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Gareth McConnell Dazed Close Your Eyes
Cosmic Leaf, 2010 / Osho Initiation, 2013Artwork Gareth McConnell

Gareth McConnell: pure hedonism

The photographer and longterm Dazed contributor talks 90s Ibiza, artistic appropriation and paraphrasing Susan Sontag ahead of his new book

It was post-crash 2008 when, confronted with limited resources, photographer Gareth McConnell found himself re-evaluating his extensive body of work. He pored over 10 years of photographs: from the much-admired kaleidoscopic scenescapes of his God & Man series to his Ibiza photographs of revellers’ bleary-eyed ‘morning after’ faces, taken in rented apartments scattered with relics of their hedonistic lifestyles.

The world was in a state of flux, and McConnell was drawn to that line in Joachim Schmid’s manifesto: “No new photographs until the old ones have been used up”. Accepting this as some kind of Arte Povera challenge, he re-photographed and reworked both his back catalogue and the work of others – he scoured the internet to find low-res sunsets, stills of ravers on YouTube, and estate agents’ pictures (originally used to sell or promote property, now a reference to Thatcher’s Right to Buy).

When he finally sat down in 2013 to put everything together, the process took less than a week. The result was Close Your Eyes, a sort of 10-year retrospective, re-imagined and added-to; a frenzied and energetic observation of recent British history spanning the 90s pilgrimages to the Balearic isles, the London Riots, and the legend of zen mystic Osho – whose followers were said to be the first to introduce MDMA to the Ibiza clubs. Close Your Eyes is a collection galvanised with the same energy as the rave scenes within, where the reader is taken along for a spiritual ride.

The title Close Your Eyes leaves itself open to interpretation...

Gareth McConnell: Exactly, it’s meant to be ambiguous… obviously the content superficially lends itself to the title, with the druggy, trippy imagery included it can be taken as ‘close your eyes and get off your tits’ or it can be ‘close your eyes to the absolute horrors of our world’. ‘Close Your Eyes’ links hedonism to deep politicalisation. You can close your eyes in ecstasy and love or close your eyes in ignorance and fear.  

What was the initial intention behind the book? 

Gareth McConnell: I wanted to make something which simultaneously dealt with my frustration with my photographic practice and with the societal changes that we are witnessing. There was all this work that I was sitting on that didn’t quite get to the crunch of what I was trying to get at with it – this was a platform that just came together for all those pieces of my work that had been left open, somewhat unfinished in their journey. 

“I’m into the idea that people can take my work and do something else with it. Culturally, I think it’s how we move forward.” – Gareth McConnell

Many of the images seem quite personal. Do you see your projects as a type of diary?

Gareth McConnell: There is perhaps that aspect in the sense that I sought these projects out, went and did them, can remember what I was wearing, what I was talking about, smells, sensations... but is that not the great joy of photography as an aid to memory? Did I intend it as a diary? No... I was there. I was seeking out people who I perceived to have similar longings and desires as myself. But the pictures are an observation, not a documentation.  

The book features a number of your past projects, is a political narrative what binds them?

Gareth McConnell: Absolutely – there is a seriousness to it all; when I reflect back on the 80s and 90s there is a sense that they were a bit of a free-for-all, that there was a great sense of possibility and unity despite the brutality of the times, some moments of which I have referenced in the book. Close Your Eyes is not a nostalgic piece though. It’s not a ‘back to the 90s’ book. It aspires to deal with issues that are all still relevant from that period, such as the continued effects of the Criminal Justice Bill of ‘94, which everyone remembers as the banning of raves, but is directly related to the continued erosion of citizens’ rights. You go to Lovebox, or wherever, and the police and sniffer dogs are inside. People being criminalised without any kind of amnesty or warning. The book references authority and the abuses of power – issues relevant today – not merely nostalgia.   

You’ve pulled images from the internet for this book. What are the implications of taking these images out of their original context?  

Gareth McConnell: Well there are the copyright issues for a start. Legally it’s a grey area, but one of the understandings of ‘fair use’ is that you put it in a completely new context. Obviously appropriation art is an established art practice, but it would appear that it is getting harder and harder to do it effectively and without litigation... I’m quite interested in the notion of copyright-free or anti-copyright (unless for big commercial or corporate gain). I’m into the idea that people can take my work and do something else with it. Culturally, I think it’s how we move forward – if we don’t quote each other or sample each other how the fuck do these ideas become realised? 

Other than copyright, do you think the use of found images in a new context is manipulation? 

Gareth McConnell: It’s all manipulation! If you pull an image out of the ether you can re-contextualise it, which is why photography is so powerful and dangerous – it can be falsified or verified. And it’s not ‘art’ until you’ve decided to take the action and put it in that context. 

With the book juxtaposing images of real subjects with found photography, there’s an odd duality of presenting truth with an absence of truth.

Gareth McConnell: That reminds me of the Alexander Kuprin quote at the start of Nelson Algren’s The Man With The Golden Arm “...That all the horror is just this – that there is no horror!” But it’s right. There is no truth. The image is true. But there is no truth behind it. When I’m taking or making the image I’m not thinking about the audience and what they will take from it. I just immerse myself. I don’t mean that in a daft, conceited or naïve way, but in a ‘practice before theory’ kind of way. Do it then work it out. Or not, as the case may be. And I don’t always know when I’ve got the picture, or if I have got it I don’t always know what to do with it. That’s the really fucking annoying thing. I’ve done all this work in the past with no resolve – and that’s what's really disappointing, you know, not being able to work it out.  

So this book is a resolution for some of that past work?

Gareth McConnell: I think so. I felt very stuck for long time and there is definitely an aspect of ‘Thank fuck I can stop thinking about this now!’ I’m forty-fucking two and still banging on about this particular image or project! The letting go is always good.  

Are you finally letting go of these images? 

Gareth McConnell: The self-absorption of the photographer is well documented. In my experience, and to paraphrase Susan Sontag, we are basically fucking extreme narcissists collecting the world! People, places, situations, things. Ordering them in our own private museums. So the letting go is good. It’s like the Ibiza series – I took hundreds of pictures of people and spent so much time poring over these, for years on end. I’d bump into one of them on the street and be like ‘Hey! How’s it going!’ and they’ll look at me like, ‘Who the fuck are you!’ Because they spent five minutes with me, but I’ve had a lifetime with them.

The launch of Close Your Eyes takes place tonight, December 4th. McConnell will be at Donlon Books, 75 Broadway Market London E8, from 6pm for book signings. The book is available online through Self Publish, Be Happy.