The following is a response by Barry Kehoe to the NCAD Masters in Fine Art/Art in the Digital World (MFA/ADW) graduate show that took place in June 2012.
…Je me souviens, they’re memories that have been prompted, things that I had forgotten that I will make reappear, an anamnesis, i.e. the opposite of forgetting.
What remains of an exhibition after the doors close? In 2011, artist Ryan Gander in collaboration with Artangel, produced an event in a London warehouse in which visitors without forewarning happened upon the detritus of what remained from a closed exhibition. Postcards, old posters, catalogues, monographs on each of the participating artists were strewn around a room, some still in the printers cardboard boxes. Through disturbed blinds, keyholes and cracks in locked doors, one could glimpse the edge of a half dismantled exhibition. Of course this was a fiction and visitors were being activated to be spectators who came too late and had to do with the scraps of what remained of an event after the fact, or in this case an event after the fiction.
The NCAD Masters in Fine Art and Art in the Digital World (MFA/ADW) 2012 exhibition, that took place in Steambox, formerly St Catherine’s primary school, closed its doors several weeks ago. Even in the closing hours on its last day some of the exhibits were already being disassembled as the last few visitors rushed around to get a glimpse of the short lived exhibition. Some of the works had already been taken away several hours before the exhibition had officially closed. Since visiting the exhibition there have been visits to dOCUMENTA, EVA, the Berlin Biennial and several other local exhibitions. It’s an endless stream of production and engagement that creates its own set of interference patterns when trying to recall a specific event from memory. The actual event is long gone, lost to the vagaries of time and now it falls victim to the frailest of faculties, human memory. Having been asked to write a response does however focus the mind a little more and between notes taken and further research it is possible to reconstruct some of those first impressions of the works encountered in the exhibition. The delay in formulating this response is in some way accidental but eventually became by necessity an essential element of a long viewing where time creates a distance between the spectator and the event. This distance, however, is not alienating from the factual event but in fact creates an intimacy, as the exhibition now only lives in the memory and is recalled only through conversations, catalogues, texts and reviews.
The MFA and ADW graduates need to be commended on finding the School Street space for exhibiting their work. Hopefully in the future NCAD will address the lack of investment in proper exhibition spaces for showing not only postgraduate but also undergraduate works that resulted in the MA students use of a somewhat inadequate abandoned school house. A decaying schoolhouse carries with it its own set of precognitive responses that cannot but colour the experience of anyone who crosses its threshold. The horrors or pleasures of our primary school education still haunt many of us today and this spectre that rises up in the distinct odour of the abandoned school house provides a disturbingly high level of interference when engaging with the works of the MFA/ADW class of 2012. However it must be stressed that the students, through their hard work and perseverance, managed to adapt the spaces they were provided with to produce a great variety of positive, alternative and somewhat unexpected experiences. If anything, the space that was finally chosen made this exhibition a unique and in many ways a more memorable one. Of course, this is not without acknowledging that the use of the former St. Catherine’s Primary School presented its own specific set of problems for each of the exhibiting artists.
A view from memory is a non-corporeal experience and leaves the imagination free to wander through the works and the spaces without adhering to the architecture and the topography of the actual space of exhibition. The order of encounter becomes rearranged by the associative power of recall. No longer able to move among the objects and images, memory floats as a vagrant soul and must become a ghost in a space that has ceased to be. The disembodied eye of memory moves through the spaces of memory but not unobserved, for the painted portraits by Genieve Figgis watch from the walls, with a sentinel glare. The eyes capture and focus as in David Lynch’s description of the eye of the duck when he describes the perfection of symmetry in a cinematic moment. It is a homage to a certain logic of nature; the eye of the duck can only be where it is meant to be. Any other location and the balance of nature would be thrown. Even with the peculiar surface fluidity of dissolved reality within these portraits there still is enough of an obedience to the logic of simulacrum allowing them to retain enough structure so as to remain in figurative balance and therefore they can challenge us as reflections on the vis a vis. In portraiture the ethics of alterity confronts us with the other as a reflexive extension of our selves. As Levinas’ would note, the ‘face to face’ is the foundation of social behavioural conformity. We look beyond the beautiful in these paintings in preparation of being examined. The gaze of these portraits dissects with the reflection of a dissociative schizophrenia. The portraits’ eyes followed the self-conscious spectres of those visitors that once populated the exhibition.
