Lisa Barnard’s new photobook Chateau Despair was born out of a commissioned photo-project in which she documented the abandoned Conservative Central Office at 32 Smith Square – HQ for the Tories from 1958 to 2004. The majority of images in the book are interior photographs of a building that has lost its place in the world. Scratched walls, empty hallways, missing appliances – these are the signifiers of architectural decline. The overall impression of malaise is underscored by the colour blue, the official colour of the Conservative Party. The images are purposefully ‘cold’: both in terms of colour symbolism and in terms of Barnard’s dispassionate photographic methodology.
Barnard makes some surprising discoveries in the abandoned building: a forgotten pair of shoes, a tear in the shape of a laughing mouth cut into a studio backdrop, or, what appears to be, a bright red rocket leaning against the wall. These photographs, subtly humorous yet still matter-of-fact depictions of an interior space, are strongly reminiscent of the work by the Canadian photographer Lynne Cohen. Despite the lack of people in these images, the presence of man is emphasized by these quirky interventions.
Looming over this body of work are a number of scanned images depicting the former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Her status as political and ideological icon in the UK is emphasized by including several seemingly identical images of her. Although in each image she is shown with the same bright red lipstick, the same immaculate hair, and the same confident smile into the camera, each image differs slightly from the others, as well as to the extent it has physically deteriorated. Watermarks and dirt are creeping up on them, while a fingerprint gives an indication on the actual size of the original photograph. The decline of the building is thus mirrored by the imperfections represented in the damaged portrait of Thatcher.
Inasmuch as the photobook documents the remains of a once-thriving party headquarters, the project also alludes to Thatcher’s immense impact on political, economic and social issues in the UK. Her knowing smile not only affects our reading of the interior photographs of Chateau Despair, it equally affects our understanding of current debates such as those on housing, social security, immigration, foreign relations or economic policies. Her presence is akin to that of a phantom. This is particularly the case with regard to the current Conservative-led coalition government that consistently tries to locate its own position in relation to the Thatcher years.
In spite of the re-emergence of Conservatism in the UK, the photographs strongly allude to the collapse of an ideological and political framework. The abandoned rooms at 32 Smith Square perhaps evoke comparisons with representations of other fallen regimes such as Daniel and Geo Fuchs’ photographic series on STASI buildings in the former GDR. To the back of the book is a collection of fifteen scanned images of objects Barnard has found in the building. Chateau Despair fulfills the archaeological function of archiving a vision from the past.
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