Category Archives: Uncategorized

art
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context
Staging Act Three
April 2016

Jesse Jones has anchored her project, No More Fun and Games, in the creation of a mock institution, ‘The Feminist Parasite Institution’. The institution, a gathering of Jones’s acquaintances many of whom are engaged in feminist activism, set up space and platform within the Hugh Lane Dublin City Gallery, the host, and selected work by women for exhibition from the gallery’s collection. These seven works are shown as both individual pieces and a collective, the latter to highlight the under-representation of women artists in galleries and museums generally.  Their newly appointed space is differentiated to excess from the rest of the Hugh Lane by silver painted walls and one is drawn towards the space via a long entrance or, to be exact, two rooms and a large landing area in between. This lead-in is unveiled by the device of a large translucent curtain ceremoniously drawn by an actor along a curving ceiling track through to the silver room. Also drawing the viewer towards the silver room is wistful flute music which emanates through the total space. Such is the opening gambit of No More Fun and Games which unfurls in time as well as space as further instalments present themselves for at least its duration at the Hugh Lane between February and June. The above forms the material staging for Act One and, as I write, the second and third Acts have been launched—a second publication and an event, ‘Laugh a Defiance’, which is based around women’s laughter—with further instalments to come. Part art exhibition, part theatre, part performance, part music, part gallery tour, part film, part talk shop, part text, part publication, one might ask whether the parasite in No More Fun and Games might transform into feminist agency, and if so, what might that look like?

An initial interpretation of this still evolving work is to cast the fundaments established in the first Act at the parasitical end of events. The borrowing from the Hugh Lane is already noted. In addition, an image of a female arm runs the length of the large curtain; the video and sound clips available on the Gallery’s website—Jones in interview—inform us that the arm belongs to her mother and that the idea for using this image is derived from Robert Altman’s film, 3 Women (1977). The music in the gallery space is by the same composer as Altman used for his film. The hand on the curtain—and there are several variations of the gesture of the hand from curtain to publications—can be seen as a slight beckoning movement of the fingers, an invitation into the artwork, or into women’s space? We are also informed through a brief textual introduction from the Hugh Lane positioned in front of the entrance that No More Fun and Games is in reference to the title of the magazine produced by Cell 16, a feminist group. Cell 16, operative in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was also separatist. The three paper publications that are circulated beginning, middle, and end of the course of the show emulate the plain cover format of the original magazine, the title forming the front; however, the back is an image of the beckoning hand. By the opening of the third Act it seems as though Jones’s control of the situation has assumed a back seat and that events could take on a life of their own—or at least that might be the hope. ‘Laugh a Defiance’ is full of stream-of-consciousness type text from other actors along with choice clips of women’s laughter sourced from popular entertainment which seems to leave the ‘political articulation’ referred to by Jones in her video clip interview as subliminal.

So, is the hope that the participants in No More Fun and Games will help develop agencies that are not pre-determined by Jones? Or, that No More Fun and Games will further the other activities that the participants are already engaged in or will engage in? It is worth pointing out that the particular Issue of Cell 16’s magazine referenced here had the working theme, ‘What do you Women want?’ The you points and pointing calls for response whereas the we that is so often used in feminism beckons and offers support; but ‘we’ also can appeal to the comfort zone, acceptance, or passivity.

No More Fun and Games draws from the history of feminism; it incorporates women across generations just as it is inclusive with participants across the spectrum of feminism. It is in this regard that an analogy with Nancy Fraser’s recent book, Fortunes of Feminism[1], may be made. The book is a selection of essays Fraser wrote between the 1980s and the recent economic crisis. Its historical trajectory is from the decline of the welfare state and state regulation to the rule of de-regulated capitalism and globalization. Fraser has chosen to split the chronology of the essays into three Acts, or three imaginaries. The first reflects the early phase of Second Wave Feminism as circulating around the concept of equality. The emphasis in the second Act is on issues of identity as these came to the fore in the eighties; as Fraser puts it, there was a shift in focus from ‘re-distribution to recognition’. For Fraser, identity came to dominate feminist discourses at the cost of equality with its more focused political goals. Fraser is a socialist feminist who seeks an inclusive feminism, but a feminism that does not lose sight of the political battle for equality—by which she does not mean the number of ‘femocrats’ who sit on corporate boards. Most especially this involves the interrogation of notions of justice as legislated and practiced through institutions including the home as these have evolved from the nationally defined to an increasingly international level. Justice not only requires equality but also identity and Fraser argues that in the imaginary of Act Three, equality and identity must be calibrated, one with the other. Fraser’s distinction between equality and identity and the need to align both is useful in thinking the pathway of feminism, even while the practice is often less clear.

 

[1] Fraser, Nancy. 2013. Fortunes of Feminism: from State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal crisis. London and New York: Verso.

art
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context
Dion’s Circuit
January 2016

Mark Dion’s modus operandi deserves attention. At the not to be overlooked level he fulfils the condition for most successful international artists which is membership of prestigious galleries in Germany and New York. Then there is his project work negotiated with and through institutions. The project is specific to a locality and the deal, desirable for both Dion and the institution, is in the ‘fieldwork’, that important component to his identity formation which engages places and people not normally associated with art—extending participation in what is still, nominally, artwork. It is the combination of all three levels, prestige gallery, institution, and outreach, which makes Dion’s position unusual, though there is more to his unusualness to the field of art than just that. Following a residency in Limerick Dion’s current project is on display at the Cultural Resource Centre at Ormston House in Limerick. Typically, the centre is not a mainstream venue but some of the work towards the exhibition was completed through a Production Residency at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin. The exhibition, Against The Current, features a reproduced salmon several times larger than life perched atop a plinth with a bed of trinkets and ornaments; a reproduction of a dissected eel in a display cabinet; four drawings and a print. It is a minimal display which begs the question about the intent of the research that went before it.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is the sculpture, The Salmon of Knowledge Returns. The copy is resplendent in representing the salmon’s natural state in grand scale while the assortment of found objects below is paltry compared to the supreme creature. As discarded objects the bric-a-brac has lost the significance of personal history and the overall presentation has an adopted neutrality. The drawings articulate the plan for the two three-dimensional works rather than play with affect. Dion has acknowledged his penchant for Victorian Natural History Museums with their classifications of nature and their glass cabinet display. The cabinet is replicated here in the other three-dimensional work, Against The Current. Behind the glass is a copy of an eel of about life-size which is dissected in several sections to represent engineering changes made to the course of the River Shannon, as explained in the Gallery’s information sheet. It is a representation which may have acquired greater significance since the opening of the exhibition: The Shannon has flooded, catastrophically so, and if the floods of 2009 had begun to fade from memory, the recent rains have refocused attention on human contribution to climate change. While concern has focused on consequences for the people living in the Shannon basin, the fish for their part have had longer and more calamitous experience of environmental changes made by humans. Since early in his career Dion’s interest is in the natural environment and how we deal with it. Although he has been related to the ecology movement his installations do not make explicit cause and effect connections or make overt political or ethical statement. Such pointed discussion is left perhaps to those who attend Dion’s exhibitions and his lectures. Important to Dion’s position is the network effect circulating around the institutions and the workers who assist in the research and in the construction of the exhibitions. Dion’s acknowledgement list is extensive.