This spectral energy re-emerges in Molly Mishkas‘ installation Play (2012), whose work made perhaps the best use of the space of exhibition. The mis en scene of the derelict class room was incorporated into a complete environment that explored the presence of the school as an entity within the community of The Liberties. Portraits of local people appeared in small glass bulbs that were lit from the light outside, some of whom may have attended St Catherine’s where the walls absorbed the vibrations of their youth. There were projections of children staring out at us from a screen in the corner like caged animals looking through the bars of some sort of restraining pen. The chairs of the schoolroom of varying sizes were utilised to divide the room and obscure other projections. There was an element of carnival in this space and it became even more disturbing when another person was present sharing the space sitting silently in the dimly lit room. This reflexive work absorbed the very fabric of its surroundings, internalising it and then projecting it outward. This work shares something of the atmosphere of Kader Attia’s The Repair (2012) as seen at dOCUMENTA 13, a slide show projection of faces deformed by gun shot wounds in world war one and African artifacts collected by French colonialists. The recreation of this disturbing experimental archive strikes a chord with the way Mishkas reoriented the space to incorporate the school itself as an authoritative archive, or statement on the schoolroom as an uncomfortable space of learning and childhood that lingers in the collective memory of primary school education. The theatricality of this form of installation is overwhelming and fully immersive and so can be quite disturbing for the unprepared visitor. It presents the school as a place of rules, a restricter of freedom, an institution of discipline and constraint, a place where we unlearn what makes us free and so become indoctrinated into a socially structured straight jacket of conforming banality. Mishkas effectively created the most disturbing environment of the exhibition.
Time itself is at the core of the calendar developed by Tatiana Macklin. Here we see time as a visual exploration through entropy, decay, growth and cycles of the celestial bodies. Unlike the sense of terror present in the exploration of the nostalgia of childhood in Mishka’s Play, Macklin has a more clinical and yet personal exploration of time over a twelve month visual or rather video calendar. The cycles of nature have come to fascinate this artist who grew up in the concrete environment of a Russian city and now lives in the Irish countryside. It is these perpetual cycles that carry us, the ghosts of the exhibition, further away from our experience of the past, but Macklin’s piece makes us aware of the small alterations that go by us almost seamlessly and unnoticed. There is something quite peaceful, ordered and reassuring about this calendar of 365 motion stop days displayed very rigidly by 12 flat screens in a square construction. We stand before the screens like a traveller on a railway platform, waiting for a train, killing time reading and re-reading the information, without the realisation that it is precisely this flowing of time that is killing us.
And so we die but not forever, for we have been caught, or rather our aura has become suspended, here in the fabric of history and trapped within the walls of St. Catherine’s School. Emily Boylan‘s analogue works of cinematic exploration present us with the whole notion of aura, image, multiplicity and mechanical obsolescence. Like early cinematic or photographic practice there is something of the phantasmagorical in this nostalgic look at the making of moving images. The artificial ageing of 8mm black and white film projections, the use of old mechanical tools and bicycles to reveal the mechanics behind the illusion of moving images. It is a revelation to us here in this space of the exhibition that it is our eye and how it works in tandem with the conscious mind that creates the phantoms of the animated image. Quite often with the commonality of digital and video work we forget the principles behind the illusion and we allow ourselves to get carried away by the manipulation of these falsehoods, these Victorian medicine shows, these moving images that we so want to believe are showing us a tangible and objective reality. The flickering lights are revealed by Boylan to be no more than the moving shadows of an easily manipulated imagination.
