Radiant Attention: Yvette Monahan

Yvette Monahan

This interview is an edited conversation between myself and Yvette Monahan, for the purpose of the website.

Yvette Monahan is a photographer and curator based in Dublin, and lectures at the University of Ulster. I sat down with Yvette to discuss her practice the changes in that practice that have occurred over time and how she approaches art. In this interview, I hope to get across how deeply she thinks about her work. It was a fascinating conversation and I hope you enjoy it.

What’s a day in the studio like for you?

For me, it’s different every day. In general, there are three stages when it comes to a project. The first stage is research, then the making, and then making sense of what you have created. It’s all-encompassing when I’m in the making stage, but I like to spend a few months researching before I get to that. So that involves a lot of reading.

In contrast, the making stage is about getting into a place of flow and letting it happen. So I start with some elementary repetitive tasks to access the unconscious space. Then, I experiment with different materials and begin to explore. The exploration tends to last a few months. Then you have to step back to get a sense of what work is emerging.

How do you start your research?

Research is never a planned thing.   An area of interest takes hold, and often the right book will fall off the shelf on the right page, there is a mystery to it. Talking to peers and friends about ideas will lead to a book that progresses the project. Before long, there are piles of research books all over the studio. It’s important because the more you know, the more you can bring the idea closer to the work.

The Time of Dreaming the World Awake would be an appropriate example of the relationship between research and landscape.

‘The Time of Dreaming The World Awake’, (2012), photography

With The Time of Dreaming the World Awake, I researched a region in Southern France called Aude, particularly Pic de Bugarach, or the “magic mountain”.

I was interested in how the landscape can hold the intangible such as history and mythology. For example, a friend was writing a book on the Cathars concurrently, so I went on several of her research trips.  The Cathars lived in the 12th century, often in hilltop castles littered throughout the landscape of Southern France until the final stand-off at Montsegur in 1244. So, you know, that becomes relevant, how that fits into place and the atmosphere of the land. The Cathar history really informed the work.

One fascinating aspect of your work is the exploration of macro and micro, especially in the series A Revolution of Stardust.

With A Revolution of Stardust, the relationship between the micro of the domestic setting to the cosmic macro became compelling to me.

‘A Revolution of Stardust’, (2019)

It started with these gorgeous Phaidon books, Universe and Sun and Moon, which look at, how the cosmos has been represented throughout Art-History and Science. It’s fascinating as they have images from the Hubble telescope alongside seventh-century shepherds’ maps. I have been looking at books about space and cosmology for some time, and it’s an idea that has been constantly in the back of my mind – something that might be referential in subtle and unconscious ways over time in other works. Perhaps, it is no surprise that I started to see those images photographically in the domestic space.

At the time, I watched a tribute to the cartographer Tim Robinson by the writer Robert Macfarlane who talked about Tim Robinson’s ‘radiant attention’. Tim could talk about the tiniest corner of a field, yet, he could encompass the whole landscape through a story of this micro part of the landscape. He could then zoom out and say more about the grander sense of place. If you give something radiant attention, you enliven it, you give it a sense of importance.

With A Revolution of Stardust and other projects, you’ve expanded your practice beyond landscape photography. How did that come about for you?

They are almost two different processes now. The landscape work was about walking and being immersed in a place, spending quite long periods outdoors. Recently, I’ve wanted to be in the studio more, and I’ve wanted to make more with my hands.

‘A Revolution of Stardust’, (2019)

This coincided with other changes in my life: since I became a parent, it isn’t feasible to head off for six weeks to wander the hills. I don’t know if I would have made the change anyway, but I definitely wanted to start more of a studio-based practice and use images as a jumping-off point, making interventions on prints etc. Before, it would have been the print itself that was the end product.

At the same time, I’d gone back to study at NCAD in the evening, which gave me an environment where I had to produce projects and work regularly. So I used that time to experiment with different materials and mediums. This shifted from my old way of researching, making images in the landscape, and only using the studio to edit to a more all-encompassing studio-based practice.

It’s telling that you say you want to make more with your hands, because even in your landscape works, there is such a textural element.

That is interesting that you see that. I try to use a very intuitive approach. With landscape, you realize that the small details are as important as the broader shots because they help people understand a place more. It’s hard to take in large landscapes visually because we experience them in very different ways.  However, when you experience a place in textural ways, for example, the feeling of rocks beneath your feet and the weather on your face become important. I was trying to find more of a felt space rather than just a sublime, distant view.

‘The Time of Dreaming The World Awake’, (2012), photography

Landscapes are more than the sublime. There’s a harshness, too, that is relentless and unforgiving, especially over long periods. And as we discussed, I’m always looking at the micro and macro of timescales. Landscapes are just so ancient compared to our brief lifetimes.

I’ve heard you talk about “living the landscape”, when you were making those works. I thought that was very interesting.

Yeah, I need to understand a place by being immersed in it. When I’m in a landscape for the first time, I go swimming in whatever water body I can find, which helps. Landscape work isn’t easy. I’ve found with photography that sometimes it can be so abstract and unfeeling because there is a mechanism between you and what you are photographing, and you’re not getting in there.

You need to ground yourself into the place and start understanding it. For example, Donovan Wiley from the Belfast School of Art once said, “Make sure you only photograph when you feel moved to.” That was a significant change, moving from the head into a felt space.   Rather than before, when I’d make a list of shots that I thought would be interesting, I had to find a new way to understand that sense of place. It was a way to try to understand concepts around memory and time within a place.

What is your print process?

When shooting film, it is developed here and then handprinted in London by John McCarthy in Labyrinth Printing. He’s fantastic with colour print. You can see the difference with complex colours, such as green. John adds so much more depth to the images in the darkroom. Therefore, I can focus on what I’m trying to say but in such a subtle way. There is a quiet depth with natural dyes.

