Afternoon Dust

Martin John Callanan —

Martin John Callanan’s latest project is a single long, white webpage, in which a vertical list of photographs is presented, all landscape-oriented (width greater than height), with some differences in size and aspect ratio. There is no text other than the heading ‘Martin John Callanan, 2004-2015’, not even alt-text. The filenames indicate that they are arranged in reverse chronological order, newest at the top; metadata is meticulously detailed and uniformly uninformative. When people appear in the images, they are always facing away, engrossed in some activity or looking out of shot. A large proportion of the images have no one in them. Some are striking and beautiful, others are mundane and dull.

Scrolling through the long list of rectangles, several classes or categories emerge. Many of the images seem influenced by ‘New Topographics’ photographers such as Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, and Stephen Shore, who took to documenting empty car parks and the geometric concrete shapes of modern architecture in the Seventies and Eighties. A favourite motif of Callanan’s is the concrete plaza seen from above, often with miniscule people gathered in groups or striding purposefully across the frame. Beaches and shorelines frequently appear, as do shots detailing the bread and butter of artists’ lives: gallery installs, research trips, works-in-progress, and so on. Callanan’s partner appears now and then, as do their cats. Those familiar with their work will be able to pinpoint some of the images in time, location, or both.

As I scroll through the images one by one, rhythms start to be perceived: groups of similar images, then a jump-cut to somewhere else; a single, striking image seemingly unrelated to those around it; juxtapositions of project documentation with landscapes and architecture; repetitions and returns to increasingly recognisable motifs. The selection of images is clearly composed by the artist, and yet each image’s availability for inclusion in the composition is wholly contingent, arising as it did from personal and professional circumstances unrelated to its eventual presentation in this work. Callanan frequently turns the analysis of large datasets into art, such as his global flight departure board in Departure of all or his collection of newspaper front pages for I Wanted to See All of the News From Today; in, the dataset from which the work is drawn is eleven years of the artist’s life, in its general patterns and minute details.

And yet, there is another layer to which relates both to its cheesy dot-com title and to its mode of presentation. The list of images resembles a social networking feed stripped to its bare elements — the feed as the primary text for understanding a life, a constantly updated autobiography. Yet it resembles even more a typical blog circa 2004, with its unevenly sized images and blank space unadorned with advertising. It looks like the way we used to do the web, at least during a certain phase in its development.

I found scrolling through an absorbing and moving experience, no doubt in part because I’ve known the artist for about half of the time covered by the work and can recognise images from one or two projects I’ve been involved with; but also because of the sense of composition and repetition, its quiet wistfulness, and the thoughts it spurs regarding memory, autobiography, the web, and the contingency of being alive. I’m not sure whether the website will be updated with new images as time progresses, but I’ll certainly be checking in again.