by Bill Duncan

The dead mingle with the living, the past co-exists with the present, the real blurs into the mythical. 

Boundaries are transgressed, borders dissolve, oppositions collapse, disorientating the viewer’s sense of space and time. 

Ross Fraser McLean’s Mexican photographs construct a liminal zone which transcends conventional notions of travel photography: incorporating genres of landscape, portrait, street and documentary, this project embraces travel itself as a modus operandi, a central aesthetic method. 

Travel is a core element of McLean’s practice: acknowledgement of the creative potential of physical and temporal dislocation and the opportunities presented by disorientation and unpredictability are positive forces effectively harnessed by McLean. His immersion in Mexican culture is rooted in two long journeys which involved an extensive and intensive interaction with the country. Largely unplanned and dependent on a significant degree of chance and spontaneity characteristic of his distinctive approach, these visits generated a vast and multifarious body of work. The photographs are testimony to an intense engagement which embraces the country’s multi-facetedness, at times involving risk and potential danger as well as humour and pleasure.

I have long been an admirer of McLean’s travel work: his Charming Snakes project documented an experience based on a journey to Northern India involving his abduction by a group of men from a village of snake charmers. The resultant work powerfully conveyed the uncomfortable nature of McLean’s interaction with their rituals and culture, creating a disturbing viewer experience which expressed something of the physical and psychological impact the events must have had on him. Charming Snakes is, of necessity, an intense and narrow exploration: the constraints McLean was operating within determined this. The Mexican work demonstrates a similar level of intensity emerging from McLean’s capacity to engage deeply with the country through the two extended journeys, but also in evidence is a new expansiveness: an urge to explore the complexity and vastness of the country through a wide focus and with a much greater openness. This freedom to investigate and encompass polarities and contradictions, collapsing boundaries of past and present, life and death, mythical and real, urban and rural results in a ‘Total Mexico,’ a photographic portrayal that investigates and conveys the limitless dimensions of places, people, rituals and culture.

The dissolving of conventional categories creates a rich and unique palimpsest: a dense, multi-layered superimposition of genres and styles which captures the multiplicity of the visual identities of Mexico. 

Constant throughout this and other areas of McLean’s work is an interest in cemeteries and the distinctive rituals that embody the Mexican perception of the continuities between death and life. As a culture where the dead and the living are perceived in a remarkable co-existence, Mexico offers a uniquely rich context for an exploration of the shifting gradations between the worlds of the living and the dead, and McLean’s work has often explored the evocative properties of the graveyard as a potent site of the intersection of life and death. Prominent in contemporary Mexican culture are signs of the dark presence of the narco-wars and the industrial levels of killing accompanying the activities of the cocaine cartels. 

A remarkable and disquieting image depicts coconut husks strewn around a scattering of disinterred human bones (1). Next, a wide-angled image reveals the extent of this clandestine makeshift cemetery, concealing the hastily disposed-of remains of countless victims (2). The presence of coconut husk is explained by its ready availability as an aid to the incineration process. Additionally, chemical qualities of the coconut aid the rapid decomposition of human remains. In a further image a close-up of an incinerated belt-buckle, lying on black earth and weighted with tragic significance, humanises the scenario (3). All of these photographs were taken in low light at nightfall against a darkening sky and the sense of menace provokes a disturbing viewer experience through a series of images that portrays a starkly contemporary Mexican juxtaposition of life and death. 

In contrast, a vibrant sunlit street scene conflates diverse elements: glamour, death and life are juxtaposed and linked by a diagonal that thrusts from the extravagant posture of the masked girl at the top left, sweeping through the scythe of the Grim Reaper, anchored by the smiling young boy at the bottom right of the composition. Off-centre to the right, the impatient delivery man sighs, everyday life interrupted by this parade of Death. 

The notion of ‘The Border’ or Frontera is a key element in this history and  mythology: it is also a potent metaphor with resonances which are psychic as much as physical: the protagonists in Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses  unwittingly transgress deep-rooted cultural as well as physical borders when they cross from the USA into what they wrongly anticipate as the symbolic freedom of Mexico, experiencing instead a traumatic and bloody rite of passage in a threatening land whose rituals they are at a loss to understand. Elsewhere, traditional and popular song has portrayed Mexico as an escape from the constraints of law, instead offering a zone where the murderer can cross the border from Texas to Mexico where ‘no damn hangman’s gonna put a noose around me.’ These traditions of lawlessness and violence are vividly embodied in the series of portraits of prize fighting roosters and their owners. These birds are the ultimate embodiments of Mexican viscerality: injected with horse steroids, feet bristling with razors, dropped from high buildings to increase wing strength, teased and riled by their handlers to maximise ferocity, these birds represent a peculiar manifestation of Mexico’s obsession with violence and death, with the owners as much as the roosters on display in these images.

