Photograph by Oliver Roxby
“It's still early when I ride out from my valley. Cycle warm between my thighs, stars bright despite the edge of indigo on the horizon, thin atmosphere cold against the sliver of exposed skin at my throat. I have a couple of hours before I need to be in the barracks reporting for duty, and having woken up from another nightmare, I have no wish to try for more sleep.
Not since Akira was taken have I ventured out for no reason other than the illusion of freedom it gives. I've spent all my time fighting to get her back, working with the fools in the resistance - trying to earn their trust. Two missions with them and I still haven't met one in the flesh. Unsurprising really, I’m still wary that they decided to work with me at all.
I know I’m lying to myself when I say it’s all for her, that I don’t believe in their mission. I’ve spent my entire life terrorizing this planet and its people as a Guardian, in denial of what I was doing, not knowing the violence was abnormal, a choice, a damnation.
I weave between enormous red rock formations, accelerate through deep canyons carved into the desiccated surface of Ragnar. I dip in and out of the rural forcefields, atmosphere thickening and slowing me with its brief air resistance before shooting out of the other side. I avoid the tangles of vegetation in magenta, orange, violet, mustard, scarlet, all muted but brightening under the encroaching light of our two stars.
The clock is ticking.
I wanted to show her this. I'd taken her to so many places I'd explored; the glowing caverns deep below the surface, the many-voiced singer in a dusty bar in central Kwabe, the natural alcove on the brink of the overhang above Kanna - looking down on the most chaotic city on Ragnar. But never this.
I reach a flat-topped outcrop and leave my cycle at its base. The light chases me as I climb quickly, my gloved hands wedged between cracks, my boots dancing over the rough stone. I reach the top just as Aelis breaches the horizon and I watch the star rise. I perch on the edge, feet dangling, the iciness of the rock seeping through my armor. I watch the sky steadily brighten into an ultramarine, the stars fading until they are only just visible. The landscape comes alive with color and even though I've grown up on this world it still stuns me with its barren beauty.
I make a vow, to bring her here, to have her warmth at my side as we watch the suns rise. I will work with the resistance, hide from my twisted Guardian family, push the skills they cut into me to their very limits to make it happen. Guardians were supposed to protect, and it’s long past time we return to our roots.”
Serenity and chaos, vastness and insignificance, introspection and exploration, connection and isolation, discovery and suffocation. I’ve always had big ideas, my work is about finding the best way to convey not just their content but their immensity. Books can contain entire universes; paintings are theatrically large and immersive; film uses multiple senses to bring you into another world – there are so many ways I can bring my story Ragnar to life. Each incarnation brings something new and sparks different interpretations and questions.
I wrote a novel in the first lockdown – Ragnar, an invented world with a diverse cast of characters and an adventure driven by the question – can the human spirit be stronger than trauma? Ragnar is an arid red planet, a colour palette that influenced many paintings, where my protagonist Ren is defying their upbringing – and role in an oppressive regime – to rescue their partner and open themselves up to others along the way. The texts on every painting come from the novel and all image references are inspired by this other world and the characters in it.
These first pieces are influenced by the storyline, and the relationships featured – both between characters and with Ragnar. Science Fiction is a realm in which we can explore not only inter-personal relationships but add in the non-human, the planet, the society. Intimate moments between two characters are inscribed on enormous technological edifices, the alien landscape of Ragnar is described in a scrawl across a close embrace. Ragnar is a body as well as an environment, it’s not just a setting. Creating my own world gives me complete control: over the society, the expectations, the challenges, the environment, the technology - it's a blank slate. Ragnar can easily be classed “dystopian”, but in many aspects it’s a freer world than our own. There is no homophobia or transphobia for example, gender and sexuality isn’t even addressed it’s so unimportant. Ren is non-binary, it’s just accepted fact. This is a world where wealth is the true discriminator.
Recent paintings and film pieces are more character driven, exploring Ren and their partner Akira who both have POVs in the novel. What defines them? What drives or torments them? What do they search for? What actions do they take?
Akira struggles with truth and deception, torn between her home world and new world, she endures so much - how can she begin to overcome it? Ren is hard and unfeeling on the outside, a brutal enforcer, yet their inner dialogue is much softer and well hidden. They struggle to communicate because of their upbringing, and because their physical ability to speak was taken from them.