By this criteria Dion seems the model contemporary artist. He is constantly on the move with his projects in America and Europe which involve accessing both international and local networks. Each project can be completed only with the considerable assistance of institutions, their employees, interns, and volunteers. If this range of participation appears a democratic way of working (leaving aside the demarcation issue between paid and unpaid work) it is done under the Mark Dion brand. Dion recognized at an early stage that the project in itself is not enough, that there is a need within the art business to establish coherence and identity under the name of the artist. Or rather he is one of the few to acknowledge so publically. In an interview with Miwon Kwon back in 1997 he spoke of a difficulty created by the particularity of individual projects and their trans-national dispersal; that their attachment to a locality means a lack of continuity of practice in the mind of the general audience.[1] If his work avoids the art tourism typical of many international artists, he wants to provide lineage especially through his talks and lectures which track his projects, relating one to another. With he himself as the single link we end up with the Mark Dion brand which is conventionally artist/author centred.

For all the recent hype about participation and networking the individual artist remains the locus of art practice and discourse. In another respect though Dion is pushing against the field of contemporary art. Where much of his gallery production from the 1990s has a notional resemblance to the standard installation, this has diminished with the years. Perhaps he has taken his cues from his projects outside the gallery. He has created observation posts for wildlife and, from the other perspective, he has created what seems to be improved living conditions for captive animals and birds. He has also helped create libraries; overall these environments for humans invariably invite quiet study and reflection, not functionality. This is similarly the case in his installation at Ormston House Gallery which is a long way from the effects employed in much installation art. Yet to make, without irony, an exact replica of a salmon the centrepiece is unusual, however outsize. Dion makes the curiosity cabinet occasion to revisit the natural world through the fulcrum of art.

 

Mark Dion: Against The Current is at Ormston House Gallery, Limerick City from 20 November 2015 – 13 February 2016.

Notes:

[1] Lisa Graziose Corrin et al, 1997, Mark Dion, London: Phaidon, pp. 25-26.

art
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context
Retrieving Things Past
December 2015

The decision to bring Gretchen Bender’s Total Recall (1987) to Dublin’s Project Arts Centre is one of the less obvious curatorial ‘statements’ of the year. The Project’s reputation as a venue for visual art is in newish work by emerging artists; but then Bender saw her media installations as a form of theatre which resonates with the arts centre’s other primary function. These factors may have contributed to the decision that followed, the commissioning of Oisín Byrne to create a work to accompany Total Recall. The overall result is an affirmation of theatre space though what is to the fore is that both installations, in different ways, are steeped in visual art practices and concerns. It is important to stress at the outset that while Bender’s work appeals directly to sight and sound the experience is not overwhelming; there is time and space for spectator reflection. As such it invites consideration of the media complex which is at the heart of both the piece and of contemporary life. To make this claim about the significance of the work is not cut and dry. For one thing the technology available to Bender is now obsolescent and the footage she appropriates looks slightly dated—the default attitude today is that nothing is as dated as yesterday’s technology and often ideas about it have an even shorter shelf-life. Yet if anything what Bender addresses is more pertinent than ever.

Byrne’s contribution is more perverse in this respect. He had curtains made which drape the entrance to the gallery, the purpose to block outside light, the idea to cover the curtains with patterns simulating the test-cards, lines, glitches, and so forth visible on the TV screen in pre-digital times. In effect the work is a variation on that metier where mechanically or digitally produced images are re-produced as paintings. In this case the medium is print, which serves to further muddy the waters around Walter Benjamin’s influential essay. Inside, the gallery is arranged after the original installation of Total Recall: a dark space, seating which face a bank of four rows of twenty-four CRT-type TVs and three rear projection screens. These project the visual performance that is Total Recall completed with acutely synchronized sound, an intrinsic and important component. The eighteen-minute video begins with clips taken from eighties advertising of happy family/desirable lifestyle scenarios. The logos of American TV Networks and Corporations appear, most particularly communications giants GE and AT&T, and the General Electric slogan, ‘We bring good things to life’.[1] As Total Recall evolves the video clips become less about the advertisers’ rendition of the good life and more about the destructive uses of technology in, for example, film depicting war zones. While the footage Bender used may have been readily identifiable to an American audience of the time, now these sequences are viewed from a distance; but the point is nonetheless clear.  If the message is less than subtle it is a performance piece that is akin to opera but with connections to actual conditions with profound effects. Moreover, a number of other motifs are weaved through the work which bring to bear themes that are less obvious.

Of these, the most commented on are those which flash titles suggestive of Hollywood all-action movies. Some of the titles are well known, others are not; many never saw the light of day. The titles, in stark white on black and in stark contrast to the advertising imagery she appropriated, draw attention to an industry that involves creation, technique, the fantastic from the sentimental to the violent, and, conspicuously, capital. Which of these prevails in value terms is not entirely predictable and in that sense filmmaking is more diverse in its operations than advertising. Total Recall not only comments on modern, media technology, what it is and what it does, it is also itself a product of that technology. Bender and her co-producers have been complimented on the quality of editing and sound. Extended sequences in Total Recall are of moving, abstract, computer generated forms. At base level these may be interpreted as the mesmerizing effect of visual technology. At another level these may be seen as the abstract nature of social relations in modern life in the Adornian sense. It is also possible to see these abstract forms as standing for technology as self-generating and ‘free’ of human intervention. On these terms Bender’s appropriations from TV and film of actors acting out the good life or all-action drama are simulations, they are severed from the real, but what of the shots of crowds? The latter may be metaphor for the masses but does the inclusion of these shots have any other meaning beyond their context of conspicuous consumption?

Such questions regarding simulacra are synonymous with the art world of the late 1980s. However, it is possible to bring the enquiry towards matters that are, or should be, critical to debate now. In 1992 a conference took place at Dia Foundation in New York that was developed into a book co-edited by Bender and originally published by Bay Press in 1994.[2] While the contents post-date Total Recall by a few years it indicates Bender’s evolving concerns. While she herself did not contribute an essay, her co-editor, Timothy Druckrey, wrote an Introduction that she will have subscribed to. Druckrey’s essay is literally packed with ways in which technology permeates our lives. A flavour includes: technology simulates the experiential in ways that complicate and confound our notions of reality; in the medical system there is a shift from treating disease to work in genetic defect; there is an erosion of distinctions between the speculative and the instrumental and a merging of research, development, and marketing; and, through these developments, culture is being transformed. Druckrey stresses the need but also the difficulty of deconstructing technology, i.e., even when we do think about it, we don’t think about it nearly enough: ‘As the system of technology expands to dominate the regulation of the external world, it also contracts and increasingly penetrates the internal world. The body is unquestionably the next frontier—the body, and then cognition’. If this seemed a little far-fetched in the early 1990s, it shouldn’t seem so now. One doesn’t have to be a technophobe to see that much of it has come to pass. Druckrey makes the point that language adjusts to technology and when one substitutes ‘technology’ with ‘neo-liberalism’ in the above quotation, we might consider the extent to which the worker is being made to conform to technological production. Both Bender and Druckrey pit a world of simulation against a belief in ‘real’ social relations and the tragedy is that their work from a quarter of a century ago underlines the paucity of the manufactured debate of the art world today.

