Photo-album of the end of the world

Some thoughts on Zoe Murdoch’s Revelation

Susanna Galbraith

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In the 2017 Royal Ulster Academy exhibition, Revelation by Zoe Murdoch (ARUA) demanded a very different sort of attention from the other artworks around it. It is a book-object, supported by a small, lectern-esque pedestal. It both retells and illustrates the biblical Book of Revelation by way of textual collage and photomontage, glossing and captioning with extracts from other texts. Beside it in the RUA exhibition space lay a pair of empty white gloves. These demanded an intimate interaction: Revelation asked to be touched. Its activation required the optical, intellectual and physical attention of its viewer. When I first encountered it, my hands in the gloves, leaning over the pages, a sense of privacy bubbled around me, a little vacuum in the midst of the RUA buzz, “the outside… effaced with one stroke.”[i] To engage with this work was to listen to voices those around me couldn’t hear. It demanded full, close involvement with its materiality; otherwise it wouldn’t speak. 

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“I am alpha and omega, the beginning and the end.” Revelation 22:13, King James Bible

Zoe Murdoch is based in Queen Street Studios, Belfast. Her work usually materialises out of found objects, images and written text from which she constructs collages, frequently taking the three-dimensional form of boxes, cabinets and similar domestic containers and “model[s] of intimacy.”[ii]  (See the “Curious Cabinets” on her website). The container-foundation of Revelation is an old family photo-album, bought at auction by Murdoch’s mother.[iii] Murdoch’s boxes, cabinets and books are of a complex genre. They have a sculptural presence while also operating as texts. As containers, these works appear almost as micro-worlds. This and their small-scale contribute to a quiet depth that draws the curious viewer close to their miniature complexities.

The book, an object that must be handled to be viewed, adds another dimension to Revelation. I love and hoard books and it always seems natural to me to use them one way or another.”[iv] Although Murdoch’s work so often incorporates verbal text, the mechanisms of reading are brought to the fore here as Revelation’s book-hood also increases the artist’s control over the viewer’s programme of engagement with the work’s fixed pages.  This is not the first time Murdoch has used the book-object as vehicle; another manifestation of this technique can be seen in “Prefabricated,” a work that was ten years in the making.

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“… Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.” Revelation 22:20, King James Bible

Murdoch’s materials are scavenged and salvaged from the refuge of other people’s lives. They are things that have been lived with, indexing invisible histories from which they have dizzyingly been cut off. They are documents, but amnesiac documents bereft of their original contexts, that remember having been the record of something, but not what that something was. As such they are re-appropriated as the building-blocks of meaning in the new stories told through Murdoch’s meticulously finished collages. The dynamic between the use of discarded and deteriorated materials and neat construction is a defining feature of her work and its impact. These works do not fetishize the old, but instead seem to recognise that it is always the rubble of the past with which we speak. It is not that this method lacks reverence; indeed, the works’ aged aesthetic and black-white-sepia tones imply a certain affection for old-ness. But this isn’t nostalgic. What is expressed is how the past is inevitably used in the present, how it is not retrievable but might possibly be made to utter anew, allowing small histories to reverberate potently, affectingly, but ultimately inaccessibly.

Although consistent with the working method outlined above, Revelation is unlike much of Murdoch’s other work in which she seeks to externalise personal memory: instead, it restates a collective and shared myth. “The document is always defined by the viewer, who brings his or her specialist requirements.”[v] In Revelation, Murdoch has been the primary viewer who uses the found documents; the viewers of her collages are the secondary viewers of what she creates as a fictional documentation of the end of the world, a world that has already begun to splinter into the bits and pieces with which she builds and tells. 

Murdoch’s method of photomontage has a significant history, going back to Surrealist practice. By reading such composite images as Murdoch’s “photographically,” we are tricked into registering uncanny distortions of the world as fragments of the actual.[vi] The disorientation this causes contributes to the prevailing impact such techniques. (For example, John Stezaker’s Aftermath works currently on show in the York Art Gallery make similar use of this effect.)

The images appropriated for Revelation are largely taken from old medical guides, magazines that record wars and global disasters, natural and man-made.[vii] “The main aim was for [the images] to show a dark, prophetic, apocalyptic world: The End Times. Being such a visual piece of writing it was easy to picture - terrible storms and fire, the four horsemen, sickness and famine - unfortunately it is not difficult to find endless documentation of the world's destructive qualities.”[viii] While Revelation has something of the playfully intimacy of a scrap-book, grounded in the family photo-album framework, its message is of destruction.

It might be said that there is some hint at the apocalyptic in the very act of working with found images. Implicit is an acknowledgement that the expansion and generation in the human project, the repetition through representing and imaging, our overwhelming glut of documentation and archival images, goes hand in hand with these records becoming rubble, and losing their meaning through random dissemination and deterioration.Using a collage method, Murdoch makes specific events, extracted out of their historical contexts, speak for a one timeless narrative: the story of a self-destructive anthropocentric world. Doing so she locates the universal in the particular, the mythical in the historical, and realises a singular narrative root underlying disparate, chaotic and complex events.

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“… the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter” Revelation 1.19, King James Bible

“Perhaps in the world's destruction it would be possible at last to see how it was made.” The Road, Cormac McCarthy, 2006

An aspect of Murdoch’s manipulation of images is the incorporation of joss paper. “The gold and silver parts are made from joss paper which I have been using in my work since discovering it in university. I found it really fascinating and beautiful and then when I found out what it actually symbolised I was quite moved.”[ix] This fine metallic material is used as ‘spirit money’ in Chinese culture, burned in traditional ancestor worship and funerary ceremonies in order to transfer its value to the afterlife. Though obscure, the symbolic significance of such a material in Revelation shouldn’t be overlooked. In traditional use, it operates as a material strait between those in the temporal, concrete world and those from the past who now occupy an eternal dimension. In parallel, Murdoch is contending with the story of transition between the concrete and eternal that constitutes the biblical Revelation. The formal function of this joss paper in Revelation is as a flicker of light and opulence amidst the dark images of destruction, hinting at the possibility of transcendence embedded in disintegration.

