Text + Press

ciara hickey

Fotoview: Ireland, Landskrona Museum, Sweden, 2016  

"Over the past number of years the instruction manual has represented an ongoing area of interest and research in the work of Jan McCullough. She engages with this subject on formal terms and opens up a compelling psychological study of human behaviour through exploring its conceptual possibilities. Traditionally, instruction manuals have been a source for practical solutions where experts in specific subjects provide written authority on how to repair faults and carry out tasks from scratch. The singular, authoritative voice of the 'how to' manual has now become anachronistic in an age where endless answers are readily available to us through online sources.

Taking inspiration from a 1950's manual gleaned from a second-hand shop, McCullough typed 'how to make a home' into Google, and was directed to an online chat forum in which self-described experts exchanged detailed instructions on how to make a house a home. She rented an empty suburban house on the outskirts of Belfast and room by room she carried out the strangers' advice exactly over the period of two months; from recreating the photographs they suggested, to how to position cushions on a sofa and what books to populate the shelves with. The photographs in the series document the end result of her time living and working in the house. 

At odds with the ubiquitous lifestyle websites, TV programmes and websites that sell us fantasies of aspirational homes, the anonymous chat room contributors are preoccupied by an altogether more mundane approach to creating the 'ideal home.' Attention is mostly directed on the small, incidental gestures within the domestic sphere that make a house feel 'lived in'; having a cork board in the kitchen with postcards and ephemera to indicate a busy life, leaving a smattering of crumbs on the kitchen surfaces, keeping a chaotic Tupperware cupboard. As one of the online contributors stated; 'random chaos in the Tupperware cupboard = happy home.' In McCullough's task of meticulously constructing the advice of multiple strangers, her own personal opinions and feelings on the matter are suppressed. Her photographic approach remains direct and neutral, as she fulfils her role of obsessively following instruction. The performative nature of the project is made explicit as we occasionally see the artist's hand appear in the photographs, a nod to the instructional photography form the original manuals that informed the project.

The overall result of the work is both playful and unsettling. The anonymous desires of the online forum are faithfully constructed, and are often humorous in their extreme banality. However, the warmth and comfort that they aspire to is entirely absent. In this series, McCullough creates an uncanny space, where the everyday and familiar is rendered unfamiliar and strange. The uncanny atmosphere of the simulated domestic environment opens up a deep psychological space in which to consider human desire and the constant editing of identity in the eyes of another."


Stephen bull

Source Photographic Review, Issue 82, 2015

"In 2015, Jan McCullough rented an empty suburban house on the outskirts of Belfast. Typing 'how to make a home' into Google led McCullough to an online forum full of detailed discussions by self-appointed 'experts' about ways to turn a house into a home. Their advice covered everything from the cushions on the sofa to the birdbath in the garden, the contents of the kitchen to the books on the living room shelves. Over the course of precisely two months, McCullough followed the forum's guidance to the letter, designing the house according to these pseudonymous mentors' directions, living in it, and making the series Home Instruction Manual

The series included samples of discussions from the forum, along with images of McCullough setting up house and the ensuing ideal home. Many photographs include a hand, adhering to the instructions or demonstrating the consequences of doing so. The comments from the forum form a Greek chorus to what we see. Often these amateur experts emphasise each others' points. A comment by 'milkwasabadchoice' about the importance of having an untidy kitchen cupboard full of plastic storage boxes notes that 'it is not normal to have non messy Tupperware', to which 'midnightscribbler' adds 'I am sooooo glad someone sees it the way I do,' an approach further underlined by 'gadaboutthegreat', who argues that dishevelled shelves of containers 'means YOU HAVE A LIFE! Random chaos in the Tupperware cupboard = happy home.' Sure enough, there is McCullough's cupboard, overflowing with tumbling Tupperware. Elsewhere, following a range of money-saving, status building advice posted on 8 August 2014, second-hand books that imply a classy, cosy lifestyle fill McCullough's shelves. The faded light pink spine of Classic Indian Cookery contrasting with its darker back cover reveals the book's long life on its previous owner's shelf, and its journey from a charity shop to McCullough's temporary home.

McCullough's project has some precedents in work made during the latter decades of the 20th century. Martin Parr's Signs of the Times consists of photographs taken along with the 1992 television series of the same name about domestic taste. Parr's pictures show us items such as Susan and Gary's red mug-tree on a kitchen work surface, accompanied by a comment, presumably from Susan, suggesting that she is unhappy with this particular piece of décor: 'I spoke with Gary about the mug-tree but there was no way he would change it.' Other images include the residents themselves in their homes. Crucially, Signs of the Times was about the negotiations involved in living together. John R Taylor's Ideal Home, made in the 1980's, focuses on details within one location, the house and garden of Brenda and Nicky, with comments by Brenda on what the photographs depict. The texts often reveal the day-to-day details of those that lived in the house: a half-eaten apple amongst the rubbish, for instance, evidences the baby teeth marks of Brenda's then five-year-old daughter Olivia. Both Parr and Taylor's projects are inevitably indebted to Bill Owen's Suburbia, photographed from the late 1960's and published in 1974, for which Owens pictured those who 'enjoy the lifestyle of the suburbs. They have realised the American Dream. They are proud to be house owners and to have achieved material success.' While some images in Suburbia reveal the work involved in creating a home (a family rolling out a lawn in six foot sections, for example), most show the residents enjoying and voicing the fruits of their success. A couple in the kitchen with their baby is accompanied by the caption: 'We're really happy. Our kids are healthy, we eat good food and we have a really nice home.'

But McCullough's 21st century take on the domestic is markedly different, and sharply relevant to suburban ideal homes of our times. Many images in Home Instruction Manual give away the construction of the house's furnishings, decorations and flora. In the garden, that near-ubiquitous hand holds the stem of a rosebush, as if carefully positioning it into its perfect location. Another photograph shows a view of the end of the terraced house, framed by flowers. Put together, these two pictures might recall the blooms inserted at the edges of John Hinde postcards from the 1950's and 60's to idealise the sometimes-banal landscapes they frame. In another Home Instruction Manual image, a small masking tape 'X' marks the spot where it appears an out-of-focus pot plant is about to be placed by the hand. A roll of Sellotape atop a fridge freezer suggests a temporary sticking down of something-or-other, the spool itself looking as if it is about to roll right off the white goods upon which it fleetingly rests. In one photograph, the hand barely balances another sizeable potted plant; it is hard not to fear for the safety of the pot, the plant, and the carpet below. 

Every photograph in Home Instruction Manual implies impermanence, a transitory, precarious existence. A few snapshots aside, the hand is the only human presence in the series. The words that we read are not quotes from the residents of the house, as in those 20th century projects, nor are they comments from neighbours. They are instead the voices of people who have never met McCullough or set foot in her home. As such, Home Instruction Manual is a very contemporary take on communities now and how the judgements of strangers shape our everyday lives."