Notes:

1] It should be noted that while Total Recall is US centred in its choice of material, it was during the 1980s that these Corporations began to globalize and diversify. Art followed suit in the 1990s.

[2] Druckrey in Gretchen Bender and Timothy Druckrey, eds., 1994, Cultures on the Brink: ideologies of technology, Seattle WA, Bay Press, p. 9.

art
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context
Mission: finale
October 2015

The installation of Declan Clarke’s film trilogy at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane is in its effect a passage from the space of cinema to the gallery. The first two films, We are not like them and The Most Cruel of all Goddesses, are shown together; the projection fills a wall in a relatively small dark room. The experience recalls picture houses of a previous era where the film stock is in black and white and 4:3 ratio. More particularly the experience is that of the front row where the viewer is so close to the screen as to be absorbed into moving, grey parts. Here, in the gallery space, the viewer is likewise in close proximity to the large-scale projection in black and white and 4:3 ratio. The third part of the film trilogy, Wreckage in May, constitutes a very different experience. Entrance to the film is via a room with three framed works: two nineteenth century paintings and the front cover of a journal from 1871 dominated by a graphic image. These are intrinsic to Wreckage in May which is projected in an adjacent room, in colour, and in much wider ratio than the two earlier films of the trilogy. In scale the projection of this third part is comparatively small, much less encompassing.

In one sense this shift may be seen as a shift from the public space of cinema and its visceral pleasures to the more private or contemplative space of easel painting; from film for the mass audience to painting for the private patron. This, however, is contradicted when one considers the second of the senses that cinema engages with after that of vision: sound. The first film in the trilogy, We are not like them, is silent; in the second, The Most Cruel of all Goddesses, a very occasional muffled noise is discernible. The sound in Wreckage in May is a little more constant, and a little louder. Not remotely enough to encourage anything approaching dialogue, but in its illegibility enough to let the viewer know that language, narrative, that which conventionally drives the plot, are at issue. At a point in the latter half of Wreckage in May the male protagonist, (Declan Clarke), in pursuit of his muse attends a lecture on art. The muffled voice of the lecturer becomes static in the agent’s hearing system. He falls asleep. He wakes up to his normal world of silence only to find that the woman has gone. Whatever the implications of this deployment of sound for the ‘plot’ of Wreckage in May, the viewer is left to consider reasons for the reversal: why has the purely visual art of painting around which this film plays out acquired these packets of sound? What is for sure is that the path from cinema to gallery is a path from the popular art of the twentieth century to the prevalent visual form of the upper classes and bourgeoisie of the nineteenth.

Wreckage in May is much more emphatically constructed into sections than the earlier films of the trilogy. Language (in French) is used to mark these divisions; language is thus seen in an organizational role. Section titles are set in blue against an off-white ground in sequence as follows: La Gallerie, La Bibliothèque, La Ville, La Conferénce, L’Effraction, and Dénouement. The film begins with the painting by Gustave Courbet, the painting featured in the adjacent room and part of the Hugh Lane Bequest, here titled, The Omnibus in the Snow. It depicts a coach, the occupants and animals tethered to it in severe difficulties during a snowstorm. The first section of Wreckage in May involves the agent tracking a woman through the rooms and corridors of the Hugh Lane Gallery as she studies the paintings. The second section shows the agent observing the woman as she studies in a library (the location is Pearse Street Library). In the next section the agent follows the woman through the Place Vendôme in Paris to the cemetery with the plaque commemorating the dead of the Paris Commune in May 1871. The fourth section shows the agent observing the woman at a lecture back in the gallery before he loses her. Next is an interlude in which the agent accesses a house as an interloper; he watches a DVD containing film of pro-democracy protests at Taksim Square and Gezi Park in Turkey in 2013. He is interrupted by an unseen unknown entering the house and he makes his escape. The last section is a return to the Hugh Lane Gallery and the Courbet painting. The agent searches; he looks at paintings—the Courbet and Impressionist works including the Berthe Morisot painting of two women at leisure which is included with the Courbet before the entrance to Wreckage in May. Suddenly tables are turned when the foreground is occupied; this time it is not the agent in his voyeur’s position, but a female hand. The hand holds a gun; the agent is shot. The final sequences are of a dying agent with blood seeping in the direction of his red tie. Seemingly overlooking the event are female faces, close-ups of women in the paintings. Their expressions are thus edited from their original context to suggest a strong sense of control acquired as the pursued has just ended the pursuit.

Unlike We are not like them and The Most Cruel of all Goddesses the agent of this film is not seen receiving instructions from a non-identified authority. We do not know what motivates the agent’s pursuit of the woman. However, the film maker’s pursuit of his chosen subjects are indelibly linked to his politics: the film is in large measure a homage to the Paris Communards of 1871, to Courbet’s contribution to the Commune and to the destruction of the Vendôme Column, dedicated as it was to Napoleon’s autocratic rule. Clarke makes a conscious analogy between then and now in the film within a film of protest in Turkey. The red flag of the revolutions of nineteenth century France is replicated in Clarke’s record of several parties active in Turkey in 2013 who have adapted the red flag. In making these choices Clarke poses the relations between art and society. By definition revolt involves the disruption of the status quo. In the opening sentence of his book on Courbet, TJ Clark described the period of the 1848 Revolution in France as a time ‘when art and politics could not escape one another.’[1] A significant element of Clark’s analysis is that Courbet’s major paintings during the brief period of time after 1848 (his great period according to Clark) are an ‘ensemble’ (Courbet’s term) of many things including aspects of contemporary life, most especially of popular culture. This is the artist’s legacy. After Courbet, Clark argues, artists ‘wanted the popular as an adjunct to Art itself—as a blood transfusion, an act of nostalgia…. Courbet had tried something different; to dislodge the hierarchy, to put an end to the connoisseur. He had come very close: close enough to enrage one public and invent another….’[2] Crucial to Clark’s analysis is that at this time capital has not yet taken over the popular idioms which Courbet adapted. While there is no reason to suggest that Declan Clarke’s interests in Courbet are identical to TJ Clark’s there is the niggling question as to the underlying implications of the former’s shift from the popular genre of mid-twentieth century film employed in parts one and two of his trilogy to the more contemporary look of Wreckage in May and to the foregrounding of nineteenth century art. In this, more might be said on Courbet’s decline in popularity and Impressionism’s rise as a popular and commodified notion of art and its subject-matter as symptomatic of broader shifts.

