkins draws a number of parallels between the practice of painting and that of alchemy. Does this resonate with your approach, to transforming these photographs into something else, incorporating something beyond that which we can see?
AL: I hope the work is more pragmatic than alchemic – it’s just an attempt to document my very specific relationship with these places, people, objects, and cultures. It is not an attempt to create something revelatory or sublime. Broadly speaking, I understand the methodology and scientific nature of actual alchemy, as practiced historically (i.e. to tweak one small element of the process each time the experiment is replicated, and check the results). In this sense, my work does owe something to the incremental aspect of alchemy, but I might argue that this is more related to scientific method and logical experimentation than anything.
HL: Given this iterative approach, how do you see the role of chance playing out in your work, especially in the context of what appear to be such intentional acts of destruction?
AL: I think this question touches on something diﬃcult for the viewer. The images presented in Razed depict predominantly random or chance-based destruction of classical monuments, most of which occurred long before the recent, ‘intentionally destructive’ actions with which we are now so familiar. At a recent talk on art and conflict at Blain|Southern, Dr. Anna Marazuela Kim described the destruction of buildings of cultural significance in the Middle East, and suggested that “to raze them – to reduce them to rubble, is to erase the history and identity of the individuals living in those countries.”
Her words speak to the uneasiness many people feel between their reactions to the loss of lives and the loss of buildings. I would like these works to be seen in the context of her words; the relationship between the still powerful symbol of subjugation and the still powerless subject or individual (the figure is largely absent in most of my pictures) is something we need to interrogate further. These architectural structures may be ruins, but they still hold a grasp over us that is frighteningly potent.
HL: Historically, technical limitations upon photography’s ability to capture the flow and presence of people led – in forensic photography – to the framing of a missing event by showing the states preceding and following it…a sort of ‘before and after’ photography. If we frame these images in terms of ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs, do you think this tells us something about the limitations of photography today?
AL: The ‘before and after’ binary is fascinating – yes, I think my work is influenced by this (much more than I had realised). In this group of work, however, I think the ‘after’ is implied. As indicated earlier, the viewer already comes to the work with a huge amount of emotional, political, and aesthetic baggage. She or he sees the ‘before’ images of the exhibition in their own (viewer-defined) contexts. They have seen tabloid photographs, read broadsheet diatribes, heard loud opinions on the subject, and are propelled into imaginary ‘after’ images through the stylistic prompt of the painted works. The viewer again has to work hard; they create the comparative latter image in their mind’s eye. This imagined binary was so evident in some viewers that they refused to believe some of the places depicted existed that way ‘before’ the current conflict arose. The image of the Leptis Magna Basilica frequently drew such responses.
More broadly, the practical limitations of photography are a huge influence on my work. The actual loss of ‘information’ is a continual struggle for me; when I’m drawing or painting from life, I can literally draw from any aspect of the environment around me. Despite ever increasing megapixels, low-light abilities, multiple exposures, and even recent virtual reality developments, cameras will never be human in what they record; the broken, error-riddled lines of my sketches will always be denser in information, because they help me to understand a thing in the real world in very specific, highly irregular, self- fulfilling way. There is also the inability to experience something firsthand while looking through a viewfinder. It takes you away from the experience.
HL: Definitely. The Razed exhibition actually made me think of the ‘city symphony’ film – an often rather hectic montage, re-structuring and manipulating images in order to more accurately convey subjective urban experience.
AL: I hadn’t heard of this genre of film before, but definitely recognise your description. It was this kind of chaotic palimpsest that I was trying to create in my video Istanbul. The work is a non-linear record of a few days spent in Istanbul, again dealing with the messiness of trying to get to know a specific built environment, and how difficult that is to make sense of later, when trying to remember your experience of the place. I intended my drawings and paintings of the city to be seen alongside the film. They are, in their own way, materially layered records of the city. However, they were produced at the time – in situ – and I think this lends them a figurative clarity that has been somewhat erased in their fractured 25fps counterpart.
HL: So the film version kind of becomes like a ‘reverse’ archaeological process? Adding new layers to explore memory, iconicity, nostalgia… perhaps even photography itself?
AL: Using the emotional tug of collective cultural nostalgia has been instrumental in the production of work earlier in my career. Perhaps the most pressing example is my Modern Relic video piece, which deliberately emphasised the simultaneous distance and intimacy provoked by using anachronistic, analogue materials. Modern Relic, depicts the production and destruction of a painting, recorded using a DSLR and an iPhone. The video was then edited to play at 4000x the normal speed, and ripped to a DVD. I then took apart a VCR and recorded the DVD to a VHS tape. As the DVD was transferred onto the tape, I manually altered the playhead that reads the magnetic strip of the VHS tape. The result is a recording whose image gradually distorts and degrades (along with the painting on screen) as the video plays, eventually ending in static.
A slower, more melancholic version of this theme is played out in Razed. Each attempt to look back at a memory and clarifying something only yields further instability, nostalgia and a greater distance from the past.