“You and I, when we long to be as little children, can only masquerade as such, we can only perform childlikeness as far as we can observe it or recall it. We are doomed to an ironic innocence.”
The following text first appeared in Issue 30 of Portfolio: The Journal of Contemporary Photography.
Text copyright: Claire Doherty
Wendy McMurdo’s work operates within of the most fiercely contested areas of cultural representation – childhood. Cast in visual culture as a utopian state of innocence since the 18th Century, childhood has become a protected realm and marketed commodity, a social construct and an elusive ambition. The hysteria that breeds around any violation of this ideal stems from the fear that the innocence of childhood is but a fragile fiction of our own making. But can visual representations ever address the realities of childhood experience via a navigation of this precarious territory?
Those artists, who engage with this iconographic genre, do so aware of the real consequences of their products. Whilst for artists such as Mat Collishaw and Sally Mann, the history and politics of consuming such material lies at the heart of their provocative images of beautiful children, it is the experience of being a child that is the subject of McMurdo’s investigations. Her works also stand aside from the prevalent fashionable transgressions of artists such as Inez van Lamsweerde. Though also employing digital manipulation of the photographic image as a device, McMurdo heightens the sense of a child’s world, rather than addressing adult fantasies.
Her photographic works have always differentiated themselves from portraiture and hence avoid the reductive analysis that accompanies the genre of the “knowing child”. They seem closer in structure to the work of Helen Levitt, for example, than that of Collishaw or Mann. Levitt’s urban documentary photographs and films of the 1940s emerged from an exploration of the everyday, of street life, and in doing so eschewed the romanticism of photographic representations of children. McMurdo’s process is also characterised by this investigative inclination, but importantly involves considerable manipulation of the original.
Though Levitt’s photographs might possess the characteristics of documents, McMurdo’s method involves the same processes of selection, erasure and framing to produce works of evidence. The photographs are taken over a short space of time, but it is her careful digital manipulation of the image that results in the remarkable presence and luminosity of the subjects. Through her interrogation of the constituent parts of the scene, the experience of being a child is revealed. This process is aptly described by John Baldessari’s claim,“what the camera has done is show us what to concentrate upon; and consequently what to leave out.”
McMurdo reduces context to signifying elements. The primary school classroom is stripped digitally to the mere indicators of collective play (cupboards of plastic toys, bright, bold blinds): the music room washed of unnecessary clutter (simply an empty violin case and the edge of a piano remain) and the museum emptied out of school bags, school mates and labels. The child is isolated and illuminated and emerges as the central, motivating force of the works.
Unlike other photographic portrayals of school children (Judith Joy Ross’ studies of Hazelton public school children in Pennsylvania published by Granta in 1996 and Clement Cooper’s recent portraits of primary school children in Preston, Birmingham and Manchester are obvious comparisons), the children here are engaged in their own activities. In contrast to Cooper’s portraits, seen recently at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, McMurdo’s fascination with the gestures and expressions of the child emerge through their actions, rather than a decontexualising of the child from their surroundings or the direct engagement with the viewer. Even Martin in the Royal Museum of Scotland, who engages our stare, turns as if disturbed from his own preoccupation with the flight of the owl before him.
The “evidence” of these works is the artist’s fascination with the moment at which the child learns (which connects this series to McMurdo’s earlier exploration of the doppelganger). This moment of engagement is characterised not by education, however, but highly appropriately, by imagination.
The Computer Class diptych (1997) reveals this moment of awakening. The technology is erased, leaving simply the figures in an identical primary school mise en scene. The traditional objects of play frame the seated figures of the boy and girl caught, arms raised, as if experiencing an epiphany. They perch hesitantly on the edge of their seats. Their expressions are of pure concentration, characterised by slight apprehension. Seen together they appear as if directed by an authority outside the picture frame. McMurdo’s selection of “what to leave out” is crucial here for it focuses our attention not on the real, but rather on action, expression, intent. It decontexualises, whilst the narrative is left to weave new magical connotations.