Also important to Wreckage in May is the position of women. The graphic before the entrance to the installation is of the execution of a female communard, a reminder of the role of feminists in French revolutions in the nineteenth century; a photograph of Rosa Luxemburg hangs on a wall of the house the agent accesses. The linchpin of the film is the woman, dressed in variations of red in each of the six sections, as object of the male protagonist’s gaze. The denouement sees his death, the destruction of a male ego that has dominated the trilogy. He dies surrounded by women—that these women’s existence is in works of art is not Clarke’s point. If this much is obvious it might be noted also that where in the first two parts of the trilogy the agent is central to the action, here the woman leads the action. That action is largely contemplative—the study of paintings, study in the library, attending a lecture—it is not of action man, or woman. Of course both man and woman in this trilogy are generalized, fictions, ideologies, but as motifs for Clarke’s trilogy they represent a fascinating take on gender, politics, and modernity.

References:

[1] TJ Clark, Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution, Berkeley, CA and London: California University Press, 1999, p. 9.

[2] Ibid, p. 161.

art
 and 
context
Mission 1 & 2
September 2015

Wreckage in May is the third part of Declan Clarke’s film trilogy, the part commissioned by Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane and on show there throughout the summer. Sensibly, the Gallery decided to show concurrently the first two parts of the trilogy. Wreckage in May is the only title provided for the overall installation which left the trilogy without a generic name. That said by way of introduction the response here will focus on the first two parts, respectively, We are not like them, and, The Most Cruel of all Goddesses, while I will turn to Wreckage in May later. There is some justification for this arrangement. The Hugh Lane physically separated the installation of the third from one and two and there is reason for that but, beyond mere reinforcement of the Gallery’s distinction, there are differences from the outset with the latter which might warrant separate consideration. All three films were made using a 16 mm camera, all are to all intents and purposes silent, all are politically and culturally committed. The first two are almost totally in black and white, the last is in colour; the former are expansive in their historical and geopolitical reach, while the latter is more contained in its historical referencing and its locations.

The first impression in watching We are not like them and The Most Cruel of all Goddesses is that while there is an absence of dialogue both are propelled by a storyline, an implicit plot that drives the action beginning to end. In this, both films work off the audience’s preconceptions of mainstream cinema and TV drama, most specifically the spy subgenre. In these films the need for dialogue is minimized by the camera’s concentration on a solo figure in the guise of a special agent and identified as a man on a mission. The agent is played by Declan Clarke, kitted in sixties style, tight-fitted suit, slim tie and Macintosh, and topped with slicked hair in short back and sides cut. The destinations of the mission is communicated in the early part of both films when the agent, in emphatic stride, goes to a pre-arranged spot to receive instructions. In We are not like them these are in the form of coded message, slides, postcards and books—translations of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel, We. In The Most Cruel of all Goddesses the instructions are in the form of a Memorandum along with files containing photographs and postcards. There is no indication where these instructions come from or if there is meaningful purpose to the rendezvous he directed to. A question that will remain is whether the agent is to any extent capable of decision-making, if he is in any sense a ‘free agent’.

Another very apparent feature of both films is the prevalence of the shot of the individual set against the vista of an urban, industrialized Europe; by default the Europe built between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth century. In We are not like them he travels from the Tyne shipyards in North-East England, to Eisenhüttenstadt on the eastern border of Germany, to Nowa Huta on the outskirts of Kraków in Poland and, a setting of more recent origins, the Groupe Scolaire L’Octobre, a primary school in the suburbs of Paris. These trips connect with the Russian novelist Yevgeny Zamyatin who trained as an engineer and had worked at a shipyard at Newcastle prior to writing We, a critique of the totalitarian technopolis. While he was a supporter of Bolshevism, Zamyatin was disillusioned with Stalin’s regime and in the early 1930s he left the Soviets for Paris. To some extent then, the agent’s travels in We are not like them traces Zamyatin’s experience from the shipbuilding and heavy industry that created new cities in Europe, (now in decline and Clarke’s film is redolent with the remains of the buildings and monuments of the old socialism of the east alongside the trappings of western consumerism), to the architecture of the school in Paris with its echoes of the style, not to say the ideals, of Russian Constructivism. Similarly, The Most Cruel of all Goddesses sees the agent following the footsteps of Friedrich Engels from Salford in Greater Manchester, to London, to the Engels Haus in Wuppertal. The film then shifts to Munich where the agent, after a liberal quantity of Munich beer, is absorbed into a psychedelic sequence seemingly aggravated by the lights and movement of the amusements at the Oktoberfest the outcome of which is a vision of Engels. With travel to these locations at the heart of both films, Clarke is open to the accusation of creating travelogues steeped in nostalgia for the politics of the Cold War period.

There is little doubt that both We are not like them and The Most Cruel of all Goddesses reimagine figures that Clarke reveres and that he sets Zamyatin and Engels within the context of the industrial revolution, the transformation of the landscape of Europe after industrialization, modernity, and, the totalizing modern state which, whether socialist or capitalist, structures all aspects of human life. The films are a visualization of these histories. This is energized by the figure of the agent whose purposeful stride takes us through city streets and over bridges and occasionally we see him on trains. The set-up is carefully designed. The camera is placed in a fixed position; the agent is viewed in a long shot walking across, or vanishes out of, the screen; these long shots allow plenty of time for the viewer to take in the surroundings. In The Most Cruel of all Goddesses, for example, the agent’s arrival in London is signified by a shot of him exiting Chalk Farm Tube Station followed by a shot of him striding across Bridge Approach, the now pedestrianized iron bridge over railway lines near Chalk Farm. He is on his way to the house that had been Engels’ lodgings where he will find further instructions. His arrival at Wuppertal is signified by shots of the overhead monorail, surely one of the great icons of the industrial revolution. Such long shots dominate both films.

There are shorter sequences generally at beginning and end where montage is employed. At the beginning these allow the audience to view in close-up slides or photographs and instructions (almost the sole use of verbal language throughout). Later montage is used to indicate emotional states, even while these are non-specific. In The Most Cruel of all Goddesses the agent pulls out a wallet size photograph of a woman. The close-up of the representation of the woman’s face is succeeded by a shot of the agent’s face as he looks at the photograph. The inference is of an emotional connection. In Zamyatin’s novel, We, the narrator, D-503, becomes obsessed with a woman, I-330. Since she is seen to be committed to freedom she is by definition a subversive: she is one of them. While it isn’t clear how ‘real’ I-330 is or to what extent she is a figment of the awakening imagination of D-503, she stands in for something that is beyond D-503’s grasp but something he is compelled to pursue. In both We are not like them and The Most Cruel of all Goddesses there is no indication that the agent’s assignments are successful, that he made his rendezvous. Clarke’s point seems to be that the issues touched upon are at least as relevant now as in the twentieth century. The transformations from black and white to colour towards the end of the films—the former at the school in Paris and the latter in the vision of Engels—seem to suggest the possibility of another world. For sure it hasn’t taken shape and it remains to be seen what will transpire when the action in Wreckage in May opens up to colour.

art
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context
The Said and the Unsaid
June 2015

The bets are off on whether Paul Seawright’s latest series of photographs marks a major departure in his practice. The subject is the studios of TV news broadcasters under the series title Making News: Things Left Unsaid; the occasion is a selection from the series shown last spring at The Model in Sligo. To make the series Seawright acquired access to TV studios in the United States and in Ireland, and the photographs that are the outcome of these visits are exhibited with a statement which poses the question of the role and power of this media in making ‘the news’. With this as an objective, the photographic outcome is surprisingly surreal.

