The following text was composed to accompany photographer Linda Conroy’s series ‘Portrait of an Atheist’ for the final year degree show at the University of Ulster, Belfast. The series comprised portraits, microscopic images of everyday matter such as paper and graphite, and close-up photographs of paintings and sculptures. This text was the result of discussion with the artist and aimed to reflect, rather than review or critique, the themes explored in the series.
Laura, taken from this series, is currently on display at the Royal Ulster Academy as part of the 133rd Annual Exhibition. You can see more of Linda’s work on her website here. Laura
Amid cool white sculptures, gilt frames and heroic columns, the subjects sit. They are united by their beliefs, or more so, their belief in not to believe. For the sitters, there is no great and almighty power beyond this earth; no God residing in the white canopy of the clouds, or in the golden archway of the heavens. There is only power in the complexity of one’s humanness. Silently and alone, the subjects reflect on their existence upon this earth: what it means to be human; of flesh and blood; of fragile bones and frail minds. Unlike the art that surrounds them, and has surrounded other humans for hundreds, even thousands of years, they will not stand the test of time in the same way, but will falter and weaken, and eventually die, and decay into dusty matter.
It is an old dilemma, and an inevitable problem. For all our advancements and technologies, universally humans are united by the inescapability of death: the slow, sad, sore realisation that fleshly human life will end whereas art stands still in static immobility. Famously, John Keats contemplated the predicament in ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’: ‘When old age shall this generation waste/ Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe’. In the hallowed halls of the art gallery, the sitters become keenly aware of their own mortality, and how, unlike the art arranged around them, they will not be preserved for all eternity, but will silently fade into the unknowable. Mark
However, there is nothing to allow the viewer to identify these men and women as atheists physically: no distinctive mode of dress, identifiable medal, or particular talisman. Therefore, these are not portraits of atheists as a distinct and specific group, but more accurately, these are portraits of people in meditative mode, immersed in the pulsating perplexities of the mind and acutely appreciative of their mortal status. Caught on camera, they slip into deep contemplation. Who am I? What does it mean? Where will I go? What is this about? When will it end? What next? Thus, reflection emerges as an activity not merely reserved for the religious among us, but for everyone, including the atheist who is, perhaps, more attuned to the transiency of life than most.
Microscopic Paper Lavery primrose
Yet with reflection comes a rumination on what meaning is: how, we as humans, assign significance to matter. Beneath the intense glare of the microscope, the strange minutiae of everyday, earthly life becomes apparent: the tentacles of canvas fibres, the rocky rubble of graphite, the sinewy stretch of paper and the crumbly grit of pigment. Under the microscope’s contemplative beam, banal matter transforms into uncanny, mystical landscapes. With this, a realisation of how all meaning comes to be emerges and how, in moments of profound consideration, meaning shifts and reveals itself as unstable and susceptible to change and flux. Similarly, the art objects presented as fragmented forms, abstract smatterings of colour and awkward, disjointed segments bring to our attention the unknowability of all matter, including the familiar when it is removed or pictured out of context. These images reveal the fluidity of meaning: how meaning is as easily shattered as it is solidified once again.
The juxtaposition of the three sets of images – the portraits, the close-ups of art objects and the microscopic studies – illuminates how our unique existence and personal understanding of this earth deconstructs and fragments as soon as we begin to give it our deepest concentration. In reflection, we, too, are removed from our individual contexts and torn from our day-to-day experiences. Meaning becomes intangible and impossible, and we are nothing but abstract forms ensnared in this mortal coil. Ultimately, in a wonderful paradox, the subjects of the portraits themselves are contexualised and preserved in photographic form. Whilst it remains to be seen, whether photography will withstand the ravages of time in the same way traditional mediums of painting and sculpture have done; nevertheless, the subjects are fixed, for what may be eternity, in a motionless image. The essence of the photograph is, as Roland Barthes has noted, the implied message of ‘that has been’, and in a way then, it is the most suitable talisman of the atheist. After all, the photograph is a momento mori – a reminder that you will die.