In the stairwell Frank Wasser‘s words appear as a gem twinkling in the darkness of a structural nightmare. To an experienced hand in these matters of the word, the text, “Exhibition continues, this way.” stands as a declaration of play. In a Beckettian response we could ask: “in what way?” To which the reply is: “this way.” The absence of an arrow leaves the reader floating in a directionless semiotic soup. Without this link to the ontic world, the reader is lost in a linguistic storm of floating meaning. In another instance of the same text, there is a life buoy to save those who become bewildered by such meditations on meaning and language. The text, which appears in several locations, is in one incarnation accompanied by a title card. The title card acts as an anchor that steadies the ship. It instantly discards the influence of an ambiguous status. The title card is a reassurance against the unsightly knowledge that our words and therefore our thoughts and communications as mediated through those words are foundation-less. The exception to this senselessness is when they are reduced by a simple object like a title card to something more secure. The title card provides a narrative structure for the text. It places the wall text into the context of art exhibition and thus posits it into the time line of art history and cultural production. There is a transformation into a knowable and readable object, an art object to be exact. The wall text and title card become a self-contained dialectic. The wall text as thesis, the title card as anti-thesis. The synthesis lies somewhere in between, with us the transcendent ghostly observers.
Tanya O’Keefe‘s Ohpho (2012), is a work that places the human body in a distorted, overwhelming, gigantic, worm eye view, where feet and hands are the actors of some monumental massage. The video projection was excellently placed on the return of the stairwell. To continue through the exhibition necessitated a complete confrontation and engagement as averting the eyes from these colossal appendages was impossible. An essence of fetishistic pleasure seemed to exude from the oily fingers as they massaged the enormous human feet that were laid bare in all the glory of their exceptionally intricate structure. This very basic and hyperreal revelation of functioning of the body was reminiscent of a Degas bathing scene. A palindromic title like Ohpho suggests the illusion of symmetry and mirroring in natural form. This allusion to symmetry and balance is to be found at the core of homoeopathic practices that many forms of massage are an element of. This is also associated with eastern forms of self help and self improvement that involve the reduction of the ego that leads to momentary losses of self to achieve a oneness with the universe. This work of somatic performance is steeped in the tradition of realism and the struggle inherent in the human condition between the material and spiritual. It challenges us to acknowledge our corporal actuality and when we are in a mode of cerebral contemplation it is a true shock to the system. Recalling this work returns the roving eye of memory momentarily to universal gravity, forcing a recall of the viscerality of the physical body.
Similarly Olivia Hassett creates a work that demands a physical engagement. Her installation is similar to an obstacle course that requires negotiation. Constructed of day-glo materials it is quite suited to a primary environment, a space for those humans at a crucial stage of development where play tends to dominate activity. The way the work is installed gives a sense of being lost within a large organic or living organism of giant tendrils, ligaments, neurons and chambers. At one access point the visitor is almost forced to crawl to progress through the exhibition. The work embeds a muscle memory which we later can evoke as we learn to slip through the gaps in the fabric and rope onwards to the stairwell beyond leading us on to our next encounter.
Darren Campion‘s Untitled (2012) is a photograph that encompasses the entire thesis of this text. An image of a tree stump is a terrifying index to the impermanence of all things. Yet the photograph in all its brutality allows us to contemplate time in a dissasociative hermetic remove from the relentless slippage that we experience of our temporality. But like an amputee that can sense the presence of a missing limb, the structure of an entire tree returns to us from the depths of memory. In an act of synecdoche, from a part we remake the whole. Just as we use our imagination to remake experience through memory as a whole experience, in the smithy of the imagination the world of memory, as presented by our conscious mind, is perceived as a complete world.