Given these responses, a brief recap of Seawright’s work is useful before turning to the latest photographs. He remains best known for work which obliquely signifies sectarian violence in Belfast and its environs. Sectarian Murders, his early series from the late eighties, is photographs of locations of murders or locations where bodies were dumped during the worst period of sectarian violence in the 1970s. The viewer is made aware of the significance of the site not by anything within the image but, in the language of news media, by the ‘caption’, which is a short, blunt account of the murder as reported at the time by the Press. Seawright had extracted reportage from archives and photographed the sites as they stood in the late 1980s. The ‘caption’ is necessary in order to render the image meaningful to more than an extremely local audience who have memory of the outrage; it is a means of indicating a place of some broader significance which is heightened by the accumulation of these sectarian murders and their intended effect as terror strategy. This use of text perhaps reaches a climax with a series that is concurrent with Things Left Unsaid and is titled, The List. Seen solely as a series of photographs, The List is of apparently inconsequential views of urban by-ways, houses, garage, and so on. The text that accompanies the series provides the rationale: ‘the list’ refers to the sex offenders list as operative in the United States. Those on the list are prohibited from crossing the prescribed distance from institutions or places where children gather, the effect of which is to create not just zones of exclusion but by extension of clustering in areas already socially deprived. Seawright’s photographs mark these boundaries though there is nothing within the photograph to indicate demarcation, or to suggest what the logic of the photograph might be. Purpose is gleaned through reading the accompanying text.

If some photographs in The List, seen as stand-alone images, lean in the direction of the aesthetic—patterns on walls or trees against sky—the same cannot be said of the photographs in Things Left Unsaid. At The Model they were displayed with minimal spot-lighting which served to reinforce the enveloping darkness surrounding the news presenters. One photograph shows a presenter behind her desk; she is bathed in light but she looks out onto a black void which comprises approximately 70 per cent of the picture space. Another is of the back of a male head and shoulders where the most eye-catching part of the picture space is the coil of the audio wire on the back of his neck. But the majority of the photographs are of electronic hardware and backdrops. In these, cables seem to have a life of their own, cameras hang purposelessly from overhead rails, and trips and switches look ominous. The ethereal atmosphere is created through the combined effects of the dark space of the studio, the TV lights, and Seawright’s flash. The Model’s gallery statement refers to these images as erotic but some are of nauseating hue in which artificial light exaggerates the green of a green wall to sickly levels.

In Seawright’s other series the rationale for the photographs, and their significance for the audience, lies in a tangible connection between the text and the scene recorded. In Things Left Unsaid the connection is pushed beyond the limits of that logic; here the studio is an artificial environment, its function to filter transmissions, a place essentially without a physical essence. Seawright raises a problem of contemporary art photography which is its limits in what can be recorded through the aperture. The catalogue essay accompanying Things Left Unsaid celebrates photography’s ability to capture light, but what cannot be rendered visible through light seems to be more the issue. The series may be said to confront the advance of the Digital Age illustrated here as transmission of what is deemed to be news; Seawright’s still camera images the hardware but this equipment serves merely as conduits and, as highlighted here, they are as fetishes. On the flip-side, the ostensibly rational side, Seawright asks the question on what or what doesn’t pass through. This too is double-edged because while TV news continues to be powerful in what is presented and how (why else would the most powerful entrepreneurs want to acquire such companies?), rolling 24-hour news as developed in the United States in the eighties with the assistance of satellite technology is to some extent superseded by newer technologies so there is a degree of irony involved in Seawright’s enquiry into the news studio using a still camera, itself an older technology. Yet the power of TV companies in making and framing ‘the news’ is still very potent.

Where the role and power of TV news is posed as a rhetorical question, there was another piece of text at The Model and it was centrally positioned in the installation. In red letters across an expanse of grey painted wall, Seawright used a quotation from Paul Virilio: ‘The Gulf War is the first total electronic war … current conflict no longer plays out only on the line of the front of a given geographic horizon, but first of all on the monitors, the control screens of televisions of the entire world.’ In retrospect his referencing of Virilio seems obvious. Seawright’s work has included the paramilitary, sub-military, and military, respectively, Ulster’s paramilitaries and Orange Order, and war in Afghanistan. Virilio identifies himself as a military critic whose contribution was in his articulation of the transformation of the nature of war through developments in digital technology and in the effects of new technology on society and culture generally. Virilio’s main complaint about the electro-optical economy is the instantaneity of everything, of relevance here, the news market. One of Virilio’s key concepts is that of disappearance, that is, in a world of endless flow duration disappears. If Virilio’s belief in the virtue of the time involved in representation as opposed to the instant presentation that prevails in the contemporary and in art is somewhat nostalgic, Seawright’s delirious take on that contemporary world could offer richer pickings.

art
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Island Odyssey
April 2015

Clare Langan’s current show, The Floating World, at VISUAL in Carlow features a new version of her 2013 single channel video. This is a looped, fifteen minute, three screen installation which fills a wall in VISUAL’s smaller gallery, the Digital Gallery. The installation is therefore quite intimate in scale; it doesn’t insist on spectacle or overwhelming effect. Work complementing the video, still photographs and a poem by Kerry Hardie, is shown in the adjacent Gallery. The transition to multi-channel allows Langan to combine original shots or sequences with iterations, reversals, combinations with one screen blank, and straight repetition of image, all of which add to the atmospheric qualities that she seeks. Langan’s output over the years is notably consistent. Her short video works are central to her practice. In these works the camera follows landscape first and foremost; then there are the deserted or near-deserted building interiors and the odd, isolated human figure filmed from afar. A storyline which might provide explanation whether visual or verbal seems latent, but it never arrives. There is an absence of narrative, text, or voice, bar the title. Langan’s imagery is supported by synchronized music and sound works and these are important to the sense of mystery which permeates the whole. Mystery is registered because our normal sense of relations in and of the world, the order of things, is absent.

When compared to her earlier work the outstanding difference with The Floating World is the clearly flagged identification of place. She uses three specified locations which occur sequentially in the video as Skellig Michael, Dubai, and Monserrat. Only Skellig Michael is obvious in the video; Dubai is shot in fog and the Monserrat section concerns the effects of volcano eruption, or more particularly the camera focuses on what were once homes after the emergency evacuation, the eruptions and spasmodic volcanic activity. The two latter locations are filmed in such abnormal conditions that the place is effectively unidentifiable and it is left to the supporting documentation to name them. Nevertheless, since this naming of unique geographic areas is new to Langan’s practice, it begs further investigation.

