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 community, ecology and the bonds between people and places. He holds an MA and a BA in Visual Arts Practices from IADT, Dún Laoghaire. He is a former chair of Black Church Print Studio, Dublin. He is Visual Arts Adviser to the Arts Council of Ireland / An Comhairle Ealaíon.
This page: An essay on ‘Undertow’, an exhibition by members of Ormston House, Limerick. Curated by Alice Maher and Aideen Barry.
3rd Feb –3rd Mar 2012
About four years ago I got caught in a riptide off the coast of Kerry. Particularly strong swimmers might concentrate on staying calm and afloat until a life preserver can be found. That theory is flawless until you swallow your first mouthful of water. After that, the energy abandons your body and your skin turns as pale as tissue paper. I had a brief flashback to that moment in ‘Undertow’. Ian Wieczorek’s painting, the Phlogisticated Man depicts a distorted, pinkish figure set against an empty black space. The figure is a clouded mesh of pinks and whites that seems to have the physical shape of a person, but provides few recognisable features to confirm its humanity. The form is visible above the shoulders, where its smaller extremities drift and spike themselves into the blackness. Almost as though this ‘phlogisticated’ person is being expunged from reality – or is standing over you in the waking moment after unconsciousness lifts.
‘Undertow’ is curated by Aideen Barry and Alice Maher. The exhibition seeks to magnify and break through the ordinary surface of things, to traverse those interior depths that foreshadow a hidden and nameless danger. In three photographic self-portraits, Karin Lindholm uses her hands to brutally distort her face. Knäppfinger #15, shows the artist’s sinewy body above the shoulders, and catches the light from a flat red backdrop. Lindholm’s fingers are so pressured that they have filled with blood. An index finger prods into her soft ocular tissue far enough that it seems her eye might come out. One finger is secreted inside her mouth, and mashes her lip out towards her left ear. It is a convincing impression of Iggy Pop. The fingers on Lindholm’s left hand obscure her face, and are arranged in a purposely-convoluted shape – a surprising twist in her apparently pained moment. This cosmetic gesture moves Knäppfinger #15 from being a loathing self-portrait into an invocating act for the benefit of the image itself.
Padraig Robinson’s film What to do when loves gone (Schwulikucken) is a sequence of near-stills from a soon-to-be-abandoned Berlin sex club. The building was well known for its inclination towards hardcore, fetishist sex. However, the film documents the place during daylight hours. The building is empty, save for the cleaners pottering around in the background listening to the radio. The camera catches anatomical diagrams, a dentist’s chair, benches, mirrors and a single swinging manacle. Every piece of furniture seems to be covered in a uniform of either black or red leather; I presume that these fetishists are delighted by living up to a stereotype of themselves. Robinson situates his film within the grammar of photography; it is a sequence of near-stills that variously capture lights, refractions, crosses and points. At the time of filming, the club, ‘Die Böse Buben’, was on the verge of becoming a victim of gentrification: an office, some apartments or an overpriced greengrocer. The cleaners listening to gospel music are just stand-ins for the true detergent – an incoming economic wash.
Ruby Wallis’ three-minute film offers a story from a different pocket of economic life. In Moving Stills, Wallis captures her personal connection to a utopian community in the West of Ireland. This group practices a philosophy of sustainable farming and recycled building. The film opens to the sound of birdcalls and rushing wind, and contains a limited sequence of imagery. The viewer sees a broad canopy draped across the gnarled branches of a tree; light breaks through the leaves in sheets and broad columns. The canopy looks like a fallen parachute, however it belongs to a gardening tunnel, a structure providing crops with a high temperature environment to grow. The sequence ambles along to the cherubic face of a young child, a middle aged woman and a distinguished older man composited beside the overgrown plot. Wallis’ film is projected on the same type of satin-finish screen as Padraig Robinson’s, and like that piece, is presented within a language of still photography. Towards its end, Wallis records a woman lying sideways on a brightly coloured couch staring into the camera, she maintains a blink across a long series of frames – each of her small movements halts and blurs into the next.
Will O’Kane’s small oil painting Piece of Wood on String is a misremembered moment set in demure pinks and greys. A long block seems to swing and evaporate its way back into conscious memory, breaking through small nodules of congealed undercoating. His ‘string’ looks like a wisp of dark smoke, hardly able to hold its totemic block, and hanging from nothing. In Gimena Blanco’s architectural intervention Organic Line, the artist painted cracks up the length of the building’s window. These isolate shapes and spaces that are visible from either side of the work’s transparent surface, demarcating the window itself as a third space between the building and reality. In a pair of untitled installations, Ali Kirby manipulates a sown up quilt, coloured light bulbs and a series of springs into overtly sexual positions. She uses electrical flex in place of thighs, and a broom handle doubles as a light bulb, and a penis. Kirby’s colourful readymades crank out innuendo, while simultaneously highlighting some tired ideas about the ‘male gaze’ and really giving them a kick in the neck. From outside the gallery, Veronica Nicholson’s scrawled neon sign reading ‘I’m content’ presents its notification to the public. This century’s techno-marvels use a drab blanket term for music, books and art – the word ‘content’ is emblematic of an insatiable greed for culture, and, of a path away from cultural contentment.
Paul Hallahan’s holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul is visible through a window from the street. This short, monochromatic video positions a distracted old dog against an empty white space. The dog jerks its head from here to there, intermittently delivering a robotic bawl from a wooden speaker at the window’s upper frame. Hallahan makes reference to Allen Ginsberg’s poem ‘Howl’ in the work’s title. A few feet down the street, Lisa-Marie Johnson staged a live performance entitled Sucking the Bell, which was fed through to a video screen inside the gallery. Johnson wrapped her waist in a long string of gemstones, and stood in the pouring rain, erratically ringing a bell. She didn’t communicate with any passers-by and appeared to be holding a waxen clump of garlic. The walking public made pronounced efforts to dodge her, particularly after she spread a blanket across the footpath and covered her mouth with the bell. Kristian Smith’s photographic print Hard captures a statue of a faceless woman, which is visible above the shoulders and positioned against a grey background. Her hair is shaped into strains of stone, which snake around a pair of outsized ears. The print is separated into symmetrical halves. A thick white border excises the woman’s eyes, nose and mouth, misaligning the distance between these divisions so that her torso appears like a bulbous lump of marble flesh.
The outer surface of normal life is a rich territory for analysis, and it is an unseemly path to tread. These works peel away at the guise of normality that wraps itself around living; you can see it lifting up in the Phlogisticated Man and Sucking the Bell. It has nearly been unremembered in Knäppfinger #15. This undertow represents the point when normal life takes a turn in the dark. This moment is a siphon; before you realise, it has reached your neck and threatens to subsume you into its current.