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“Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.” Revelation 2:4, King James Bible

“Where men can’t live gods fare no better.” The Road, Cormac McCarthy, 2006

The images for Revelation were completed before the “text parts” were begun. In this textual dimension words extracted from their source become anonymous and adaptable to supporting more and various meanings. Textual fragments - sentences, words, individual letters - assembled into a new statement signify both an abundance of voices, and a single speaker who retains anonymity, masked by the process of collage and collection. It is the motif from crime dramas, the document whose utterance is constructed from letters cut from publications so that the text is no index of an individual guilty body and the statement might be anyone’s. But here, because of Murdoch’s efforts to find “whole words” for her pages, there is perhaps more of a sense of whole voices trying to get through. “I scoured so many pages of text. It can get really obsessive trying to find one tiny word just because you want to rather than make it out of individual letters.”[x]

Assembled typographical fragments are overlain and clustered into reiterations of the Book of Revelation (this is the big text, occupying the album’s framed oval pockets for photographs), drawing multitudes of voices from different temporal, spatial and fictional worlds into a chorus. Other fragments chime in as counterpoint (this is the smaller text, appearing as appended captions and paratext) as Murdoch interposes lines from Tom Waits songs and Cormac McCarthy's The Road (among others) that deepen the harmony of anonymous voices, enriching this repetition of biblical narrative with instances of apocalyptic sensibility in other human stories.

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The earth lay screaming while I lay dreaming of you” “Earth Died Screaming,” Tom Waits, 1992

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There are exactly seven Waits and seven McCarthy quotations, echoing the use of the number seven as a structuring principle elsewhere in Revelation. This, Murdoch tells me, is absolutely deliberate. For example, there are also seven pages that host four small images illustrating the main features of the Revelation: seven churches, seven trumpets, seven plagues and seven seals.[xi] Embedded in the structure of Revelation, therefore, is an echo of the numerological features of its biblical source text, contributing to an almost musical cohesion.

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Murdoch’s paratext is distinctly playful. “Brought to you by Zoe Murdoch” and “Interlude,” and inclusion of end-credits in the form of “Notes” chime with the structural motifs of vintage cinema and support an undercurrent of multi-media and the absurd in this work. Implicit in the old-craftiness of Revelation’s static materiality are connotations of recent dynamic mediums. When I ask Murdoch about her influences, she cites computer games like the Fallout series, Resident Evil, Skyrim, The Last of Us, and This War of Mine.[xii] The fact of interactivity in computer games could be said to be rediscovered in Revelation in the physical and intellectual interactivity demanded of operating a book-object, in spite of the radical difference in materiality. Murdoch’s Revelation is an artwork that is explicitly material, but operative in the cultural context of the immaterial and digital. The incorporation of a spirit level into to structure of the small table Murdoch constructed as a support for the book, another playful feature that feels very much part of the work as a whole, seems also to insist on the material presence of this object and its weight and balance in the room.

End-things concepts, such as those prevalent in her multi-media influences, appear frequently in Murdoch’s work. She is a regular contributing artist to Abridged magazine, the themes of which share this inclination toward the apocalyptic. Her “Aftermath Series” was made in response to an invitation from Shiro Masuyama to show in 'When The Wind Blows' in Millennium Court Arts Centre, Portadown. (This series will be part of the Abridged show at the Galway Arts Centre August 2018). What is the significance of attending to End-Things narratives in the present socio-historical climate? The use of found texts and photographs in retelling a primary apocalyptic narrative uses historical reality to communicate an hypothetical future, and inevitably carries the implication that the end of things is already embedded in our past and present, our day to day. 

“Collage is a medium that connects the past with the present, sometimes offering a glimpse of what may be in the future.” [xiii]  Murdoch’s methodlocates the macro in the micro. With a time-warp effect, in Revelation a family photo-album plays host to the story of the end of the world as discovered in the reframed rubble of our material culture. Cushioning the blow with the warmth of gentle humour, she offers her version of “the beginning and the end” through the threshold of our historical present.


Revelation, for which Zoe Murdoch won the “Tyrone Guthrie Residency Award for an artist from Northern Ireland working in any medium,” was on display in the Royal Ulster Academy 136th Annual Exhibition, 6th October 2017 – 7th January 2018, at the Ulster Museum, Belfast. She hopes to incorporate it into an installation sometime in the future.

John Stezaker’s Aftermath exhibition is on show at the York Art Gallery, North Yorkshire, as part of Paul Nash: The Uncanny Landscape from 20th October 2017 to 15th April 2018.

All images courtesy of Zoe Murdoch (except where indicated).

I am grateful to Zoe for her support, images and willing answers to my questions.

Top Image: 

Revelation, Zoe Murdoch, 2017, Royal Ulster Academy, www.royalulsteracademy.org 



[i] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas (1964), (New York: Penguin Books, 2014), 106.

[ii] Ibid., 99.

[iii] Interview with Zoe Murdoch by Susanna Galbraith, 19/1/18

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Steve Edwards, Photography: a very short introduction, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 18.

[vi] Rosalind Krauss, “The Photographic Conditions of Surrealism,” October, Vol. 19 (Winter, 1981), 25.

[vii] Interview with Zoe Murdoch by Susanna Galbraith, 19/1/18

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Richard Brereton, Cut and Paste: 21st Century Collage, (London: Lawrence King Publishing, 2011)