The work of Seamus McCormack on the other hand is exploring something of the virtuality of being, the performative act of being itself in an incomplete world of artifice and virtuality. In the work Presence/Presents (2012), two simultaneous projections are incorporated: a photonic presence is created, and a virtual actor occupies a virtual space. When one or other beam is broken, something of either the space or the actor remains or disappears. If performance is a mask then so is the space of performance and the black box of the stage invades the white box of the gallery. The playwright and theorist Peter Brook maintains that drama is created by an empty space where something happens. McCormack is exploring the virtuality of the projected space, the illusion of a real space beyond the flat surface of the projection. Theatre or play is a performative mirror of reality. We as performative beings have a role in a social frame that in theatre becomes exaggerated by conflict which is the basis of drama. The spaces of performance explored by McCormack are caught somewhere in the mise en abyme, that is, the space or abyss formed between two mirrors. The image we perceive in this inter-reflective space moves away from our sight as the photons lose their energy, refracted by the glass of each following reflection until the image becomes so minute, distorted and translucent that it fades into a ghostlike impression and then ceases to exist entirely. In Facsimile (2012), a playful work based on this idea, we see the artist project himself setting up a screen and projector within a screen over and over until he seems to disappear entirely, just as our performative roles in the drama of being can reduce us through cycles and loops to insignificance.
Elaine Leader‘s architectural construction, Untitled (2012) is one of pure pleasure and terror in the same way a roller-coaster allows us to contemplate our immediate destruction but from the safety of a well engineered mechanical device. Leader’s piece destabilises the participant as they surrender control to the conveyor belt, allowing themselves to be carried along a claustrophobic narrow passage with a sense of dread as one faces the unknown result that awaits at the end of the journey. The relief of concluding the short but worrying journey without coming to a sticky end is palpable and leaves a somatic memory that will not easily be forgotten. It has something of the confessional in its box like confinement, and certainly the sense of relief when the journey is concluded is also something that we carry with us to the more contemplative works, such as those of Janine Davidson.
Davidson’s works provided a conundrum of technical ingenuity and presented a play of light that held a short lived interest beyond the curiosity of its formal trickery and the diurnal projection of the journey from day to night, Half-Light (2012) presented a simple circadian sequence. However Hyde and Seek (2012), also presented by Davidson, was by far one of the most memorable works in the show. This video installation was profoundly captivating and initially it was a struggle to ascertain why it compelled a second and third viewing. This projection was uncomfortably situated in a dark recess in the far corner from the entrance of a claustrophobic classroom. This was the perfect location for a work that had the ability to transport the viewer into another space, an inner-space. This video shot from within a bird watching hide touches on, as suggested by the title, the very catalyst of transformation: the act of observation. It hints at the internalised transcendent “I” and turns our attention inward. Although presented with a view, the viewer is positioned some distance form the bird hide windows that open onto a landscape of no consequence. The excellence here is in the disturbing internalisations that it forces upon the viewer.
Another work that explores the idea of observation, surveillance and the boundaries between the world as divided into interior private spaces and exterior public encounter is the work of Jill French, Negotiating Boundaries of Intrusion (2012). This installation gave the visitor the sensation of the conspiratorial intrusion into the private world of others, taking care of course not to reveal any factual or identifiable information regarding the human subjects of the secret observation. The sound work was particularly intriguing and activated the participant to lean into the speakers as the volume dipped, giving the sensation of being an eavesdropper as one tried to glean a snippet of intelligible conversation. To be a spy is to be covert, it is to be unseen like the wandering ghost in this exhibition of memory, free to float from room to room observing and yet unobserved behind the mask of a false identity. The surveillance equipment is the ghost of the secondary observer who is present in the experiment through the documenting of the secreted device. In this way the visitor to the exhibition becomes that ghost without the moral dilemma or the actual danger of having to physically intrude into the lives of others. This work explores curiosity, a basic element of human character, that drives the species forward to discover the secrets of our universe and develop new technologies and improve our conditions of life. There is a certain innocence and naivety sometimes in the position of wonderment that this curiosity, often associated with childhood, instills within the human psyche. However, there is a much more sinister element to the act of spying, interfering, acquiring knowledge of another persons private life, thoughts or actions. This intrusion can be viewed as something unethical, sordid, and a transgression of decent human behaviour. Curiosity is an all too human trait and it serves humanity well, but as in the morality tale of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, once we transgress we cannot undo what we have done, once we look we cannot unlook. What we see and experience changes us forever. Perhaps the unnerving reflection on this revealing work is that some keyholes are better left unexplored.