The opening section is at face value a conventional take on Skellig Michael. After an opening which focuses on the wake made by a boat crossing water, we have various shots of the immediately recognizable island of Skellig Michael, shots from Skellig Michael of the smaller island and the mainland of County Kerry in the distance. Then we see the winding stone steps created by the Early Christian monks in order to negotiate the dramatic elevation of cliff from landing bay upwards to their monastery, church, and habitable quarters. We catch glimpses of the sole human figure in The Floating World as little more than a dot looking out over a cliff, and as a moving thing in the middle of the screen walking the steps. We see the areas where the monks lived and worshipped such as the famous stone, beehive cells. With the monks’ evacuation of Skellig almost a thousand years ago few vertebrates apart from the birds are willing or able to withstand the harsh conditions of residency on the island. But birds do not feature in the video; rather, it is the remains of human habitation and evacuation that seems to be the objective and will recur at another location.

Crucially, the filming of Skellig Michael is less tourist board material than it might seem. Langan now feels almost obliged to emphasize that the filming, done in both clear weather and in mist, was with an infra-red camera which means that tracts of the island seem to have a covering of snow and this contributes in a major way to the ethereal effects of the video. Such a natural event is highly improbable and a source of confusion for the audience which Langan sees fit to clear up. The infra-red camera turns any green on Skellig to white, hence the ‘snow’. For Langan this is important because the use of the special camera means she herself has not made conscious decisions to distort what is there; what comes up in the camera viewer as ‘effects’ is part of the filming process, not a retrospective, post-production ‘distortion’ of decisions made on site. There is then a self-consciousness about over-aestheticizing and a desire to retain direct contact with the place.

As the global city which best epitomizes twenty-first century capitalism and consumption, Dubai seems the most unlikely location for Clare Langan. But hers is not the Dubai of travel brochures. Langan chose to film during a specific point of the year, in October, when for a few days the city is enveloped in fog. The filming looks down onto the tops of skyscrapers—literally—which are peeking up through cloud. These skyscrapers, devoid of human presence and lacking any corporate identity or signature, have no more substance than Lego blocks on a cushion of foam: they are as islands floating on empty. By contrast, the location in Monserrat is shown as a place which once had social fabric but the evidence of community is now covered in layers of volcanic dust. The Monserrat section of The Floating World is given over to the southern part of the island which has been affected by volcanic activity; it is the Exclusion Zone which as the military-style title suggests is vacated and where visiting permits are issued only under certain conditions. The camera pans homes—furniture, clothes, photographs, utensils, books—which are suggestive of the speed of the evacuation, of life once lived, and of life stopped.

At one level The Floating World can be seen as allegory as the video moves from the spiritual retreat that is Skellig Michael, to the excess and artifice that present-day Dubai represents but which is buried by fog, and from the beautiful to the sublime that is the southern part of Monserrat as it is frozen in a volcanic time warp. As Langan puts it the earth reclaims itself, and this unfolds at each location. But of equal importance to an allegoric understanding of the work is the concrete nature of its making: the choices made while filming at each location or the choices made while integrating image with music and sound. The infra-red camera also generates meaning and produces a different kind of narrative to the conventions of cinema. And even where the effects of infra-red are less dramatic, the imagery points to other considerations. For example, the opening sequence of movement on water is formally linked to the video’s closure: a pixilated still of water, sun and sky at dusk. The world may be more unstable than we want to imagine but there remains the perennial problems of visual art such as how to visually represent time and space.

 

 

Note:

The Floating World by Clare Langan at VISUAL Centre for Contemporary Art, Carlow, 10 January to 03 May 2015. Some details used in the above are based in a public conversation between Clare Langan and Orla Ryan which took place at VISUAL on 25 April 2015. Accreditation for The Floating World is available at clarelangan.com.

art
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context
Made in Texas
March 2015

In an interview[1] Jean Baudrillard was asked why the desert was so central to his book, America. His response is multi-layered but the most direct answer is that the desert is ‘more than the state of nature’. The chosen locations in West Texas for the video trilogy Sound Speed Marker by Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler[2] may not qualify technically speaking as desert; the locations are however generally designated as such and in the final part of the trilogy, Giant, the expanses of a Texas landscape is the stand-out role. Baudrillard wrote America in the 1980s and is based in the time he lived there in the 1970s. Hubbard and Birchler completed their trilogy in 2014 having worked on it over several years. Much has changed over the period of time between the two works and no doubt the two artists would have enormous difficulty with Baudrillard’s opening comment to the interview that, as he wrote America, ‘I experienced it on a cinema screen, hypothesizing almost experimentally a country without a history’. While Baudrillard’s chief thesis—we have evolved the simulacrum and we are removed from ‘nature’—is now less fashionable, his imaging of himself isn’t that of writing a text but of something more spatial which involves being before a screen and looking or viewing. The work of Hubbard and Birchler is inextricably bound up with this condition with the cinema screen replaced by the screen of the gallery space. Gerard Byrne along with Sarah Pierce was asked by IMMA, where Sound Speed Marker is currently showing, to respond to the work before an audience. During it he remembered Baudrillard’s America. On examination, there is more to the comparison than simply all three are European born and have acknowledged their enthrallment in the desert they encountered in the United States.

Sound Speed Marker references films from the early twentieth century, the 1950s and ‘80s, and three locations, a mountain known locally as Movie Mountain after an early film made there, the site near Marfa where some of Giant was shot in 1955, and a site in the vicinity of locations for ‘80s films, most particularly, Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas. While the first two parts of the trilogy focus on the social fabric of the localities in which the films were originally shot, Giant, a thirty minute, three channel colour projection on three screens, is totally free of the human voice. The sole purveyor of language is through a 1950s Underwood typewriter which occupies a staged office supposedly situated in the studios of Warner Bros. in Burbank, California. The language is the stark language of a contract between Warner Bros. and the owner of the property of the location in Texas where the film set is to be constructed and it sets out the terms to be followed for the duration of the set. The laborious typing out of the contract, which the viewer reads line by line, is done by a secretary transcribing from shorthand who does her job at a certain regular pace while allowing herself brief moments of distraction and day-dreaming. This process is interspersed with long and close-up shots of the location as it exists today. Filmed over a two year period we see the effects of season, weather, night and day on the environment, the birds and insects which inhabit the area, cattle, the freight train, film crews, but the scene is dominated by the decayed wood skeleton of the house built on set. The other important element is that the clicks of the typewriter are exchanged for the sounds of nature and a boom operator is filmed listening attentively to what is going on around.

