New York

Seamus Harahan

Spencer Brownstone Gallery

Seamus Harahan’s large-scale, three-channel video projection Holylands, 2004, documents the street life of an urban community that looks as if it’s populated almost entirely by men and boys. By day, they hang out in groups or meander down the block drinking liquor out of bottles concealed in plastic bags; by night they commit petty crimes, such as vandalism, and possibly engage in more nefarious activities, furtively gathering around idling vans in a way that screams, “Drug deal in progress!” They roughhouse, amuse themselves with what’s at hand (which isn’t much—cardboard cartons, water escaping from an opened fire hydrant) and throw their arms around each other’s shoulders in the universal language of male bonding. Young or old, clad in the cheap windbreakers of the working stiff or the hoodies of the wannabe gangster, they display a nervous indolence that suggests stress, underemployment, the volatile boredom of the demobilized. They could be the inhabitants of any number of “postconflict” cities the world over, but in fact live in the Belfast neighborhood unofficially named the Holylands after its biblical street names. Harahan was still living in the area between 2001 and 2003—the period during which Holylands was shot, and a time when the city was several years into the détente ushered in by the 1998 accords among Northern Ireland’s political parties. Small details ground the video in its sociopolitical context: Graffiti on a construction barrier, for example, reads SUPPORT THE TURKISH DEATH FAST, an expression of solidarity with Turkish prisoners’ hunger strikes that harks back to Northern Ireland’s own prisoners’ hunger strikes twenty years before.

Harahan also turns his attention to the more mundane elements of his milieu—dandelions blowing in the breeze, birds and planes drifting by, an abandoned easy chair squatting on the sidewalk—to create a sense of the textures of everyday life. At the same time, he is careful to establish distance. He makes no attempt to hide the fact that Holylands is essentially a montage of surveillance-style videos: Shot in available light with a handheld digital video camera, his footage is often so grainy or murky that it’s difficult to make out exactly what’s going on, and his camera work and editing are jittery and abrupt. There is almost no diegetic sound; the action seems to take place behind soundproof glass, with an eclectic selection of music (hip-hop, rock ’n’ roll, traditional Irish folk) functioning as a sometimes haunting commentary, as, for instance, when a teenager is shown jumping down from a fence in slow motion while “Dear Irish Boy” is played on uilleann pipes.

Positioning himself (and by extension, the viewer) as a sort of mole or double agent, Harahan is an intimate observer but an outsider nonetheless, identifying with his subjects without purporting to explain them. His ambiguous, open-ended, anti-monumental approach to the documentary form seems designed to undermine grand narratives—both the high drama of Belfast as the epicenter of the Troubles, and the Chamber of Commerce fairytale in which the city rises from the ashes to become a magnet for foreign investors and members of the “creative class.” Here, flickering hypnotically from channel to channel, Holylands proposes that the real story is more complex and perhaps unknowable, fragmented as it is among a multitude of personal histories—of which, the artist might be the first to acknowledge, his is only one.

Elizabeth Schambelan