This allusion to extra sensory perception is developed in a series of studies of musically gifted children at St. Mary’s Music School and a study of two amateur keyboard players in Edinburgh (1998). The Sabin brothers are plugged in – somewhat plodding in comparison to the graceful, silent rapture of the solo violinist. Engaged in performance, they appear seemingly unaware of us as viewers. Pairing these images, McMurdo is playing with stereotype – piano and crafted case versus wires and headphones. The removal of the musical objects here reduces the figures once again to mysterious sensors. McMurdo captures the inexplicable moment of intuition, perhaps even genius.
The development of the work at the Royal Museum of Scotland is integral to McMurdo’s Leverhulme Research Fellowship in which she continues to investigate the effects of new technology on early learning. Forthcoming studies will explore activities at Dynamic Earth (a state-of-the-art science and technology park in Edinburgh). Here the children meet the “old-timers” of museum education – taxidermy and diorama. The lack of interactivity seems to halt both children. A glass wall separates them from the fearful subjects of their study and yet, cast against these representatives of predatory possibilities, the boy and girl seem vulnerable. Noticeably they both kneel before the cabinets, inactive and yet engaged. The juxtaposition of still, small figures with the stuffed animals is inspired. There is a doubling of the frozen moment, as if, like the animals, the children themselves are preserved and presented for our intense scrutiny – the surface of the photographs providing the barrier between viewer and child.
If McMurdo’s investigation of the ways in which new technologies affect early learning is the work’s academic premise, what evidence emerges from these distillations? If the aids and accoutrements of learning are removed, or at least minimised, the physical responses – gestures and expressions – become crystalised. Here then, though less actively engaged, the children appear silenced, in awe.
The isolation of the figures is a vital. A child’s activity is characterised by movement, and fidgeting, unless the focus of their activities requires psychological engagement or physical constraint. These photographic works reduce those shifting responses to finite expressions which reveal an intense interest in the unknown.
Whilst generated within the context of mass media images of childhood, McMurdo’s works also correspond to the historical analysis of children as small adults. The anthropological study of the child in television begun in 1963 with Michael Apted’s “Seven Up” series. Every seven years hence, Apted has returned to capture their development or demise, laying bare the ageing process. The premise of his study, the Jesuit maxim, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man”, indicates our fascination with children as the soothsayers of not just their own destinies but also ours too. This perhaps is the key to the power of McMurdo’s images. Eschewing both the romanticisation of childhood and the fashionable representation of children as adults, she focuses upon the characteristics of a child’s engagement with the unknown and thus the adult world. How children grow, learn, imagine must surely indicate how children become adults, how we became us.
Caught in the predatory gaze of the two bears, McMurdo’s young girl in the Royal Museum of Scotland witnesses the threat of the adult world, and yet, perhaps most crucially, faces also the reflection of herself in the glass. Is it her, or the reflection of another classmate removed from the “reality” of the frame? From the doppelgangers of the Merlin Theatre, Sheffield to the Royal Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, it would appear that the essence of McMurdo’s works is the moment at which knowledge is gained. Not the trivial knowledge of computer encyclopaedias, or musical stanzas, or taxidermic displays, but the vital and luminous knowledge of self.
Claire Doherty is a writer and Curator at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham.
Marina Warner, “Little Angels, Little Devils: Keeping Childhood Innocent”, Six Myths of Our Time: Managing Monsters: The Reith Lectures, Vintage, 1994, p.38
For example the James Bulger murder trial sensitively described by Blake Morrison in As If, Granta, 1997
See Simon Morrissey, “Interrogating Beauty: The body in the photography of Wolfgang Tillmans and Mat Collishaw”, Contemporary Visual Arts, Issue 16, 1997, pp.26-33nd Curator at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham
Coosje Van Bruggen, John Baldessari, New York: The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and Rizzoli International, 1990, p.36 published in “Children: Blind Bitter Happiness”, Granta 55, Autumn 1996
Exhibited at Ikon Gallery, April – June 1999, see also Clement Cooper, Autograph ABP, forthcoming publication 2000