Most people associate Unchained Melody with the Righteous Brothers. The enduring popularity of their 1965 cover is due, in no small part, to its use as the backdrop for Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore's five minutes of ceramic-themed soft porn in 1990's Ghost. However, its lyrical themes of longing and separation belong neither to the impossible spectral distance between Moore and Swayze, nor to the emotional one between the Righteous Brothers and their unnamed sweetheart. These titular chains are much less metaphorical.
Ten years prior to the Righteous Brother's hit, the song began as, quite literally, the melody from a little-appreciated prison movie, Unchained. The restraints separating the protagonist from his love, the chains that would take on figurative and even supernatural attributes, began as mundane, real, cold iron. This same evolution, from material to emotional to fantastic, is at the centre of Conor Clarke's Unchained Melody, a work that shares far more with this song and its changing meanings than just a title.
Unchained Melody emerges from a body of Clarke's work that has explored the ruptures that form between European Romantic fantasies of nature and the material realities of a changing natural world. Specifically, her works have demonstrated the lingering power that ideas about our environments, formed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, hold on contemporary attitudes towards nature.
The Romantic notion of nature as a healing other to the physical and spiritual pollutants of urban living emerged in Europe from the same ideological crucible that promoted ethnic nationalisms, imperialism, and the colonial mission. Just as physical land in faraway places could be claimed by Empire through the abstract delineations of property ownership, so too could the fantasy be transported to that land from Old World to New.
With Unchained Melody, Clarke draws our attention to the chain as a tool that made the transformation of land from fantasy to property across the imperial globe possible. While property boundaries may be arbitrary barriers, the structure used to measure them, the standardised Imperial surveyor's chain, was a very real, very physical object.
Clarke's work offers two visions of the chain. In one, a hand enclosed in a chain-link glove passes through the various flowing passages of a waterfall. The close and tightly framed image creates a false sense of natural ubiquity; this could be any waterfall in any place. These waters are, however, from a very specific source. Clarke's gloved hand trails through a manufactured waterfall, a reproduction constructed in Berlin's Viktoriapark in the late nineteenth century. Designed to imitate a waterfall from the picturesque Giant Mountains, the waterfall is one of the more direct examples of the way ideas of nature as a wild and healing force can be confused with nature as something for humanity to own and control. The waterfall is as fabricated as the chain glove, and both are as fabricated as a fantasy of the natural world the waterfall purports to represent.
The second vision of the chain is one entangled. Hands unravel five knotted lengths of chain, each adorned with a pendant. One bears a cross, the others miniature replicas of the marks which ensured equal distance along the length of the surveyor's chain. Their entanglement plays out the dramatic intertwinement of virtuosity, productivity, and faith in early colonial Aotearoa. But theses chains can also gesture towards the mistaken coupling of the natural and divine that has often accompanied Romantic conceptions of the non-human.
Both of Clarke's images give direct representation to the haptic experience of nature, something often underprivileged in favour of the dominance of sight. These twin tactile moments show what the fulfilment of the Romantic promise of nature requires. Its transference into a controlled and quantified commodity—officiated and sanctified by the laying of chains—belongs to the material world of touch, and not the fantasy realm of desire.
Ultimately, these gestures are beset by contradiction. As soon as the Romantic eye and hand lays claim to nature, it loses its status as a wild and untamed other. The gloved hand passing through the constructed waterfall can never grasp what it actually desires; a mediation trails through a mediation. And when the hands separate the tangle of chains, do we get a clearer image of the natural world, or just of the tools used to possess it?
The obvious choice for a pithy lyrical epigraph to accompany Unchained Melody would be 'I've hungered for your touch'. It strikes at the longing and unfulfilled desire present in both the song and the ideologies summoned in Clarke's work. But there's another, perhaps more poignant option that speaks to the hands that have, for centuries, sought to claim the natural world and shape it in their own image. 'Are you still mine?'
Conor Clarke (Ngāi Tahu, Scottish, Welsh) graduated from Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland in 2005. Since then she has exhibited regularly throughout New Zealand, using the medium of photography to explore ecology, conceptions of nature, critical and post-colonial re-readings of Romanticism and the ongoing effects of industrialisation on land use and its representation. Clarke has spent the last decade based between Berlin and Aotearoa, amassing an impressive body of work that blends aspects of both conceptual and documentary photography. Her ongoing studio-based practice is invested in a subtle unpicking of the impact of photography, continually testing its capacity for critical reflection, role in the construction of nature and the ways in which we are prompted to see.
Lachlan Taylor, 2019