Je toto lokální, nebo národní zvyk?
The Czech Republic capital, Prague –
though not apparent in these images – is the impetus and backdrop for
Peter Fitzpatrick’s exhibition, ‘Je toto lokální, nebo národní zvyk? ’.
Reinventing himself as the key protagonist in each of these large-scale
photographs and videos, Fitzpatrick creates what on the surface appear
to be surreal, Kafkaesque narratives that are in fact faithful
recreations of actual encounters with characters on the streets of
For more than a decade Fitzpatrick has been fascinated
by Eastern Europe and has returned whenever possible to explore a
culture that is intrinsically different to his own; one that has
suffered and survived, albeit with immeasurable consequences, the
ravages of social upheaval. This current body of work springs from a
residency undertaken at ‘The Meet Factory’, a new initiative for
cultural exchange in Prague, in the months spanning November 2007 to
April 2008. Regardless of the harsh winter and cold realities that he
encountered during his stay Fitzpatrick revelled in the liminality of
travel. Divorced from quotidian responsibilities and immersed in
another culture afforded a unique opportunity to cast a critical eye on
the spectacle and peculiarities of life in his Czech neighbourhood.
of the diverse practices of Bill Brandt and Tuen Hocks, Fitzpatrick’s
work has often switched between the traditions of street photography
and those of the artfully staged. Yet Prague, so complexly layered with
history, politics and humanity demanded something more. In ‘Je toto
lokální, nebo národní zvyk? ’ he cleverly integrates these two
different approaches to image making. Like Benjamin’s flâneur wandering
the urban and industrialised streets, Fitzpatrick became a voyeur of
the comic tragedies enacted by the city’s social misfits. Conscious of
scrutinising the idiosyncrasies of the unhinged, the dispossessed and
those who don’t conform to the expectations of society, he collected
visions of his bizarre daily encounters not with his camera – strangely
disrupting Sontag’s notion that ‘the photographer is an armed version’
of the flâneur – but through quick sketches and mental notes. When
alone and back in his studio, unhindered by a return gaze, Fitzpatrick
recreated those characters and situations and translated them onto
Relying on his inventiveness and resourcefulness,
Fitzpatrick imaginatively populated the blank canvas of his Prague
studio. With little more than an army surplus camouflage uniform (an
eerie reminder of military regimes) and a deranged expression, or a
pair of luminous overalls and a disturbing gaze he conjures an austere
world characterised by the ridiculous. Curiously constructed for the
with a few rudimentary props, a playful sprinkling of
references to art and photography history, and a cable release clamped
firmly underfoot, his subjects are caught mid-action, frozen in the
lamplights, trapped in some private and eccentric world. They appear
shadowed by ghosts or madness and evoke both humour and pathos.
intention of these images hovers in their equivocation. The tension
laying somewhere in the moment between perceiving them as humorous
fiction and the comprehension that they are indeed extraordinary
vignettes predicated on real events. Loosely concealed amongst the wry
wit these images are imbued with the experience of displacement that
Fitzpatrick is confronted with not merely as a traveller but also, and
more poignantly in the people he observes. While these images are at
once absurd and beguiling, they are ultimately confronting depictions
of the marginalised in society. Real, remembered, distorted or imagined.
Written by Dr Jo-Anne Duggan © 2009.
1. Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Tiedemann ed., Howard Eiland
and Kevin McLaughlin trans., Rolf Cambridge, London: Belknap Press,
1999, p. 416.
2. Susan Sontag, On Photography, New York: Penguin, 1977, p. 55.
Jo-Anne Duggan is a scholar and photomedia artist and is currently a
Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Victoria University, in Melbourne.