(This essay is magical. I read it about 10 years ago - and fell in love with Ryan's work, which I guess has brought me to this beautiful space where I am working with her. It's gorgeous. Do yourself a favour and read it. AL x)
Growing up and breathing
Last Summer my twin sister T. came home – “for a month, just a month” she was promising herself. I’d missed her the last four years. She was working at The Hague in “some minor administrative” (read secretarial) capacity. Basically she was just thrilled that she’d gotten a responsible job after years of modeling in Japan, after, in her words, turning into “the most burnt out 25 year-old girl in the whole fucking world, a human incineration”. I guess she was still recuperating, readjusting, when we went out to Mum and Dad’s place in the Blue Mountains. Oh man... we just chilled… the whole time felt like a big exhalation. Clive and Barry, Mum and Dad’s elderly Alsatians, roamed the perimeter fences casually barking as old friends came over, spending a few days at a time with us, then drifting back to their own lives, only to be replaced by more friends. There were stories everywhere, filling up the house. There was fiction in the very walls, but tying it all together was this sense that there, here, was a society we’d made, and that getting away from it all, from the excesses of television and catwalks, and arts administration, made us more beautiful - to ourselves, each other… though no one quite said as much. Still, we said so many other things... we talked and talked. And there was a lack of urgency, for the first times in our lives, I think. We talked about projects and plans and I mentioned this essay I was writing for Sarah Ryan’s new show. I said I was struggling a bit because I didn’t want to over-explain her work, maybe because I felt that the images worked as a kind of relief from the strictures of the art world itself, so why use its pathetic, degraded language? More important at the time though was that Ryan’s work kind of mirrored, in an uncanny way, the world we had made between us and our friends at Mum and Dad’s, a world imbued by this feeling that everything was intensely significant, but not in a Lynchian or Barthesian way. It was more “some form of potent relaxation” T. said.
With this in our minds – though only barely articulated at that time - we looked over the pictures Ryan had sent and I can’t remember who thought of it first but we decided to write a story instead of an essay as a way of “dealing with” the work. Sitting on the floor we came up with a pretty cute story about a girl lining up for tickets to see a band she was already kind of sick of, but felt that maybe her former enthusiasm would return, or that she could fake it to herself until the time of the gig. Motivating her was something to do with not wanting to say goodbye to a part of herself she was growing out of. She’s lining up alone - her friends are out of town. There’s this interior monologue talking about how, alone, she feels like a loser, and we get a sense of her struggling to talk herself out of this attitude. Naturally, she’s cold; it’s September, windy. The commuters pass the BOCS outlet. Folk drink at the pub over the corner. Beers are couriered to the line. There’s this whole system some guys have worked out. Initially, the girl is feeling cool and like she’s a part of something, but as the night progresses, she is increasingly annoyed by the “real”, committed fans around her. (We weren’t sure what band it should be, but T. figured the Hellacopters would be as good as any. Loud stupid fun, something a smart girl could arch her eyebrows to, while also liking The National and Ida. The only thing was - would anyone line up to buy tickets for them?) The Hellacopters devotees were pretty obnoxious. They rehashed the dullest tales - of where else they had seen the band, the stupid fake intimate stories about the members' tawdry private lives. These shitheads became an endurance test for the girl, our heroine. Still, she stuck it out, bought tickets, but, and here's the thing, she didn't bother going to the show. She gave them to her younger sister who thought it was okay but little more than that. And immediately after buying the tickets she took up some kind of chic thing, an anti-youth culture cool that, as she put it to herself, gave her "more breathing space in the head". She felt constricted by the in-your-face bravado of youth culture in general and had, not coincidentally, recently discovered the films of Eric Rohmer. She was really keen on the whole Rohmer feel, that yes, there was another way of being in the world - posturing doesn't have to win the day. She had time in line to realise that, in some way or other, driving youth culture is this sense that the more aggressive your stance is the more "real" you are. And - this is a pretty tired awakening really - she also realised that what she had thought of as individuality was really fitting into a marketing campaign. Rebellion, as Morrisey put it too, could be expressed in many guises. So why not chic? The story ends with the girl trying to make yourself over in a combo of laid back French sophistication and New Englander preppy soulfulness. If you can imagine that. In the process she was coming back to herself, and thinking in a more generous way (outside and above the cliques, etc) about relationships and the world at large. She continued to embrace some pop music The Shins (obviously) and stuff that didn’t seem “too much” (Erlend Oye, Rebecca Gates, Benjamin Gibbard) but never again tried to be part of a scene. She’d won her independence.
