Review: Bea McMahon, ‘Root’

Sara O’Brien reviews Bea McMahon’s exhibition at the Temple Bar Gallery + Studios

There is a certain nervousness about entering an exhibition with the ineluctable weight on my shoulders that I am going to write a review on it, a tentative nervousness that is somehow further amplified but then assuaged in an encounter with the intricate yet engrossing work of burgeoning Irish artist Bea McMahon.

McMahon’s work endeavours to explore the complex relationship between our internal human world and external reality, considering the boundaries and systems of reconciliation therein utilising video, 2-D and sculptural elements. Root, is one such exploration, a rather halting yet immersive sculptural installation comprised of two finely interlaced components: Volume, a sedate 12-minute video which increasingly links to kinetic sculptures that incorporate light and film projections, and two accompanying ceramic sculptures.

Immediately, the ordinarily bright ‘white cube’ space of the Temple Bar Gallery is subsumed by McMahon’s installation, and an acute sense of another landscape abounds, a heavy curtain shrouding the bustling outside and the dark space enveloping the senses. Immediately one encounters the two ceramic sculptures, whose incontrovertible geometric structures immediately hint at the mathematical background that ostensibly imbues McMahon’s work. The structure of the pieces themselves (triangular panels opening towards and away from the spotlight illuminating them), the nature of the ceramic finish and the glinting of light upon this instantly resonate with McMahon’s ‘curiosity about the surface of things’. In one sense these illuminated sculptures feel almost like an incidental aside, their robust nature perforating the ethereal atmosphere of the space, yet their spotlighted illumination, mimicking museum display, insinuates their import as one diverts to the video piece.

The video and the accompanying kinetic sculptures doubtless proceed to engulf one’s attention as a muted narrative unfolds on the sizable screen. Images of birds echo McMahon’s persistent use of animal motifs, the initial rhythmic beating of the bird’s wings initiating calmness as we are introduced to the video’s female protagonist, negotiating a lakeside landscape. The sense of layered correspondence and unfolding order that arguably dominates this work begins to emerge from the melange of images, as slowly the video and kinetic sculpture begin to echo each other through sound and image.

McMahon has described this work as concerned with the “site of the boundary of a body as a…crossing” and an “examination of the light interchange at the surface of things”: this latter statement prompts an intriguing ambiguity akin to that prompted by the title of the exhibition, which itself bodes significance in its homonyms: branching plant root and its links to evolution, and root numbers, which disrupted ‘Pythagorean theory of divine correspondence between numbers and the universe’. Here, the analogous homonymy of ‘light’ tenders notions of both an easy interchange, and of the interchange of light, at a surface. Related notions of the body as site of both boundary/surface and crossing coalesce as the amalgamation of converging light projections and image crossovers increasingly permeate and test the limits of one’s perception throughout the 12-minute piece.

Myriad notions of evolution, interchange and correspondence invariably infiltrate McMahon’s installation as your gaze flits from video to kinetic sculpture: the installations various elements infiltrate and mirror each other, movement escalating and images increasingly interlocking to create a paradoxically frantic sense of building order. Initial calmness methodically and systematically mounts to a speedy kaleidoscopic layering of elements, which reveals a rigorous structure and precise framework of correspondence within the work, all amidst an induced sense of bodily oscillation (reminiscent of having had a glass too much wine – dread to think if one was overeager with refreshments on the opening night).

McMahon has created a sense of rhythm here, which suggests that something here makes sense, may help our knowing this external world. This rhythm, and systematic correspondence therein, informs our negotiation of this ‘landscape’, echoing McMahon’s interest in the systems we create to mediate our inability to ‘grasp [the world] beyond our human interior’. Admittedly, a tentative feeling that she has ‘given form to invisible but essential layers of the real world’ emerges. The sensation of convergence alongside the blurring of boundaries of image and movement is indubitably engaging and prompts a feeling that there is something of significance going on here, even if one doesn’t quite know what it is.

In Root, this subtle sense of profundity is adeptly married with the increasingly engrossing sensory engagement of the installation; Root is nearly reminiscent of a particular fun-fair ride, evoking the initial hesitancy, subsequent disorientation but final calm induced by an annual go on ‘The Waltzer’. In essence, McMahon has constructed a precise architecture here within which she briefly besieges your vestibular and perception, while prompting preeminent concerns of her oeuvre, ultimately rooting you back down to ground with a sense that something worthwhile has been provoked.

Sara O’Brien is a current student on the MA ACW course. This exhibition runs until tomorrow (23rd November 2012)