A New Occult and Encounters with the Invisible Man
A review of Furtive Tears, 4 October 2018 – 6 January 2019 by Niamh McCann at The Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin, 2018.
Occultation; n. (Astronomy); The passage of a celestial object across the line of sight between an observer and another celestial object; as when the moon moves between the Earth and the sun in a solar eclipse.
Beckoning us through ghostly operatic echoes as we ascend the stoic neoclassical staircase of the Hugh Lane Gallery, McCann’s video work Furtive Tears, Salomé’s Lament eventually drenches us in
an opulent fusion of Richard Strauss’s Salomé and Donizetti’s Una Furtiva Lagrima from here the hybridism of language and landscape becomes only more strange.
An imposing screen seduces us. Boris, a suited man, appears to await our arrival and scales the grandiose marble staircase of Belfast City Hall in a pair of red high heels. In a duo of impassioned tableau vivant’s he mimics the stance of Sir Edward Carson’s statue, situated at Stormont Castle, Belfast, followed by the Jim Larkin monument on O’Connell Street, just meters away. Both prominent twentieth century political figures immortalised in a state of dramatic public address. Outside the gallery they tower over contemporary cities fraught with new political uncertainties, their power redundant, their bodies now relics cast in silence. McCann breathes a last breath into their predominance and within it gives us space to reassess our own position in relation to both historic and contemporary power structures.
In the following scene we follow Boris’s continued ascension as he scales the Ridge View of Black Mountain leaving Belfast city behind having swapped his suit for a panda costume. Still wearing his red shoes, we witness him meandering through dewy grass, climbing fences and encountering mildly inconvenienced cows. He again mimics these political ghosts but this time the man is hidden, masked, he has become a cartoon. The dramatic inhabitance of these two iconic statues becomes a pathetic historical indistinct echo falling on deaf ears. We see his physical intentions without the details of expression, he is present but not apparent, something has passed between us and him obscuring our perspective, our reality.
This notion of occultation is pushed further in the adjoining gallery as we encounter our third immortalised male figure in a work wryly entitled The Age of Bronze AKA The Awakening Man AKA The Vanquished One (masked) pertaining to Rodin’s multi named bronze cast male figure (1876-77), a piece from the Hugh Lane Collection. McCann encases the gallery’s own Age of Bronze in a sharp green box frame, his head and upper body obscured with two panels, one blue the other a walnut burl veneer. This is a mongrel of the opposing sides of modernism but beyond its formal and art historical loft dwells a new space for interpretation. Through McCann’s geometric addition the figure of the naked bronze solider appears vulnerable, even caged. As the linear mechanism contrasts with the details and curvatures of his lower anatomy a palpable intimacy develops, yet he cannot “see” us, he is a pawn in a statement, to be looked at but not fully engaged with.
These historic male statues and monuments bare a contemporary vulnerability. McCann is redistributing notions of power and how we perceive it. She confidently harnesses these icons like a child might put batteries in an old toy and asks us to look again. Paradoxically there is a sense of the prophetic here, these historic regurgitations feel immediate and succeed through McCann’s ubiquitous intentions, her place amid the current socio-political zeitgeist and our own conception of the dawning of a new order.
In another gallery a taxidermied fawn towers above us, its head suffocated with a zipped black balloon, its fore limbs extended to its rear with black curved rods as it precariously sits, like a rocking horse, atop a box frame plinth, containing a dangling umbilical-esque blue neon tube light. From a height a pair of white voile drapes partially veil the rich blue walls before theatrically pouring to the floor surrounding an offering of fresh lilies, their fragrance inhabiting the space in a sharp organic sweetness as if Salomé herself was present, seducing us, dancing the Seven Veils amid this mise-en- scène tempered with sacrifice, vulnerability and power. These works lean on us as viewers to decipher what we do not see, or what McCann chooses to occult; they deftly summon forth the invisible. In the same room a large bronze nose cast from Seamus Murphy’s marble bust of Michael Collins (1949), another work from the Hugh Lane Collection, sits on a faux classical plinth, faceless, ironically pointing at a second green pedestal with a pair of destroyed aviator sunglasses. The monumental male is almost invisible now, surviving only by a nose, snorting contemporary air, like a man drowning in history or to quote Salomé in “black lakes troubled by fantastic moons.”
Art critic Rosalind Krauss writes of the logic of sculpture as being inseparable from the logic of the monument, “It sits in a particular place and speaks in a symbolical tongue about the meaning or use of that place”. McCann’s landscape of artefacts is profoundly routed in the space it inhabits; it is of the institution and rebels tangibly and intellectually within that frame. It is quite literally a Trojan horse, it is a series interventional contraptions concealing rebels and soldiers.
Here Salomé no longer dances alone under the gaze of men McCann’s ideas head bang alongside her, amid the Hugh Lane collection, like their parents have gone out of town. Furtive Tears is a spiky romantic affair it confronts us with fact and fiction, real and faux. Like Parrhasius’s curtain the perceived occultation is the work. As McCann’s objects pass between us and the past they momentarily eclipse history and in that darkness dwells a new constellation offering us portals into the alternative, interrogating socio-political shifts and arguing the legitimacy of the relics of politics and art, placing us at the centre of our own truths and preconceived ideas of our idiosyncratic place in story that is history.
Brendan Fox is an artist, curator, film maker and writer living in Dublin, he is currently studying MA Art in the Contemporary World, NCAD