Like I say, cute. We loved this little story and when we were writing it down it did that cool thing of taking on a life of its own. Little wonder that sitting on the decking over-looking the mountains and scanning the whisps of smoke on the horizon, half way through a bottle of red, we blurted out (at the same time!) that it was “our story really”. We hadn’t even talked about it, but it registered that this letting go of pop culture was something that, since we’d last seen each other, we’d both done, entirely independently. We’d gone from being game geeks, sneaker freakers, C-M and H addicts, haunted pop vultures to these unintentionally mellow and urbane and quiet Young Adults. It was weird, yet so like all those other Twin Tales, we guessed. We figured our DNA had told us to just fucking breathe, at the same time.
So that’s what our story was about, and I was worried about whether it had become too much our tale, not Ryan’s, to be of any use and I was going to dump it. T. convinced me, though, that it really did have something to say about Ryan’s work, maybe even more so because it was filtered through our very real experiences of growing up and after some discussion we were able to articulate the fact that for us, these photos captured what we dubbed “a sense of post pop languor”. Sure, this was a construction, a deliberate back-story and a projection, of sorts. Still, it just felt so right, this feeling that Ryan’s work too was feeding into a stream of yearning that while definitely youthful has turned its back on the more obvious elements of pop culture.
What was our beef with pop culture? I think it’s that while it’s hip and all, it limits you to a kind of tone that is very much fixed in a time and a place. Ryan, T. and I had all relaxed out of this and it felt like leaving school. Suddenly there's this other world out there. The jerks who were motivating your behavior, who had cast it as somehow reactive more than anything else, are gone. You are young and there is no precedent for you and you are confident enough to feel yourself and for yourself and to go with that. You spread yourself out on the timber floorboards and feel how blissful and cool they are. You enter into the weird connections that exist between cousins and family friends and your own friends. You learn about what friendship and space really are. Which sounds simple, but you’d be surprised how rarely it actually happens.
Waking us up to this, was, is, Ryan’s gift to us and our relationship as siblings. And it’s a gift whose generosity is amplified thanks to its subtlety, as she reveals all of this so easily, creating a richly languid world with little more than an angled limb, a cat seeping into a bed, a window, a floor, a view. As the Alsatians balefully ran after the fire trucks speeding toward the Johnsons’ property T. pinned it more concretely and with obvious allusion to our story, saying that “it feels like she’s not so much seen some Eric Rohmer films but been in them. You know what I mean here”. I did, in both Ryan and Rohmer’s works space is a "vehicle" for the rambling articulations of lives-in-process, a seriousness about the self outside of the world of career and ambition, a world of relationships and landscapes and houses and streets and swimming pools and oceans made over by these relationships. And as all relationships are fashioned out of a yearning, a romantic hue is cast over the work.
Yearning, mind, not desire. Jesus how sick are we all of desire? Yearning is not boringly transgressive. It's more like a dog sitting near a window. A dog who is mostly satisfied yet wouldn't mind rolling around on the grass outside. Yearning is not lightning and lycra and pin stripes and good posture and friction and neediness. In fact, the more it allows itself to drift from such qualities, the more it’s truly yearning. It activates projects as a kind of personable roaming. And that's what we figured is behind these photos as Ryan's mellow, reasonable feeling tone comes as a wave of relief, relief that art can come “from another place”. Which is obvious, maybe, but we are always in the process of forgetting that, especially since the means of legitimation are mostly, now, always so ecstatically hopeful and needy... like those flashy ballroom dancers with their fixed grins and lacquered hair.
