A lexicon of conflict: Paul Seawright exhibition “Things Left Unsaid”

Paul SEAWRIGHT; source: Belfast Royal Academy
Paul SEAWRIGHT; source: Belfast Royal Academy

A lexicon of conflict: Paul Seawright exhibition “Things Left Unsaid”
by Allan Leonard for Northern Ireland Foundation
1 October 2015

On the surface, the images shown in Paul Seawright’s work, “Things Left Unsaid”, are just a series of American television news stations. And in a tour that the Belfast-based artist provided as part of Community Relations Week, Mr Seawright explained how he approached this subject from a landscape photographer’s technique: “I even treated the people as plain objects, part of the props.”

But what is behind this work? As described in an introductory wall panel, a recurrent theme in Mr Seawright’s work is the suggestion that the real subject or event has taken place elsewhere: “The power of his images often rests on what is not shown or directly described.”

Or as the artist told us, “The things you’re talking about are not in the image. You want to give just enough: too much and it unravels; too little and it becomes too abstract.”

He also explained how a body of work is “80% conceptual/20% production”. One could be a master of the machinery but dumb in connecting what you produce.

Mr Seawright revealed that the idea behind this current work came from his previous serious, “Volunteer”, which explored the physical geography of recruitment to the US Armed Forces. He joked how he has found himself returning to America for more projects.

What fascinated him was the interplay between the technology of the studio and the technology of conflict. The commonality of the stage platform was also mentioned: control rooms, theatres of war, cutting down.

Ms Anne Stewart (Curator of Art, Ulster Museum) has done a superlative job presenting the images in a television stage environment: each image is backlit with a white border, and spotlit in a darkened room.

This sparked a conversation about displaying work in galleries versus books; Mr Seawright prefers the in-person experience, describing photobooks as a compromise.

Reflecting the sometimes contentious issue of whether photographers are artists, Mr Seawright replied:

“This is about me, growing up in Belfast, and expressing what I see as an artist. Whether you call me an ‘artist’ or ‘photographer’ is semantics.”

And one can see the lexicon of conflict as the envelope of Paul Seawright’s artistic career of over 25 years, how his work relates to conflict and social fracture, from Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, America and beyond.

For more insight behind “Things Left Unsaid”, Paul Seawright and Donovan Wylie had a video recorded conversation at the opening of the exhibition at the Centre Culturel Irlandais.

“Things Left Unsaid” is on display at the Ulster Museum through 3 April 2016.

Allan Leonard is a board member of the Community Relations Council.

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