Cian Burke: a world on edge

When a booklet from the Swedish government landed in Cian Burke’s letterbox four years ago, its potential for his photographic practice wasn’t immediately apparent. Titled If Crisis or War Comes, it gave every household in Sweden advice and information for dealing with an invasion – from checklists of supplies to avoiding disinformation campaigns from an enemy. Burke, who lives and works in Malmö, admits that he initially dismissed the booklet as ‘melodramatic’. Then subsequent events – a global pandemic, ongoing catastrophes in the natural world – intensified ambient anxieties in everyday living. His I Fear the Magic Has Left This Place, which now features in a condensed version in the PhotoIreland Festival at the Printworks in Dublin during July and August, explores these fears and photography’s role in shaping perceptions of the world. ‘I enjoy the camera’s ability to isolate and remove things from their context, to provide an alternative mode of seeing objects or locations,’ he says.

Originally from Dublin and educated at Glasgow School of Art with an MFA from Valand Academy, Gothenburg, Burke has exhibited in Sweden, Germany, Hungary and Japan. While his earlier work involved the hidden aspects of city spaces, this latest project drew him to a remote part of southern Sweden and a ‘bunker house’ built over many years by a farmer who had received the Cold War version of the booklet. Following several visits in early 2020, Burke felt that ‘the ruined structure functioned as a metaphor and a starting-off point’ for a series of photographs and associative connections.

Burke felt that ‘the ruined structure functioned as a metaphor and a starting-off point’ for a series of photographs and associative connections

He also began to make small, playful constructions from gathered materials. The outcome is a series of striking images – of disparate objects and signs, contingent shelters and ‘precarious sculptural forms’ subject to unseen forces, resonating with the threatening subtext of a world on edge. His layering of graphics from the original booklet – simple Ladybird-style drawings juxtaposed with images of the rough concrete bunker – suggest the fragility of such warnings in the face of immense forces. He uses his mounted photographs to create makeshift shelters on the gallery floor, a potent reminder of the vulnerability of existence.

Stephanie McBride

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