Barbara Knezevic: Temporary Equilibrium, helium, latex weather balloons, elastic bands, cotton string, brass eyelets, dimensions variable, 2010; image courtesy the artist.
In 1969, Samuel Beckett’s short play Breath made its debut in Kenneth Tynan’s bawdy revue Oh! Calcutta!. Infuriated by this staging, which ignored a typically specific set of stage instructions, Beckett withdrew the work and the play became a shadowy chapter in his back catalogue. This incident forms the crux of Barbara Knezevic’s recent exhibition at the Joinery, Breath and Other Shorts, in which a framed programme of Oh! Calcutta! is set beside an old library copy of Breath and a red-bound book, entitled Beckett: an exercise in omission. This latter piece contains Knezevic’s account of Breath’s ill-fated debut. Inside, the text is facsimiled hundreds of times, each page a copy of the one before until its image fades and becomes skewed. A metaphor for the changes that occur when a work is re-staged, this piece establishes a thread for the rest of an exhibition which abounds with duplicates.
A case in point is A testament to bravery which consists of a stone set face-to-face with a duplicate fashioned from wax. A one-sided mirror, which reflects only the wax model, separates the two. With only the duplicate then being duplicated, the stone is rendered a self-contained entity by contrast. Hefty and squat, one is led to ponder the Herculean (if not Sisyphean) effort required to heave the stone into the gallery. In the adjoining space, a length of pine, sharpened at either end, balances precariously on a small bronze rest. The symmetrical form and exacting equilibrium of Forewarned is Forearmed echoes the doubling of the first work, as does the delicate tension of Temporary Equilibrium in the final room where two large balloons are tethered to the floor.
Barbara Knezevic: A testament to bravery, stone, microcrystalline wax, mirror, dimensions variable, 2010; image courtesy the artist.
These doppelgangers could be cast as interpretations or restagings of the original object, thus engaging with the artist’s interest in the multitude of interpretations that may intervene between the production of work and its ultimate reception. After all, the exhibition takes its title from a particular edition of Beckett’s shorts, rather than from the play itself. Through the juxtaposition of an historical account of a text and its performance alongside the original, Knezevic draws our attention to the many readings that producers, directors and actors impose on work, thereby distancing it from the writer’s intentions no matter how specific his stage instructions. One cannot but help draw parallels to the process of artistic production whereby gallerists, curators and technicians mediate between the artwork and its audience.
This in turn elucidates the ease with which Knezevic relinquishes control of her sculptures through the use of fragile materials such as balloons (the contents of which neatly evoke the exhibition title), microcrystalline wax, and the failed register of the photocopier used in the omission book. Knezevic is sanguine about the prospect of these pieces degrading, relishing the unpredictability of the end result. While the works might be seen initially as austere minimalist objects, the artist’s acceptance of their mutable nature suffuses them with a referentiality beyond the material. Read as an ensemble piece, the chasm between the idea and its material manifestation recalls Beckett’s defence of the honourability of human effort – in spite of the risk of failure. Knezevic reminds us that to try and not succeed does not mean to founder in futility. Despite the instability of these materials, they are still capable of making an idea manifest.
Barbara Knezevic: Forewarned and forearmed, sharpened pine broom stick, bronze, dimensions approx 120cm x 20 cm x 5cm, 2010; image courtesy the artist.
The work in this exhibition raises a number of questions, some of which could be more fully resolved. The formal relation of the texts to the sculptures also seems a little weak. All in all, however, Breath and Other Shorts displays the deftness of touch that intertextual works often lack. This is an intelligent body of work which wears its erudition lightly, of which I look forward to seeing more.
Ciara Moloney is a writer who lives and works in Dublin.