An Irish Australian not looking for trouble.
Robert Mercer recalls how his family left Portadown for Australia in 1958 with photographic clarity: he remembers sitting in a black cab with his Mum and Dad and his two brothers, one of his brothers was crying. This lesson in grasping the pathos in each adventure has never left him. His photographic practice in Australia ranges from ‘straight’ documentary photography to manipulated painterly Polaroids, to scanned digital images, to whimsical phone-cam diaries. Yet in each genre he manages to blend extraordinary beauty with a sense of heartbreak.
Consequently, Mercer’s long career as an image maker is marked by being political without seeming to try to be political. In his ground-breaking documentation of life in Australian Aboriginal communities, for example, he avoided sensationalism by concentrating on happy moments that nonetheless alluded to the troubled state of indigenous life.
It is also thus when he makes the pilgrimage home to his birthplace.
The photographs in the present show record a view of Ireland perhaps too well known by Irish people to prompt photographic recording. A sensibility honed by exile, however, and nostalgia for a homeland barely remembered, enable Mercer to capture that which is quintessential about Ireland but taken for granted by its inhabitants. At the same time, it is framed within an understanding of contemporary issues.
Invited to a commemoration of the battle of Boyne, Mercer chooses first and foremost to photograph not the marches, the pomp and spectacle, but the humble family ritual of gathering, waiting at the station, boarding a train, pulling out from the platform. The people in these photographs are thus not posing for a public spectacle but just being themselves. Nonetheless, there is a tension and an excitement about the occasion. The troubles just do not go away.
In Australia, such commemoration is almost unthinkable. European history and all its triumphs and animosities are as remote for us as its geographical location. But cultural character is fashioned through vicissitudes. So simultaneously there is a sense of loss in Australia, for community spirit has fewer opportunities to be re-enacted. Australian culture is moulded from far fewer iconic events and its myths of the past are less present in everyday reality. Mercer senses this, and sees such commemorations in Ireland as an opportunity to capture a living Irish character.
It is the contradiction between social conflict and aggression on the one hand, and solidarity and social cohesion on the other that exposes the rich human character of Irish society. To an Australian, the personalities on both sides of the conflict appear to share more similarities than they possess differences. When Mercer does photograph marches, it is the human face of its participants that he concentrates on: a group of indeterminate allegiance winding down the hill, children carrying banners, a guild flag proudly hoisted. Somehow, it is not the disputes themselves but the fervour, the sheer involvement in community that matters.
But Mercer is nonetheless also Irish. He is aware of the tragedy that underlies the passion. He is able to capture eternal Irish optimism and doggedness in his photographs of a storm-tossed voyage from Tory Isle to Donegal yet also see reflections of explosions in a window. Thus Bernadette Devlin at a march or Gerry Conlon of the Guilford four in a street debate, are as ordinary in Mercer’s Ireland as gawkers gathering in response to a car detonation, an empty barricaded street, a heavily armoured lunch wagon parked next to a housing estate, or a pall of smoke enveloping the city. At the same time, there is a romantic streak in his photographic choices. His street shots invariably reveal an eye for a pretty girl or a soft spot for a pub musician.
This ability to merge contradictions is at its best when Mercer chooses to do portraits. Borrowing the format of security mug shots he nonetheless captures vibrant young personalities. His series of colour portraits thus undermines the mug shot convention from within. His subjects emerge as wonderfully human rather than dehumanised: victorious over all the vicissitudes that have beset Ireland.
Robert Mercer is a retired senior lecturer at Queensland College of Art , Griffith University. He has remained research active through activities as an individual visual artist and collaborator. His research has centred on new technology based mediums and applications in photo media and installation, the position of contemporary art in post-modern societies, and the relevance of art practices in cross cultural communications. He has exhibited both nationally and internationally and has worked in numerous collaborations with Australian indigenous and non-indigenous artists. His work is in public and private collections including the Queensland Art Gallery and the National Gallery of Australia.