In this exhibition of the memory we enter and leave the nexus in a rhizomatic way. There is no order or set sequence to this journey. We can pull together random strands of thought and experience, intertwine them and dissolve them again at will. In the work of Paul O’Neill we can ask what does it mean to be a floating consciousness in an age that embraces an expanded mind through information systems that supplement the information retrieval of human memory. With this expanded mind is it possible to fully know ones own mind or is our consciousness simply a manipulation by an endless stream of artificial stimulation? O’ Neill in his work Wilmoth Houdini (2012), highlights a conscious awareness of independent information being available outside of a mind that can expand itself by the convenient touch of technology. This technology gives access to a cyber-universe of infinite information clusters, knowledge hubs, a virtual nexus that supplements the information storage within the meatspace of the brain. It stretches what we perceive to be the limits of “the real”. O’Neill offers us an exploration of the endless possibilities that artificial intelligent information systems can offer. Like Burton or Dr Livingstone setting off to discover the source of the Nile, the cybernetic information systems offer us a world of great adventure of endless connections and avenues to be explored that can begin with an Internet search based on one name. The name Wilmoth Houdini can lead to an inexhaustive journey of unending synchronicity, a flow of narratives, each different depending on the sequence of discovery, engagement and reordering. Each link leads to another. We enter this flow in mid stream and perhaps fall out of it as abruptly, depending on the narratives we can construct from our experience of it. In this piece O’Neill presents us with an information overload of text, image, video, sound and music. It is not intended that we can grasp the narrative sequence he has created from all of this information. We can only immerse ourselves in its hypnotic flow and allow it to carry us where it will until we can take no more, and as it releases the grasp that it has of our consciousness it can only inevitably dissolve into a mist of blurred logic and flickering light.
In terms of time and memory, painting is one of the most concentrated of art forms, reducing to a single immutable object a process of long and slow image making. In Kevin Mooney‘s works we see the transformative ability of painting to make images from the most basic of gestures of manipulated pigment. In the exploration of the minutiae of each brush movement we become witness to the most selfish of appropriations that is only countered by the most selfless form of making that every painter invests in a painting. In his works, what he himself refers to as cultural fluidity, the outcomes of research into the meta-narratives of colonial history and personal expression, percolates time and history into expressive images that become free sources for a new history and associated meaning. Loretto Cooney‘s paintings also incorporate this playing with narratives, but appropriates sources researched from more immediate time, drawing on current print media for inspiration. Though sharing something of a similar aesthetic of diffused figuration, Cooney’s focus has a more feminine subjective than Mooney’s exploration of the masculine meta-narrative of colonial conquest and the fusion of cultures through various historic migrations.
Thus the transmigration through this exhibition of memory ends and no more will be recalled until some trigger jumps the consciousness back to that dank and decaying space on School Street that for two short weeks was filled with the life of new artworks. As the works were disassembled and removed, the transient nature of such events as exhibition and an awareness of this ephemeral existence are driven home. If anything, what we take away from this experience of having been to the MFA/ADW exhibition will resurface as we explore new works and visit new exhibitions in the future. Even this text, once read, will hardly be reread, and the very words upon the page will sink into the darkness of lost information only to re-emerge in new contortions and snippets of associated information and experience. The hundreds of collected hours that went into realising this exhibition will drift away from us like grains of sand through our open fingers. Not only does the exhibition itself dissolve from our reality as the works are removed and the projectors are finally switched off, so shall the documentation of the event resolve itself to the dust of high entropy that passes the universe forwards into the unknown. Our mortality is palpable in our inability to hold onto time as it slips through our teleological experience of being. Until perhaps a time comes that we become immortalised in legend or become myth for our incumbent generations, our memories, all that we carry forward of the extraordinary and unique, even our experience of the MFA/ADW exhibition of 2012, in St. Catherine’s Primary School, in School Street, must abide within or be forgotten.
Barry Kehoe is a current student on the MA ACW course. Installation photographs by Darren Campion.