The Sleepless Souls

In 1990, the band Fields of the Nephilim released their third album, Elizium. The third song on the album, "At the Gates of Silent Memory", contains the album’s title in the line “Where the night has become Elizium, for the sleepless souls”. Elizium (Elysium or Elysian Fields) is from Ancient Greek mythology and describes the place after death where people would live a happy afterlife in paradise.

The notion of Elizium/Heaven/Paradise provides an interesting reference point when thinking about the photographic practice of Clare Langan. Whilst Langan does not reference death or heaven directly in her work, the sense of standing on a precipice between two worlds, awaiting a form of salvation, is inherent. Solitary figures appear almost as specks of dust in the face of the earth’s raw majesty. There is also a strong sense of longing – for rescue, repentance and renewal.

At The Gates of Silent Memory takes as its starting point the threshold between worlds, climates, and reveries. It brings together a series of works, never previously seen, shot over a number of years, interweaving with a number of Langan’s major film projects. As climate change is sadly now part of our everyday lives, due to how we choose to live and exploit the earth, this exhibition amplifies how Langan’s work has for over 20 years dealt with these concerns. Whether dealing with the human figure or a particular landscape/environment, linking all her work are her concerns for the fragile nature of this earth that we live on and humanity’s tenuous and transient relationship to it. In a sensory and information overloaded world, Langan’s poetic approach to her subjects quietly leaves us with a vision of a planet going through a profound transformation, of a world on which we tread gently, lest it disappears into memory.

In her film Flight from the City, Langan started to work with performers directly for the first time. Prior to this, human life and experiences had been hinted at but never made manifest in her practice. Her decision to turn the camera toward the human figure gave her work a clear resonance with the figure through art history but also let us witness the constant struggle of existence. For example, in Storm (Gravity) we see the performer Maria Nilsson Waller clinging in apparent desperation on to a rock edge. It is a haunting image that could augur something horrifying. Yet, it is much more poignant – we instead witness a woman clinging on, in the face of apparent adversity, to a world she is not ready to give up on. When we see people in Langan’s work, she is asking us to consider the human condition and to empathise with the performer in spaces that can be dangerous or beautiful, intimate or epic. These observations are critical.

The images in At the Gates of Silent Memory were taken in locations across the world including Dubai, Iceland, Ireland, Lanzarote and Montserrat, reflecting Langan’s international practice and perspective.

The work made in Montserrat (Street; Springs Hotel, Key; Springs Hotel, Logbooks; Shelf, Kitchen and Bedroom (Dust)) show the destruction of the town of Plymouth by the Soufriere Hills volcano and the devastating effects it has had on all aspects of life there. Street was photographed in 2007 as part of a research trip and by the time Langan returned five years later to shoot her film The Floating World, that landscape had been largely consumed by volcanic ash. This photograph, along with the two images of the Springs Hotel, were shot using the Hasselblad XPan camera, which has a very similar format to old widescreen cinema, giving these images an epic quality that captures the horror and beauty of nature. There are no people in these images, rather we see the imprint of humans on the landscape and the impact the volcano had on everything, human made and natural, reflecting our insignificance against these ecological events.

Langan’s film The Winter of 13 Storms explored the breakdown in communication between two people in an abandoned empty world. In the year before that film went into production Langan worked with two performers, Maria Nilsson Waller and Jose Miguel Jimenez, in Co. Kerry and made seven of the photographs in this exhibition: Chrysalis, Elizium, Leaf Storm 1, Orphée 1, 2 & 3 and Storm (Gravity). Again, we see solitary figures battling against the elements or their situations. In the Orphée works there are people and limbs trapped under ice, resembling classical marble statues. We are frightened yet beguiled by these images. Standing on the precipice of Pedlars Lake is Jose, gazing towards or being repelled by Elizium, the title of the photograph. There are echoes of Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog and that much overused phrase, the sublime. But for Langan, these images are as much about the people as they are about their surroundings, however beautiful.

Again, in Cocoon, The Heart of a Tree 1 and Songlines 2, we see figures in strange and awe inspiring places. Cocoon sees two female figures, a mother and daughter, in a tender embrace in the Kvika Footbath on the peninsula outside Reykjavik. A solitary figure wanders over Kerlingarfjöll Mountain, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet in The Heart of a Tree 1. If we look closely at the image we can see the glacier, eroded by human activity, looming in the background and a pathway over the billowing steam caused by the seismic activity below. The figure has a huge balloon on his back as he is collecting air, in a near future, where air has become the new gold. And in Songlines 2 a solitary figure sits atop a rocky outreach in Timanfaya National Park, Lanzarote (another landscape shaped by volcanoes) buffeted by the elements swirling around them. These images are of their time, yet timeless. Langan has worked closely with a team of collaborators where the costume, location, and movement, form part of the narrative in the creation of past and future worlds.

In her most recent work, Alchemy 1 & 2, Langan captures two people clinging to each other, in love or loss. Alchemy is defined as the process of taking something ordinary and turning it into something extraordinary, sometimes in a way that cannot be explained. That sense of transformation is really important in all of her work, and how that process can be healing and destructive. The experience of love and loss is universal but deeply personal. As we look at these two photographs, again shot in Co. Kerry, we see those very tender moments only ever shared by those totally enraptured by one another. Perhaps for the first time in this work we are seeing Langan explore a deep intimacy that connects to us all and also asks us to really consider how we live now, and how we will survive in the ever-shifting world.

In a way, Langan is saying that in the end what is happening around us is both intimate and shared. Humans have acted as both the keepers and the destroyers of this planet and each other, but clearly, we are at a point of realisation where we need to rethink our beliefs. We are part of nature, not apart from it. Each of us experiences loss. But there is also a beauty and poignancy in these images, and Langan is asking us to slow down, to spend time engaging with these poetic photographs to find our own Elizium. In the artist’s own words: “we are but a moment here”.

Eamonn Maxwell

February 2023