Seán O Sullivan is a writer and curator whose work focuses on the politics and preservation of localities. He has curated projects and written critical texts dealing with subjects such as architecture, ecology and the bonds between people and places. He is a former chairman of Black Church Print Studio, Dublin. He holds an MA in Curation and a BA in Fine Art from IADT, Dún Laoghaire. He is currently Visual Arts Adviser to the Arts Council of Ireland / An Comhairle Ealaíon.

This page: A short essay published in the eleventh issue of Critical Bastards.

Anything Tubular

There are plenty of disappointments to be had. Although art is run thick with them, it holds no special purchase over the feeling. But to presume one’s own overfamiliarity with disappointment can too quickly descend into vanity—it’s easy to spot a cynic thriving on small failures, always with the same churlish ostentation, always taking the temperature of the room with the same capacity for discerning judgment as is held by any other rectal thermometer. It’s harder to articulate a sense of joy than it is to root out another disappointment. For its own part, expectation is tied to feeling ready for something good—something sure and constant. But in seeing and making art, the genuinely satisfying experiences accompany the feeling of being unready: an unfamiliar worthiness weaving its way into the fabric of a moment without being fully deserved.

I remember breaking a plastic toy when I was about four years old. It was a long, malleable thing: a mechanical limb that could deform into an imaginary building or a pistol or a pair of legs. Ostensibly, it could be anything tubular, and I grew familiar enough with its physical limits to seek their edge and skirt the breaking points. Then, in a sudden and rather untimely burst of stretching I managed to snap the toy down to its base components. Having put the thing asunder the interior machinery that gave the object its power was fully revealed. It was a thick nylon string fastened to meet the rod’s inside ends so as to form a flexible spine. Looking back, I’m not sure what workings I had expected. In wondering about how the object worked I could flex my mind somewhat, but finding out the truth was something different. It was unceremonious and boring. It was totally ordinary.

This remains a paradoxical feeling. The magic of the machine was held in its experiential simplicity, but there were various manifestations of that simplicity and only some of them were encouraging or useful to the imagination. Half of them let me play within the helpful confines of the toy’s rules, and the other half exposed the true nature of the thing and all the components that gave it its thingness.

Four-year-olds get used to meeting with realist disappointment, and the feeling is usually followed by some guileless advice about understanding and respecting the things you love. But that advice is incomplete; once you know how ‘things’ go they can never be new again, nor loved in the same way. Our expectation is that enjoyment can last, but that expectation can only conciliate with reality if the concept of joy is understood as being malleable and deformable not only by oneself but by every manner of external condition. Call it the sausage principle: if you love something as it is, don’t bother finding out what’s truly behind it. This might be a useless thought to apply to art, particularly considering the venerated range of difference amongst our herd of independent minds. Someone is always desiring of the real truth; someone always wants the full machinery.