Winning the LensCulture Emerging Talent Award in 2017, the series The Illusion of Purpose is an intriguing group of images. This slim volume of contemporary landscape photography depicts man-made buildings by the sea. But what are they for?
Victoria J. Dean (born 1980) has exhibited internationally in solo and group shows, and her work is included in public and private collections both in Ireland and in the UK. She received the Royal Ulster Academy Award for Outstanding Students on completing her MFA Photography from Belfast School of Art at Ulster University. In the introduction, she describes the project as an exploration of materiality in the age of technology:
“With the simplicity and directness of a symbolic form, each structure withholds its message, alluding to a relic from a forgotten language.”
The cover image shows a rectangular pink brick wall facing the sea winds, supported by a triangular buttress. The paint and the structure are chipping away. It has been built with precision and care but in the present day it seems sadly useless. Inside the book, a geometrically constructed cement cone, painted in the same incongruous shade of deep pink, is dropped into the landscape. A plump tower built in dry stone walling is punctured by tiny windows that peer over the sea. There are no human figures to give context and scale to these landscapes. Are these buildings just wind-breakers? Do they mark the coast for ships approaching from the ocean?
Some look like old lighthouses, or watch-towers, with ornate cast iron weather vanes on top. Any doorways are now bricked up. Structures built from thick slabs of rectangular concrete are abandoned to wind and damp. Some are still maintained, with fresh paint and graffiti painted over. They stand in expectation facing the coast, as if they are waiting for an ocean liner to glide through the waves. These structures were built in a robust, blunt architectural language of functionality. The title reveals this puzzle: these are monuments to purposes that are now obsolete.
Dean captures textures in touchable, vivid detail. Foaming waves meet low-hanging cloud over soft wisps of grass, bent by sea winds. Rough surfaces of stones, cliffs and grey pebbles, in turns smooth and sharp, are outlined in the muted colours of an overcast day. Soft moss creeps up a concrete wall. Pale grey clouds hanging over the blurred horizon in the distance, with white waves crashing into the shore.
There are no people; as always in time, people are transient. The sea and the sky remain, as do the structures we build. Removed from practicality in a world of digital technology, these forms become merely sculptures, monoliths bearing witness to time that has passed them by. This is what we leave behind, buildings that no longer mean anything, standing on grey seashores like dry tree stumps.
The book finishes with a quote from a poem by Paul Farley, A Minute’s Silence:
“..There’s something of the Ice Age to all this.
The only sound’s the white noise of the sea.”
– reviewed for Photomonitor by Riikka Kuittinen
Below, two images from The Illusion of Purpose © Victoria J. Dean