Sex, Drugs & Magick, Sean O’Hagan, The Observer, 2014
From 2002 to 2011, Gareth McConnell shot portraits of young ravers in Ibiza, creating a series called Nothing Is Ever the Same As They Said It Was. Though he immersed himself in the rave scene there, he approached the project as a detached observer, choosing to capture his subjects alone in their hotel rooms. The result is a strange and subdued document of a time and a place where excess was all.
In eschewing the usual cliched images of hands-in-the-air abandon, McConnell’s more measured documentary portraits caught that uneasy mix of vulnerability and toughness that teenagers – even those in search of ecstasy-fuelled transcendence – often exude. But as time went by, McConnell became dissatisfied with the results.
“The series works as a certain kind of straight, understated documentary, where the details – the clothes they wear, the club flyers and posters pinned to their walls – suggest the bigger cultural story,” says McConnell. “But I realised they did not represent what I had set out to do, which was to somehow evoke my own experience of that time and place. I think it is the nature of photographs to hide more than they disclose, and what I am doing with those images now is trying to chip away to see what really lies beneath – to invoke the spirit and atmosphere I had originally tried to capture.”
What McConnell is doing now, for the second of two books that bear the title Sex, Drugs & Magick (named after a text by the visionary writer Robert Anton Wilson), is remixing his original photographs as a DJ or producer would remix a record – albeit in a visually dissonant and wilfully rough way. Gone are the sharp colours that characterised his C-type prints, replaced by a grainy, lo-fi monochrome that hints at the desperation at the heart of hardcore rave culture and, perhaps more pertinently, at McConnell’s darkening creative imagination.
“In treating my photographs this way,” he says, “photocopying the original colour prints, messing with the contrast, cutting into them, degrading or attacking them, in a sense – it gives them a unity that more readily evokes some of the darker themes I am interested in: the idea of dead or non-time, that space to be endured between the periods of exaltation that occur during the mass communions of dance and drugs.
“That, in turn, brings me back to my primary obsessions as an artist: the age-old themes of mortality and aloneness that the subjects are consciously or unconsciously engaged in attempting to overcome and how, in this particular context, that fundamental need can be manipulated, commodified and exploited.” (To this end, McConnell has included an essay on Ibiza and rave culture by Matthew Collin, author of Altered State: The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House, to put his images in socio-historical context.)
These are ambitious and elusive ideas for a picture – or a series – to contain, and in many ways I think McConnell is grappling with the limits of photography, or even the impossibility of photography. In confronting this problem – what a photograph cannot convey – his work has taken on a new, raw, punkish energy. Born of frustration, that energy now defines his style, which offers up an edgy, visceral atmosphere rather than observing in a cool, detached manner. (McConnell also runs an indie publisher, Sorika, which debuted with a novel, Horse Latitudes by Chris Wilson, and will soon release McConnell’s radical remix of Tom Wood’s book Looking for Love.)
McConnell describes his previous book, the already collectable and breathtakingly expensive limited-edition, Close Your Eyes – co-published with Self-Publish Be Happy – as “a frenzied reworking” of his archive and “a personal political piece – a frustrated meditation on the nature of human movement and occurrence, an embodiment of the power of mass communion in its many forms, and the delirious but bittersweet pleasure of losing oneself to hedonism from the view of someone who saw it from within”. One senses he is a romantic at heart, still in thrall to the excesses of his youth.
But McConnell has, of late, found himself grappling with the meaning and relevance of his vocation in an age of image overload. After photographing the working-class Loyalist community where he grew up in Northern Ireland, and the friends with whom he later shared squats in London, Ibiza came as an escape and a challenge. The work he made there has provided him belatedly with an unexpected creative breakthrough. “I realised that I didn’t have to go out and take more photographs,” he says. “I just needed to delve deeper into what I already had, because everything I needed was already there. I just hadn’t looked hard enough.” By looking back, and looking more closely, he has found a way to move forward.