Ryan’s work is super natural in contrast to such artistic artificialities. To us, then, Ryan is so totally in another league from the contaminations of the art world at its worst …plus… T. had seen in Berlin and Prague work by Mark Borthwick, Wolfgang Tillmans, Ola Rindall, etc and saw connections, and that there was another thing she liked. She had this sense that behind Ryan’s pictures was this laid-back global soul (she’d just read the Pico Iyer book) that could make-over any kind of place really, and make it more what it is, not less. This is a kind of anti-globalisation and it’s something that needs more thinking about, in another place perhaps... this whole idea. Anyways, within this, we both saw Ryan working in the shadow (?) of fashion photography. Fashion of course is "of the moment", so of the moment that it bleeds into "all time"… and fashion, as we know, as Olivier Zham et al have pointed out (always ahead of us, Olivier), has extended its parameters. It has turned into more than a mere documentary act, but a “vision”, which is more all-encompassing. No, it was always that, but now this vision has moved away from the body even. And something lingers, as, with fashion, we have the will to be somewhere, and this will is located in our body. So even if there is no body in the photo, there is our body. This is felt, this yearning, and we are clothing it with a sensibility.
We figured, T. and I, that if this is true then fashion’s vision is a commodification, a potential commodification, that also frees something up too. Sure, this is a private state yet by entering the commodity arena Ryan also frees her images of it. It is a form of Kantian Idealism; it is a yearning toward a spatial democracy founded on the yearnings of the ragtrade and its mutations as we wish to mutate ourselves. In Ryan's work this sensibility connects seemingly disparate forms. The Australian scenes, the exteriors, maybe shouldn't work. They should look, I don't know, scrappy or something. Yet they are elevated and refined. They are distanced in just the right manner. They sit in a world where we might come to appreciate them. They are shot as if in passing. They turn into narrative in this way. Weirdly it turns into a kind of classicism in this process. The other thing we thought was that in fashion there are no parents and for those of us who don't live in that kind of scene the very sense of this can be disconcerting. I mean what do you do, when you’ve broken free of pop (and ma) and live, now, in a permissive culture? This very question is part of the philosophical power of these pictures: how do we deal with our own freedom? None of this is resolved of course. It hangs there because it cannot be defined, and resolution would be boring and beside the point. This means that Ryan's work creates openings, narrative, attitudes. It propels us into a world where we can make some choices about how we conduct ourselves, how we style ourselves. This is the flipside of the Nietzschean project however. We can style ourselves in mellow generous, communicative tones as well as bullshitty blustery ones that Friedrich so loved. We can become these rich cool people we see in Ryan’s work, whose power is in their yearning and their ability to relax with it. All up, it's a sensual oozing fired by a laid back intellectualism.
I’m guessing you’ve noted that the tone has shifted somewhere. Can’t pinpoint where exactly, but it’s more awkward, more didactic. I don’t know how to really say it, so I’ll just blurt it out - T. died before we got to finish this together. Just like that Smiths song, “the flames rose to her roman nose and her walkman started to melt”. Except she had an Ipod. I saw it happen. I still see it happening. So this reflection has become a kind of remembering too, of T., with Ryan’s work holding it open, the loss, the possibilities and the reality of being, now, half a person, missing their twin. But you know I think that’s what we do with culture… we reach out for it, we want something of it, from it. Most often frustrated, with its piss weak aspirations, its smallness, it being so full of its own worthiness, it cannot hold us. Here, as with her other work, Ryan has given us a bit more, so crisply, with such grace. And I’m just going to leave it there, hastily not-concluded, hanging, like my memories of T. and what she could have been.