Gareth McConnell, Alison Green, 2004

Can pain be represented in a photograph? Can it be seen in a photograph of a flower? I think so. Flowers are, of course, deeply symbolic of renewal. Their beauty is bound up in the knowledge that it is momentary. Beauty pierces your heart because it is painful. It is about loss, transience, and wonder at its very existence.

Gareth McConnell’s recent photographs of his bed and flowers have to be understood with his other work in mind. The motivation and poignance behind the images in “Meditations” (2004-present), “Night Flowers” (2002), and “Night Flowers Part 2” (2004-5) make little sense if you don’t know McConnell’s shocking and affective images in the series “Anti-Social Behaviour Parts 1 & 2” (1995)—victims of paramilitary punishment beatings in his homeland of Northern Ireland, or IV drug users who were his friends and sometime community. This is true of beautiful things, isn’t it? Beauty is cloying and saccharine when it’s too easily granted. Against McConnell’s more graphic material, photographs of an empty bed (reminiscent of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ similar imagery) and flowers (calling to mind but importantly different from Robert Mapplethorpe’s highly stylized examples of horticulture), force those scenes outside the frame. In the ongoing “Meditations” McConnell photographs his own bed after getting out of it in the morning. Sheets and pillow are tousled, preternaturally poetic in blue, morning light. They mark time, and contain the imprint of a warm body, recently inside, now outside. McConnell calls them meditations because he meditates here, before starting his day.

This space—his small bedroom, in reality cluttered—is a cipher of a private, internal life. Meditation is an active practice marking a liminal place between the world of dreams (or nightmares) and public, official business. We straddle this divide all the time; resolving it means we are functioning well, and not doing so means the opposite (sleeping during the day is classic avoidance behaviour).

Photographically, the empty bed marks an absence of the main protagonist. It’s a conceit McConnell has explored in others series’ of work, such as “Community Meeting Rooms” (2003-4). Far from being pictures of empty spaces, these are portraits that happen to have no people in them. They are ruminations on the things that a person comes in contact with; our folly is that we think, plan, and imagine, but most of what we do is much more mundane.

McConnell shoots “Night Flowers” in ambient light and with a long exposure. He takes the pictures during nocturnal walks, another temporal experience out of the workaday. Similar to the beds, the flowers become still, central objects, isolated from their context (they are not hothouse but urban flowers, growing alongside commercial strips and housing estates). In some, a spray is classically composed against a background, blossoms burgeoning; in others the image is blurred, or the light intensely artificial, acidic. They are the dusty, forlorn cultivars grown on the streets of any city, but they are prize winners, too. McConnell asks with these pictures, can you find hope when and where it’s least expected?