The literary parallel which most illuminates McLean’s Mexican work is Juan Rulfo’s proto-Magical Realist novel Pedro Paramo (1955) which in key respects supplies an unexpectedly close counterpart across two diverse artforms. Its subtitle A Novel of Mexico suggests the intention and level of ambition which underlines its modest length, while its original title Murmurs indicates a distinctive aesthetic which involves an eschewal of conventional narrative techniques, instead working through a disorientating blur of voices of the living and the dead, their stories resonating through these ‘murmurs’ to create the vividly allusive portrayal of Mexico which emerges. Again, categories of living and dead, real and mythical are porous and such an approach has a destabilising effect on the reader, whose expectations are challenged by the absence of a linear narrative and a reliable narrator. 

The congruence between this and Ross Fraser McLean’s construction of Mexico is remarkable. Rulfo was also an eminent photographer, whose work explored the landscapes and peoples of Mexico. Pursuing his photographic career parallel to his writing, in the 1950s  Rulfo created a uniquely sympathetic and technically brilliant archive of rural Mexico, its people, landscapes and cultures. The photographic collection Juan Rulfo’s Mexico (only discovered by McLean while at an advanced stage of planning the current project) provides an explicit analogue to his own Mexican work. Certain images of countryside and people are virtually interchangeable between the work of the two photographers. In an apparently timeless landscape photograph by McLean, two young children stand in the foreground against a background of arid scrub, pines and weirdly Mexican architectural landforms. A woman watches over them from some distance behind. She, like the children, is dressed in traditional clothes. On closer inspection, though, the children’s tops bear the logos of contemporary multinational brands, the only signs separating the scene from a timeless stream of Mexican history. A similar image taken around sixty-five years earlier by Juan Rulfo, Woman with Cactus at the Foot of the Pena de Bernal, provides a startling counterpart.This striking and unsettling property of Mexico’s timelessness destabilises the viewer, presenting a challenge to locate an image temporally. The incongruities embedded in these images create a disquieting temporal dissonance which is peculiarly Mexican, and a quality frequently and subtly alluded to in McLean’s work. In a tender low-lit portrait of an old woman, her traditional dress and headscarf are set off by the plastic zip and technofabric of a red polar fleece. In a beautiful dimly-lit interior of modest furnishings, a boy sits flanked by two women in graceful repose, their faces obscured by the darkness, their hands crossed over expansive and brightly-coloured traditional skirts. The near-silhouetted boy smiles gently, resting his hands on his knees, a track-suit bearing an American football logo, his baseball cap turned sideways, in a universal gesture of youth. Crucially, what these and other images of McLean share is a distinctive visual aesthetic which eschews conventional photographic production values: the low light creates a warmth and intimacy which is enhanced by the graininess and slightly distressed quality of the image. The result is photography which tells of the relationship between the people in their setting and the photographer. In turn, this relationship deeply enhances the viewer’s emotional response to the work.

McLean’s Mexican work, with its exploration of the resonances across the past and the present, the living and the dead, suggests beguiling parallels with the fiction and photography of Juan Rulfo while offering the viewer an expansive, evocative and wholly original experience. Central to his work is the embracing of the uncertainty and disorientation involved in travel. His willingness to challenge his practice as a photographer, traveller and visual artist is evident in the centrality of new three-dimensional work in the current exhibition. This expansion across photography into sculpture, mixed media and installation is testimony to continuing artistic progress. The embodiment of his preoccupations in the Altares de Muertos  represents an intriguing extension of core themes: a broadening of Ross Fraser McLean’s own artistic frontera.

Bill Duncan 
was born in the East Neuk of Fife where he spent his childhood, before moving to Dundee, Scotland.

His non-fiction, poetry, and fiction have been widely published in magazines and newspapers, with fiction broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and 4. Bill’s ongoing exploration of real and imaginary Scottish maritime cultures extends across an ever-widening range of media. Previous projects include fiction - The Smiling School for Calvinists (Bloomsbury) and non-fiction – The Wee Book of Calvin (Penguin). 

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