There are so many ways to bring Ragnar to life, as a novel, as paintings, as film. Each incarnation brings something new and sparks different interpretations and questions. Writing “is a process of translation more than anything else: from the nebulous, abstract form in your head into the more limited concrete form that exists on a page…this process of translation means that writing is always a compromise. Words are wonderful, but they will never be as free and huge as thought.” (Maggie Stiefvater)
“Everything is bigger in Texas”, it’s true. It takes 14 hours of driving to get from one side to the other on endless straight highways through endless plains with the endless blue sky above you. I spent four years living in Houston, from the age of 12 to 16 – formative years? It’s hard to describe the size of the United States, the scale of the emptiness it holds. It’s hours of driving on the same straight road through South Dakota, ceaseless grasslands on either side looking soft enough to stroke from the car window, unbroken save for the lone gas station hundreds of miles from city life. It’s driving miles outside Houston, pulling up to a $5 double-bill at the drive-in theater, crawling out of the sunroof to sit on the car waiting for the sun to set while a storm rolls in. It’s the “alien” landscapes of Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Monument Valley in Utah. It’s the steady creep of the Rocky Mountains through the desolate landscape of Wyoming. I felt the potential, and I felt small.
Then we moved to Europe, first Warsaw and then I began university in the UK. The world got smaller instead. I’m haunted by my international childhood, I grew up “abroad” (whatever that means) living in Peru, Papua New Guinea, Norway, the United States, Poland, Cyprus, and Qatar. Living somewhere is a wildly different experience to just visiting, you might get a taste for the lifestyle with a brief stay but it’s only in living that you discover what a place is really like. My spectrum of normality has shifted so much that now everything can feel ordinary and underwhelming. My work is one way I’ve tried to make this ceaseless mundanity special, to bring back what I thought my life was, if it ever was.
"An undoing. Take me back…Go as far as you can. Make me brand-new…She thought of the moths in their boxes. She missed her tattoos, her old clothes. She missed sitting in the sun with Hellie. She missed the gentle, dilapidated curves of her mother’s couch. Alex didn’t really know what she missed, only that she was homesick for something, maybe for someone, she’d never been." ("Ninth House" - Leigh Bardugo)
My work stars my people, their faces, their movements, their homes, their explorations, their small intimacies. They’re my community, the people who I care about and photograph. People who may have never met and live on different continents. It's a permanence and stability that is often missing in my life, it's difficult to hold on to people outside your immediate family moving every few years. I have a fascination with community, I am intrigued with those people who spend decades in one place, growing up and growing old together. Who do I hold on to? Who do I seek out and make an effort for? Who do I fly to see? Then there's my family, my little brothers who are the only people to experience anything like what I have. How has the instability impacted my life, my work? What do “home” or “stability” even mean?
Sometimes I feel like I'm creating a fictional community, an idealized world. I read a lot, it’s my number one joy in life (closely followed by painting) and I’ve been bringing it into my work. Manipulating the mundane scenes of my life into wilder fantasies full of intrigue and uncertainty, not just to bring back the remembered excitement of the moment but make it more. I want to make someone feel like I do when I’m lost in another world and embody a different person.
“When you watch a film, you’re sort of an outsider looking in. With a book – you’re right there. You are inside. You are the main character.” (“Solitaire” - Alice Oseman)
I use the vastness of large canvases, and the combination of image and text, to embody the immense ideas and concepts I’m interested in, to get the viewer to pause, to be encompassed, to engage, and question the work to determine its meaning to them, to feel how I feel reading. I also experiment with film, photography, and publications. Questioning how can I create that vastness, that density of ideas, in a smaller size or a different medium?
There is so much left to investigate – other worlds, escapism, the expatriate lifestyle, belonging, exploration, identity, colonialism, revolution, globalization, intimacy, community, more, more, more – I just can't make work fast enough.
Photograph by Katie Bowdery
Ronan Porter recently completed their MA in Painting at the Royal College of Art in London, and has a BA (Hons) Fine Art from the University for the Creative Arts, Canterbury. They have exhibited work in Warsaw, Poland; Paphos, Cyprus; and in Canterbury, Newcastle, Margate, and London, England.
They were born in the UK in 1994, but raised in a number of countries, first moving to Peru when they were four years old. Since then they have also lived in Papua New Guinea, Norway, Texas, Poland, Qatar, and Cyprus, only returning to the UK for university. They are eager to continue exploring other worlds, both real and fictional.
“I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in my life. And I am horribly limited.” (Sylvia Plath)