The politician is a creature apart: they claim altruistic vocation yet for a large majority the nature of the beast is careerist narcissism. It didn’t used to be like this, for many politicians had been social activists, patriots, heroes and martyrs. Ireland’s self-governing history is one of change brought about by political and armed struggle, where social justice, empire, and religious doctrine often collided in a bloody catalogue of swirling reprisals. It is one where men, young by today’s standards, acted as spies, assassins, soldiers and renegades. A lot of those same men were poets, authors, teachers and clerks. They hailed the acts of others but not without investing the same effort themselves. During the long fight for independence, politicians in Ireland were agents of change shaped by the will of the people, and from the prisons and gallows their words were carried on solemn echoes.
Through an act of photographic wit, Irish photographer Mark Duffy has encapsulated a particular feeling of apathy bordering on malice possessed by most socially aware people in Ireland and increasingly evident in many Western Democratic nations today. We all know the subject of his prize-winning photobook Vote No 1: those pictures of grimacing political gargoyles that loom above our heads on streetlights and fixtures. Attention-starved debutants and cynical-eyed reptiles stare down at us as we trudge back to an indebted house.
The posters are demanding of time as well as sight; they insist on us voting the same number one spot to each (or possibly their colleague but they really don’t want that). Artists have tried for years to carry out the same socially involved interventions but ultimately failed in comparison to this onslaught of plastic portraiture that line our pathways and highways. Vote for them to retain their comfortably paid job deciding on what you can and cannot do in the future. They might get it right and something could work out in your favour, but in post-recession times it’s all about balancing the books and you are just another number. A ransom-like portion of what you earn is taken from you to prop up theirs and their predecessors’ misadventures. We all know the system in place will effectively negate the impact of vast numbers of them. There will be winners, but more than those there will be losers. A politician might lose their seat, and go back to their other high-rolling profession, meanwhile you are being threatened with a prison sentence for not paying you TV license on time.
The painfully stilted pictures that politicians use for election campaigns are a brutally low form of communication. We get very little from them – there is usually some trite slogan that infers a better future but this too rings hollow once the race is over. A vaguely familiar face is presented that somehow we are supposed to identify with and find confidence in. How so, their cracked smile through rose painted lips? Their neat side parting, or the silken tie their spouse gave them last Christmas? These posters rather lazily rely on simple osmosis, and are what Ireland gets after fighting through centuries of famine, insurrection, independence and civil war. This is what it comes down to, a stranger strangely grinning at us with a clear blue sky behind their gigantic Photoshopped head.
Although he says he has no message with this work, Duffy has alluded to a message we all would like to remind politicians. With random, accidental acts of sabotage, these pictures of pictures speak of the danger of vanity, of surface servitude and hidden agenda. The cable ties that bind the poster to the post lacerate the politician’s throat, suture their smile and choke their words. The bolts embedded in the thick plastic presentation board appear to puncture the speaker’s brain; a docile steel fixture shot straight to the skull. Other signs of weather-beaten violence are evident, so too are the insects that infest corpses. The vanity of the image is maligned by external coincidence, and the bastards that choose party policy over moral reasoning stand exposed.
Aside from the violent acts ascribed to each face, there are close-up fragments from the images themselves. With Vote No. 1 Duffy has produced the book using heavy, plastic-coated ring-bound pages mirroring the election posters’ physicality, which he further hones in on – the halftone printing, the creasing, the structure and the contour. As if to try and get closer still to finding something valuable in the subject, some hidden truth, the images delve deeper only to find a surface of no great importance. The DNA of these images seems to convey a message about the people depicted; but just like a political response to a straightforward question, there is no meaning and there are no answers, merely a reproducible impression.
This year will mark the centenary of Ireland’s Easter Rising, the venerated though failed armed insurrection against British colonial rule that took place in Dublin during the spring of 1916. Britain was engaged in World War I and was not about to let Irish Fenians take advantage, so they bombed and machine gunned their response with eager exactitude before finally executing many of the surviving leaders. The men that led, fought and died for the cause of an independent Ireland free from Britain’s Imperial yoke have since been beatified in Irish history. The brave Messianic genius of the likes of Thomas Clarke and James Connolly et al are but ghosts to be invoked for performance by their pontificating political descendants. It is a far cry from their vision that the current Republic, an insipid nanny state of dysfunctional rhetoricians now sits under the yoke of bond holders and offshore accountants. The tragic irony is that when the gun left Irish politics, it took much of the integrity with it. What we are left with are the creased, torn, tied and battered impressions of those that would be leaders. And this deformity, unfortunately, is not unique to Ireland.
All images ©Mark Duffy
Vote No. 1 can be purchased directly from here