The care with which Hubbard and Birchler filmed the landscape of Giant speaks to their concern to connect with nature which could be said to correspond with Baudrillard’s remark about the ‘radical insignificance of the subject in that world of pure signs which is the desert’. We know in Baudrillard’s case that this isn’t an attempt at transcendence, rather he expresses it as ‘the absolute self-evidence of the world’. When prodded by the interviewer, Baudrillard chooses immanence over transcendence to identify in philosophical language. If this doesn’t sound like the theorist most famous or infamous for his denial of reality he emphasises that America is a mental state, imaging, and this is said in the context of his reference to the cinema screen. It may then follow that the cinema screen is metaphor as much as experience. The interviewer presses Baudrillard to contrast Europe and America; utopia slips in and out of the exchange. While neither suggest any simplistic connection between European emigration, the psyche, and the concept of utopia, there is nonetheless allusion to early explorers and their quest for paradise. For Baudrillard the desert is where reality and fiction merge, not in ‘paradise’ but in hyperreality. He points out that it could have been other than the actual continent of America, it just happened that way. Baudrillard is taken by the way Americans are so much more comfortable in the space they inhabit compared to Europeans and this is reflected in their literature and cinema—the cinema screen as a filter allows Baudrillard to make such generalizations. This is an ‘innocence’ or an acceptance of the self-evidence of the world.

Giant is in that zone; it presents what is there in the landscape without superimposing a narrative. However the making of the video requires contrivance before, during, and after. Giant, like the other videos in the Sound Speed Marker trilogy, is made possible only through the collective memory of the original film. Without the originals the significance of the locations is gone. But this is not to affirm the artifice of film over the real. For Baudrillard, screenfictions ‘are part of the continent’, they merge. This is also the premise of Hubbard and Birchler. In the interview Baudrillard acknowledges that part of the attraction of America is its power: ‘There’s no predestination other than the retrospective .… there is always, of course, the imaginary power of America as the “cutting edge”’. When the original Giant was released in 1956 the United States was the consumer paradise that much of the rest of the world gazed upon through the mass media, and made available in the film not in the Texas landscape (bar the images calculated to show the might of the oil industry that contributed to the wealth) but in the personas of Taylor, Hudson, and Dean. In the 1970s and ‘80s the economic and cultural power of the United States was still largely intact. In his discussion at IMMA Gerard Byrne recalled his first encounter with the work of Hubbard and Birchler in New York in the 1990s. His identification was with what seemed a generation, like Hubbard and Birchler, born in the 1960s who wanted to move beyond the cinematic influences of an older generation towards some other sense of cinema. Retrospectively, we can identify this as the last generation who could image art developments in this way, and who could still see this happening specifically in America.

[1] Jean Baudrillard, ‘America, America …’, in Paroxysm: interviews with Philippe Petit, trans. Chris Turner, London and New York: Verso, 1998, pp. 79-88.

[2] Sound Speed Marker is showing sequentially in three parts at the Irish Museum of Modern Art between December 2014 and May 2015. Giant, the final part, is showing between 6 March and 4 May 2015.

art
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Civic Exchanges
February 2015

If the physical core of ‘Phoenix Rising: art and civic imagination’ (Hugh Lane Gallery) is the exhibition which features five individual and two collaborative artists, in practice the curatorial reach is both more conceptual and more rhizome-like. In addition to the exhibition there is the usual Hugh Lane education programme, guided tours, and artists’ talks on and around their installations. On top there are films, extensive use of the gallery’s website, and text-based publications which are added to through the duration of the exhibition. The latter is designated as ‘research’ though in fact one wing of this is a project onto itself—a collaborative college project for architecture and film students that has its own exhibition at a different venue. Some might see this absence of fixed boundaries as confusing; others might view this demonstration of open-ended research as the new way of doing things; not to mention the networking involved, something that tends to become an end in itself. My short response to ‘Phoenix Rising’ is restricted pretty much to the core exhibition and related literature in the publications, or ‘newsletters.’

The theme of ‘Phoenix Rising’ seems such a perfect fit for The Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery. This 2014/15 exhibition draws on Dublin’s 1914 Civic Exhibition and the title, as revealed in the first newsletter, is based in the original 1914 attempt to re-imagine Dublin as the ‘phoenix of cities’ following the ideas of Patrick Geddes, its guiding light. The newsletter states the aim as focusing on ‘urban experience and civic ideals’; the text also makes a comparison between the social issues and strife of 1914 and today. What it neglects to mention is that the history and role of the Hugh Lane is intimately connected to all of this though, in its defence, the Gallery has had related exhibitions in the recent past. If ‘Phoenix Rising’ seeks to be innovative in respect to diversity and the participation of a large number of interested parties, it is more conventional in respect to its apparent neutrality in a prognosis on ‘urban experience and civic ideals’. The exhibition literature establishes connections with 1914, offers a few pointers, and leaves it to participants to develop themes and ideas.

The exhibition devotes almost half of one room to the 1914 exhibition using directly related documentation as well as contextual information. The featured object here is a centuries old gilded wood phoenix from Charlemont House itself. The sequence of artist installations starting at the entrance is, Stephen Brandes, Cliona Harmey, Stéphanie Nava, Mark Clare, Vagabond Reviews, and Mary-Ruth Walsh. As the only non-resident, Nava is at something of a disadvantage as her installation is not supported by her presence at the artists’ talks, nor is there an interview with her. Since her installation is a small segment of her project on allotments and since the drawings here are mostly diagrammatic representations of a social system and thereby idealized, the sociability of allotment existence is not immediately obvious. While the rather narrow representation of Nava’s work means there is a danger of further extraction of an already reductive view of local, small-scale food production, the small-scale, repetitive, diagrammatic form does tend to stick in the mind, similar to a blue-print—as intended, no doubt!

While Mary-Ruth Walsh installed three semi-hidden sculptures in ‘unexpected’ places in the Gallery, her main contribution, more closely related to the theme, is a five minute video, or ‘film’ as she prefers, entitled, Take a deep breath now. A clue to the title is offered in part by the accompanying information which states that her film is dedicated to Geddes daughter, Norah, who created gardens on derelict sites in both Edinburgh and Dublin. The film includes photographs showing the structure of plants though it consists mainly of black and white stills of the city. The presence of Vertov and Chris Marker in the credits indicates a primary concern with film-making itself. Cliona Harmey also uses the camera but merely as documentation rather than as a structural consideration in image production. Her installation extends a number of Geddes’s interests into the present. Taking the notion of Geddes’s ‘Outlook Tower’ Harmey has constructed receivers based on information gleaned from the Internet, and with these she has intercepted sound waves from NOAA weather satellites which are then translated as images. Her installation consists of bits and pieces of hardware, but most particularly she has lined-up the resultant images adding specifics on the co-ordinates and so forth. The repetition of the procedure produces more-or-less the same image; they are simply gradations of grey similar to, in terms of old technology, a photocopy that hasn’t worked properly. Of course the ‘images’ barely qualify as such and the meticulous pursuit of procedure may be interpreted as anti-image or anti-aesthetic in intent, but it is more profitably viewed as an exercise on the limits of representation. Representation is the main focus of Vagabond Reviews’ contribution. They asked over fifty people to contribute a title to a book not yet written, but which should be written, on the city. The titles were transposed to a cover design on a book of blank pages and exhibited. In their statement they write, ‘A point of departure from the already known, Missing Titles explores the city as an object of scientific knowledge and imagination, on the boundary between the thought and the unthought ….’ An example of one of the more provocative titles is Gráinne Shaffrey’s, ‘The City that mistook its Crisis for a Plan’.

