VAN Critique September/October 2015: Jan McCullough at Belfast Exposed


Crit Jan McCullough

Jan McCullough, ‘Home Instruction Manual’ installation view, Belfast Exposed Futures, 3 July – 22 Aug 2015

Jan McCullough
Home Instruction Manual
Belfast Exposed
3 July – 22 August 2015

Jan McCullough’s project ‘Home Instruction Manual’ developed from the artist’s interest in traditional instruction manuals. Typing “how to make a home” into Google, she soon found an online chat forum where the participants gave instructions on how to transform a ‘house’ into a ‘home’. McCullough subsequently rented an empty property in Belfast for two months, putting into practice the advice she had gathered online. The photographs and objects on show at the exhibition ‘Living Room’ – presented in the Belfast Exchange gallery space at Belfast Exposed – document various elements of this project. (1)

A large, white plastic rug lies diagonally across the exhibition space. Printed onto the rug is the text from a series of online conversations, including the quote “not too clean but not super cluttered – just ‘lived in’ I guess!” (Molly Bdenum, 12.53, 7 August 2014). The rug dominates the room, but other two-dimensional domestic elements – a light switch, a window, a sofa and a fireplace – form part of the work’s narrative. McCullough uses black plastic tape to render these as flat life-size pictures. The tape is applied intermittently, which creates a rhythmical pattern. These stark, monotonous, graphic configurations are analogous to the binary code of the digital realm.

Overall the installation evokes emptiness. The images are harshly lit with pop-up flash, which recalls the amateur aesthetics of the family album. Panel pins have been hammered in to secure photographs. Their dull silver metal seems somehow important in this world of near-monochrome images.

There are traces of colour in a series of small photographs assembled between the taped utilitarian images. A close-up shot features a window and provides some context. The lens has captured a white, plastic double-glazed frame and in the distance, there are two suburban houses. Their dull brick walls and garages are plain and universal in their architectural style.

One image shows scatter cushions, apparently precariously balancing on a metal chair. But the image is ambiguous. Perhaps it’s a metal ladder, not a chair. Either possibility does not quite suggest a ‘comfortable’ home.

In another photograph, an outstretched white female hand holds a plant with heart-shaped leaves in a simple terracotta pot. The hand belongs to the artist; her fingernails are clean and well groomed. Out of shot she may be sitting or possibly lying on the sofa, which is covered in a cream throw. Commenting on this self-reflexive device, McCullough stated: “I included my hand in a few images to remind the viewer that what they’re seeing is constructed. This also harked back to images in old instruction manuals where you can see someone demonstrating something.” (2)

A wooden bookcase is recorded. Nigella Lawson’s How to eat sits close to an anthology by William Golding. On the same shelf is The Tale of Tom the Kitten. There appears to be no logic to the selection of books, just an ad-hock or random collection. Another ephemeral object in the same shot is a photograph of two smiling children. They sit next to the book Our Life in 7 Days. The artist in fact sourced all the items through a house clearance company, adding a further layer of arbitrariness. Another print includes a framed photograph showing a young couple situated next to a television. Overall the image is eerily devoid of emotion.

A final image returns to McCullough’s hand; it is out of focus and she is again holding a plant. This time the leaves have crimson veins, which match the colour of the diagonal strips in the background textile of the picture. In the centre of this photograph is a masking-tape cross stuck to the fabric. Its reason for being is unclear. Perhaps it alludes to a sticking plaster, an attempt to make this illusionary home feel more real?

Internet chat rooms are places where strangers appear to become friends, their advice and suggestions accepted. These online forums have echoes of ‘over the garden fence’ conversations, but instead of neighbours chatting in real physical proximity, our day-to-day social sphere is one of text messages filling the void.

Forum contributor Molly Bdenum’s words, it seems, were not heeded in McCullough’s interventions into the vacant house or her subsequent documentation of the process. McCullough’s representation of a home doesn’t feel comfortable or lived in. But perhaps that isn’t the point of the exercise. Rather, ‘Home Instruction Manual’ prompts consideration of how reality has been replaced by illusion and truth by deception. The project has a number of philosophical layers, but peel them away and stark certainties emerge. McCullough’s photography plays with notions of societal distortion: amateurs and experts, strangers and friends, illusion and reality are becoming digitally identical. The World Wide Web entangles McCullough’s work in a realm of pretence and illusion.

Kathryn Nelson is a visual artist based in Co Tyrone.

Notes
1. Jan McCullough is the most recent artist to take part in the Belfast Exposed Futures Programme, which supports the development and presentation of new work by six artists a year in a series of solo shows and is generously supported by the Foyle Foundation, the Arts Council Northern Ireland and The Directory.
2. Gemma Padley, ‘Jan McCullough photographs the Internet’s most desirable home’ www.thespace.com, 16 July 2015