Photographer Donovan Wylie explores the carcass of the Maze prison. Click Play Video for an online exhibition narrated by the artist
Following his widely acclaimed 2004 photo essay The Maze, Belfast-born photographer Donovan Wylie was the only photographer granted official and unlimited access to the Maze/Long Kesh prison site during its subsequent demolition.
Executed over two years and counting, with the demolition dates being continually changed, Wylie’s new work, Maze 2007/08, focuses on the empty landscape that surfaced in the aftermath of the demolition process, and shows how this once enclosed space has eventually become reintegrated with the outside world.
Wylie's exhibition at Belfast Exposed gallery combines photographs and film footage of the prison complex - including panoramic helicopter shots - which fully appreciate the architectural destruction of the massive compound.
'It was back in 2001 I was asked by a museum in England if I would think about photographing the site,' recalls Donovan. 'My immediate reaction was 'no', as I had grown up here and it was very familiar to me. It was too obvious an idea.'
It was only after some colleagues encouraged him to pay a visit to the site of the prison that Donovan began to see the potential for a prolonged photographic project.
'I was sort of gobsmacked by it, basically because of its scale,' he continues. 'It's 360 acres, it was relentlessly repetitive and had a very disorientating effect on me. It was intentionally designed to do that, and I thought that here was an opportunity to make a piece of work that could be historical, important, relevant.'
Born in Belfast in 1971, Wylie discovered photography at an early age. He left school at 16 and embarked on a three-month journey around Ireland that resulted in the production of his first book, 32 Counties (Secker and Warburg 1989), published while he was still a teenager.
In 1998 Wylie became a full member of the prestigious global photographic co-operative Magnum. Much of his work, often described as 'Archaeo-logies', has stemmed primarily from the political and social landscape of Northern Ireland.
The Maze/Long Kesh prison was opened in 1976 at the height of the Troubles. It held both republican and loyalist prisoners in its eight identical H-blocks, and through its history of protests, hunger strikes and escapes, it became synonymous with the Northern Ireland conflict. The photographing of its eventual closure and demolition would propel Donovan onto the global stage.
'I took the project on and started photographing the Maze in 2002, finished in 2003 and [The Maze] was published in 2004. Then, when the demolition began in 2006, I felt that I should see the story through and watch the erasure of a history and the opening of a landscape.
'I think that photography has a good relationship with the idea of recording history - as a visual medium it's one of the best at that.
'With the Maze, here was a site that was historical and it was important that I felt that it should be recorded. Combining the historical relevance of it with the nature of repetition as a form of control, putting these two things together seemed like an important project to me.'
Maze 2007/8 coincides with the launch of Maze (Steidl), a publication in three volumes which documents the cycle of construction and destruction of the prison, and Scrapbook (Steidl/Archive Modern Conflict), an album made in collaboration with Timothy Prus recreating the authors’ personal view of the turmoil in Northern Ireland during the 1970s and 1980s.
Maze 2007/08 runs in the Belfast Exposed gallery until May 3.