October 22nd 2021 – January 8th 2022
A single figure appears slumped on a run of orange, padded chairs, gazing blankly into the interior garden of an institution. The exact figure – a man, we assume – appears reflected in the glass panes of a wood-panelled booth in what looks like an empty conference suite.
Jaime Welsh’s highly-constructed photographs – often of clinical, official interiors – depict figures in architectural space as allegories for anxious or tense psychological ones. Anxiety is the modern condition, after all. His project is the formal relationship between humans and architectural space and the evocation of psychological interiority through photography.
Welsh’s photographs – as all good art should – evade easy readings. The artist tenderly dedicates this series ’For Laura’ to the mother of his friend and housemate, Kevin Brennan. Yet Brennan appears as the works’ protagonist – almost devoid of emotion – staring, brooding and, in some instances, headless. Are we looking at him or a proxy body?
Welsh offers us clues that might contain meanings towards a resolved understanding of the scenes – the clothes, fixtures, framing, etc. – but they may also be red herrings or formal props to tell both a precise yet ambiguous tale.
Welsh’s images seem to exist outside of our reality. But they’re routed in relatable ideas of alienation, loneliness, and longing.
Sean Burns sat down with the artist to discuss the development of the series, the influence of cinema on his practice and the critical real-world relationships that inspire him.
1. I want to begin by asking about the role that friendship plays in your work. How do the people you photograph feed into the conception of the image?
The people that I photograph are close friends, family and artists for whom I have a deep admiration. I often talk about my photographs as love infatuations; they are a way to preserve these people and relationships. So, the casting comes from a broader fascination that does not have to do with how they look but with their lives and our intimate connections. There is perhaps an aspect about idealizing them until they become ‘gods’, similar to how, as a child, I used to view film actors, such as Helmut Berger or Silvana Mangano. Friendship is relevant to my process but not so important to the narrative of the works. Throughout my editing process, these friends slowly mutate into constructed characters: I swap, double and shatter their identities; their appearance is twisted and sometimes I decapitate them.... Ultimately, my photographs produce these characters rather than depict them.
2. You often situate the photographs in museums, foundations or institutions. What is it about these places that make them suitable allegories for personal alienation or anxiety?
The spaces are lavish but also austere and uncomfortable. I guess there is a psychic atmosphere in high aesthetics designs that are very inviting yet extremely alienating, producing an uncanny feeling. I work with interiors that incorporate confined spaces with intense façades, solid materials and symmetrical arrangements – so one can almost feel the weight of the rooms. I then dress them in minimalist style, stripping away most of the furniture and objects. The use of clean, empty, spotless interiors results in a strangely artificial reproduction of reality. The spaces feel overwhelming and impose a sense of authority and respect towards the figures.
Of course, the anxious atmosphere comes from not only the architecture and set design but also the use of particular framing techniques. My photographs often involve an almost mathematical framing, so the characters become absorbed by the sterile precision of the architecture. This helps build tension in the image.
3. I know that you do a lot of research about particular sites. How do the atmosphere, energy, and history of a building contribute to your decisions in creating an image?
I’m not so interested in the cultural history of a building but much more in its material form. I look at the photographs, and I know exactly what the architecture is made of, what it feels like to touch the concrete walls, or the smell of the wooden cabinets – the types of seats, the lighting, that tangible perception of space... Overall, I am interested in conveying a strong sense of the architecture and the physical presence of the figures: the kind of bodies they have, the weight of it; the asymmetries; the type of clothes. It’s all very material to me.
4. The subjects in your images often appear doubled in screens or mirrors. Can we read this as a psychological device – interior and exterior world – or is it different for each subject?
Mirrors and reflections are very effective in highlighting the psychological atmosphere of the scenes. They act as indicators for fragmented subjectivities and unstable states of mind. In my photographs, mirrors, doors and windows are also used as routes of subconscious escape, while re-directing attention into the medium of photography itself. These separating portals often suggest entrapment, claustrophobia or voyeurism.
5. Your photographs seem, to me, almost like snapshots from a more extended, filmic narrative. Do you consciously construct the story around the characters, or are you more interested in the illusion of something bigger?
My photographs appeal for an experience of insistent questions, provocation and doubt. So, in terms of narrative, it really becomes about concealing. What do I want to indicate? What do I leave out? How much can I not spell out when constructing an image? The development of events and narrative is always uncertain. There is no correct before or after, only a lack, to be imaginatively filled in the viewers’ mind.
At the end of the day, however seductive and compelling the narrative is, they are photographs - and photography is a lie. My images are not faithful records like Nan Goldin’s work purports to be. My photographs are constructions. And they are made in a particular way, through cinematographic production and Adobe Photoshop; through a type of lens that is digital as well as something material. Somehow, there is a relationship between the rooms. The word ‘camera’ in Latin means room, so when I use photography to capture an interior, it’s a room within a room. The interiors that I photograph are darkened and contain layers of glass – like inside any camera lens. The figures are trapped in a space that is quite intense and claustrophobic; they are contained within the language of photography. So sometimes what they are of is less important than the fact that they are photographs.
6. I realise your images draw heavily on conventions of cinema. Can you talk to the films and directors that most influence you and why?
I have a terrible obsession with European cinema. Pier Paolo Pasolini has always been my greatest influence alongside Pedro Almodóvar, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Michael Haneke and Luchino Visconti.
I like to watch films on my own and without sound to focus on the purely visual aspects. Most of the films that I am drawn to are films in which the narrative revolves around interior spaces. I’m interested in understanding how architectural form and mise-en-scene inform how we perceive narrative in film and their ability to generate hostile and eerie plots.
There is something about the emotional tone of Michael Haneke’s films that seems in close relationship with my recent work: he often shoots in luxurious spaces and there is a sense of privilege, yet the behaviour of the protagonists towards each other is cold, unforgiving and neurotic. The acting is minimal, mechanic and there’s an illegible opacity to the characters. Seductive spaces, attractive-looking people – there is this curious thing about the pleasure of looking. I guess there is a tradition in cinema for a strangely artificial delivery, which I aim to explore further in my photographs.
7. This series, ‘For Laura’, is dedicated to the artist Kevin Brennan’s mother. Can you talk about thesignificance of that title and relationship?
Kevin is one of my closest friends and now housemate whose work I greatly admire. Laura, Kevin’s mother, is a fascinating woman. I wanted to dedicate the series to her as a gesture of love, respect, and thankfulness for bringing Kevin into the world. Other than its personal meaning, the title introduces another person to the frame of the photographs that isn’t necessarily in it. It’s sort of sentimental but also obscure because the viewer does not know who Laura is. It raises a question. A bit like Michael Haneke, I like to play games with the viewers.