With digital, it is all done in my home-studio and then printed by Jim at Inspirational Arts in Dublin 8.  Jim and Ed are the best in the business.

There’s a painterly aspect to the way that you talk about colour.

I think that my early landscape work probably could be conceived as quite painterly because of the approach to colour; there is a deliberate use of muted tones. But the other work? That’s interesting. Some of it circumstantial. With a project like Octopolis, where I photographed an octopus, it was a really poorly lit small tank in an aquarium with a bright exit sign behind it. Hence, it was necessary to switch from colour to black and white and focus close up.

‘Octopolis’, (2018), photography
‘Octopolis’, (2018), photography

Because of the splodges, it felt like abstract paintings in a sense.

Well, there’s a lot of movement in the frame, and they’re at a high ISO, so the images are grainy. Octopus eyes are sensitive, so I couldn’t bring in additional lighting. In such circumstances, you’re pushing your camera as hard as possible. I wanted to get away from the idea of an octopus as a spectacle because they are extremely intelligent creatures, akin to mammals. They can use tools and have personalities.

I want to talk a bit about Beyond the Ninth Wave; in particular, you created a triptych with turf on lumen paper prints. Can you talk a bit about that process and how that came to be?

‘Beyond the Ninth Wave’, (2017), Lumen Prints

Beyond the Ninth Wave was for the TULCA Festival; It was a body of work around The Screamers on the island of Inishfree. At the time, I had this compulsion to make with my hands. So, I just started experimenting and researching different experimental photography methods. The process is quite simple. You place an object on paper in the sun to expose it over a long period, say eight hours, and then at the end, you fix it in darkroom chemicals. It’s a simple process, but I was trying to look at another way of expressing the physicality of the island other than photography.

There was no kindling for fires on the island, just turf on the fire all year round. It was survival, light, comfort, and all the elements for healing from trauma. While collecting turf for the fire, I realized that the turf encapsulated all I was trying to say about memory and a landscape. There are a thousand years of compressed time in one sod. When you burn it, you release a lot of history. If we consider all of the trauma within the Irish psyche from years of colonisation, the Catholic church, and poverty,  I felt this Donegal landscape reflected this as a place of repressed trauma. The Screamers believed we should re-experience pain and then release it. I imagined this landscape releasing pain through the act of burning turf.

‘Beyond the Ninth Wave’, (2017), photography
‘Beyond the Ninth Wave’, (2017), photography

I laid out the turf as triptychs on large sheets of photographic paper in the cottage’s sitting room. I read about scream therapy and sound waves, so they looked like raw sound waves when I looked at the resulting prints. 

I would lay out the triptychs in the morning, spend the day making photographs on the island, return and fix them, wash them in the shower, and dry them on the clothesline. Depending on the weather, each set was markedly different. If it was sunnier, they were more purple and pink. Mostly,  it was rainy, which resulted in deeper yellows. The prints were dependent on the elements of the day, which appealed. The weather was infusing them with the energy of the island. This was the island that The Screamers lived on for ten years, so I like that the prints brought this raw energy off the island with them back into the exhibition space; they feel visceral.

How do you consider the viewer when you’re installing work? How do you want people to move through space?

I remember a friend coming in to see the lumen prints. She was like, “Oh, I’ve just had a weird reaction to this.” Well, that is the ideal!

Installation shot, Lumen Prints (‘The Invention of Memory’ Rathfarnham Castle, PhotoIreland), 2019

I read a quote by Josef Koudelka where he said that a good photograph should hit you in the stomach before hitting the brain. That idea that you react to something before you know what it is – hopefully, you’re taking in all the energy that’s gone into making it. Especially if you’re talking about the energy of a place, you’re hoping that the viewer can read that.

Do you keep notebooks and sketchbooks for each of your projects?

Yeah, sketchbooks have become more important to me over time. I used notebooks for research and to anchor in anything that could be relevant to the work. They’re an essential resource, especially when going back to something done ten years ago. Alice Maher talks about notebooks as a reservoir that you tap into, that are always refilling. So I have a whole shelf for them in my studio. When I went to NCAD, I got into making them more visual. Having all my experiments in them and having them at the larger A3 size allows them to become a lot more comprehensive. It primarily provides for trying out more drawings and keeping notes on everything you’re doing.

What are your plan’s going forward?

I’m looking to work a bit more materially in the darkroom. I’ve been tracing these old astral maps on tracing paper and then transferring the lines onto the negatives. So, I’ve started making my own negatives, and they’re elementary forms and shapes. Last year, I started making them while on residency at Cow House Studios in Wexford.

Once I realized I could make my negatives, I realised that I could become  self-contained in my home studio. Thanks to the Gallery of Photography, we set up a darkroom in the house during the lockdown. The idea is to make the negatives from drawings and then do interventions on the prints; it’s very open yet.

I’d like to make a series of these star maps that relate to a book entitled ‘Pi in the Sky’ by Michael Poyner. He made links to sites across the country, from Newgrange to Inishmurray, to the Pyramids and other sacred sites worldwide. It seems to be discredited entirely now, but that’s not what’s important to me; I’m not looking for the truth. For example, Poyner talks about how gold torques are related to how astral maps were interpreted by our ancestors, relating specifically to Ireland’s night sky.

It is just the beginning, I want to make my own negatives and take control of the whole process. Going out in the landscape looking for images is really enjoyable, but you’re not entirely in control…which isn’t a bad thing, but it takes time. It’s exciting to work in a way that gives me a bit more control.

You can find out more about Yvette Monahan work through her Instagram pages and websites, links below

thank you, Anne James for your work editing

You can support Painting in Text through Patreon, link below


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