If a difficulty with Vagabond Reviews’ project is that their selection of people are people already selected as important, those with proper overview in how the city is deemed to operate, or could operate—architects, city-planners, and various professionals—is symptomatic of ‘Phoenix Rising’ as a whole. The emphasis on knowledge as objective, the effect of which is to privilege a notion of objective knowledge, is reversed somewhat in the installations by the two other artists. Stephen Brandes and Mark Clare return to a traditional artistic form in the city: the monument. Brandes commands the entrance to the exhibition which is dominated by the massive ‘wallpaper’, Per Laborem, depicting rider and horse on a plinth with a Latin script translated as ‘By Labour and Courage—from the fire I will rise again’. The monument is presented as a civic focal point which is obsolete, with little prospect of the heroic figure rising again. This is an abject view of what civic once meant. The initial work for Mark Clare’s contribution predates ‘Phoenix Rising’. The sculpture, La Fontaine du Réalisme, was made while on residency in Paris. Located in a park his facsimile fountain was based upon both Gustav Courbet’s Realist Manifesto and several universal expositions that took place in Paris between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries—Courbet had had work rejected for the 1855 exposition. Clare has installed the base of his fountain in the Hugh Lane wrapped Christo-style. It is now titled, Le Fantôme de Réalisme. It is accompanied in its dark room by a projected photograph of the original installation in the Parisian park. While the bulk of ‘Phoenix Rising’ presents the artist as a positive worker in civic endeavour, Clare reminds us that modern art has an avant-garde strand which critiqued normative, social values. The installation serves as an appropriate finale for an intriguing exhibition.

Notes:

‘Phoenix Rising: art and civic imagination’ is at The Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery, 07 November 2014 – 29 March 2015.

art
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context
The Landscape of Photography
January 2015

Mary McIntyre’s recent show at Visual in Carlow was a rare opportunity to see a substantial number of large as well as smaller format photographs in the ample space of the main gallery. The show—full title, An Interior Landscape: Mary McIntyre—featured work created since 2002 and is a variation on her show at the MAC in Belfast which took place a year ago. That show was sub-titled A Contemporary Sublime, the catalogue for which, really a book in its own right with reproductions of her landscape photography since 1998, was also available at Carlow. The title for Visual may be adapted from the title of a pre-2002 series which is included in the catalogue but isn’t landscape at all. These are photographs of a studio space which has a small reproduction of a landscape scene on a wall. The above indicates the consistency of McIntyre’s oeuvre even while the focus at Visual is, one might say, en plein air landscape.

The exception to the landscape theme at Visual is in the form of two installations which were made specifically for the space. One is a tall, cylindrical structure draped in heavy, grey fabric. The title Within Without echoes the exhibition title, hints at an unknown or unknowable, and is somewhat to spite the title’s adjunct — (After Vito Hannibal Acconci) – a reference to an artist not normally associated with sublimity! The second installation uses the same grey fabric this time as a more conventionally drawn curtain which was extended across a gallery wall. Entitled, Another Quality of Melancholy, it is less about inside/outside and more about a visible side which is bound to the other, invisible side; narrow but unfathomable depth is suggested. The curtains perhaps most directly signal the Veil Series of photographs, represented here by Veil I, Veil IV, 2006, and Veil XV 2008. The exceptionally small format, Withdrawing Veils of Sound I 2010, might be included within this theme. The Veils are of seashores and flatish landscapes shrouded in mist while ‘sound’ might allude to the birds which are barely discernible on the shallow water below the horizon line. For Suzanne Chan in her catalogue essay this image is as close to the sublime as it gets. Unlike other Northern Irish art photographers, McIntyre does not identify her locations with specific names or unique features. The seascapes could be lough-scapes for the literature on McIntyre suggests that these scenes are within Northern Ireland; we don’t know where precisely. Chan suggests a more general and material context in contrasting this sublime with the more usual association of landscapes in these parts with conflict.

For the exhibition at Visual McIntyre seems to be consciously working through not only the concept of the sublime but also the genre of landscape painting from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. If the exhibition can be said to begin at the main entrance to the gallery space, an establishing set is three small format photographs, Forest Entrance (after Jacob Van Ruisdael) 2002, Morning Landscape 2011, and Flooded Tree (after Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot) 2006. All three use the landscape, particularly trees, to utilize the diagonals and triangles which were extrapolated from the panoramic view in the composition making that is the hallmark of the classic period of European landscape painting. Forest Entrance is one of the few works in this exhibition that shows human construction within the picture frame; in this case a road cuts a diagonal along the bottom of the frame. Another is Over, and on and Up II 2012, where a garden fence and pigeon compound runs from a bottom corner of the frame diagonally upwards and out the opposite side which establishes a border between a typical suburban garden and thick woodland beyond. A common factor in the show is that there is no physical human presence, just the imprint that people make on the environment.

Despite McIntyre’s highly pointed citing of the traditions of landscape painting, the majority of the large format works in Interior Landscape owe more to modernist painting. The Veil Series is reminiscent of post-war American painting where the vaguely defined image of land and sky sit on the surface of the photograph. The optical experience for the viewer is of a play of surface variations rather than of depth or recession towards a vanishing point. This leads to the curtains because while they are reminiscent of minimalism, the folds form shallow spaces that have a potential for limitless variation each time they are drawn. The tone of Interior Landscape is of autumn and winter; no summer lushness here. At the same time, the landscape is not exposed to the full fury of the elements. The scenes are of woods and waters in relatively gentle weather conditions. The absence of full summer foliage, in particular in Veil XV, means that the trees and undergrowth form patterns against earth, water, and sky which begs comparison with all-over drip and splatter paintings. But in the end, paint and pixels are very different mediums to work with.

McIntyre has professed her interest in the technical organization of space in painting and the sublime as the name assigned to unknowable but life-changing experience. She will recognize that bridging the gap is the more difficult proposition. But as an artist whose primary medium is photography she will also recognize the importance of the technical aspects of photography in creating medium-specific aesthetics. In 1994 Benjamin Buchloh noted that the emergence of a generation of art photographers had revived the genres of portraiture and landscape which had declined with modernism. During that decade technical developments allowed for large format, colour, digital photographs which could be displayed with Plexiglas mounts that eliminated the reflections and glare of glass display. As one stands before the large format image objects lose form as pixilation takes over. In McIntyre’s Veil Series the loss of objecthood becomes a collapse of subjecthood as the viewer loses a sense of the space of the actual landscape and succumbs to the lack of a ‘proper’ viewing position. The obvious comparison here is with similar images in what has been highly successfully branded as the Düsseldorf School of Photography.