American painter and assemblagist Allan Kaprow first used the term ‘happening’ in his 1958 essay “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock” to describe a new form of art. The early ‘happenings’ disregarded the idea of the art object as something precious, and instead favoured the perishable and the random. Happenings became playful and dependent on audience interaction. The new art events incorporated bodily actions sounds, smells and texts – both spoken and written. Declan Rooney’s exhibition Happenings and Nonevents at first glance seems like a text book example of a Kaprow-influenced ‘happening’ with ‘the integration of all elements – environment, constructed sections, time, space, and people […]’

Allan Kaprow- Fluids (1967) Allan Kaprow: Fluids, October 1967; image held here.

Performance one was the result of workshops with a group of local skaters – Urban Sports Kilkenny. This performance saw Rooney read excerpts from texts about the Beat Movement where he dons a pair of black sunglasses each time he reads the word ‘beat.’ As the skaters slide and stomp over the wooden jolly, the artist rests on the taller, podium-like wooden boxes, oblivious or ignoring the youths attention seeking tricks. The effort of this could be read as comment on style over substance. The reading of the texts also seems to mock the attempt to radicalise a group and explain the terminology associated with them.

The second performance was a four-hour durational performance. This happening was formed out of the workshops with the volunteer group. As Arthur Browne’s Fire Poem screams and drones in the background, Rooney meditates and then performs a series of hand gestures while standing in front of a red stand. Smell, sound, movement and handmade objects confront the viewer. A volunteer moves around Rooney hanging images of symbols, hand gestures and a space view of earth. On the back of the red stand hangs a photocopy with the words “another victory for hysteria.”

Declan Rooney: Happenings and Nonevents, Butler Gallery, 2010.Declan Rooney: Happenings and Nonevents – Performance Two, performance view, 2010, photo: Anna Bernston, image courtesy of the artist.

This room was complex in layout and contained a confusing mesh of symbols, sounds and voices. The unspecified nature of the ‘volunteers’ makes for a strong performance. Their presence is almost unfelt but also necessary. The quick turn-over of hand actions and hanging images form a more complex interaction with such recognisable hand gestures as the two–finger rocker salute. The artist visibly tires, and his bizarre gestural communication become his means of movement or escape from a physically uncomfortable stance.

Performance three incorporated the Kilkenny Collective for Arts Talent’s (KCAT) Equinox Theatre group. This group were playful and engaging to watch. The video documentation sees four actors investigating and interacting with the objects in the space. They interact with the objects in a completely unselfconscious manner, experimenting with the four pieces of fabric and how they could perform with it. It was used to hide under, it was used to wrap, all as a means of communication. The artist performed separately from the group.

Declan Rooney: Happenings and Nonevents, The Butler Gallery, 2010.

Declan Rooney: Happenings and Nonevents, the Butler Gallery, 2010.Declan Rooney: Happenings and Nonevents – Performance Three, performance view, 2010, image courtesy of the artist.

The group performance was projected on the wall as Rooney performed his ridiculously laborious, self involved actions which seemed comparatively mad compared to the spontaneity and generousity of the other actors. An minimal beat electro music played both in Rooney’s performance and along with the video projection. This added to the juxtaposition of repetition and spontaneity.

The final performance incorporated Rooney’s workshops with a group of local musicians. Low droning sounds and light whistle sounds created a textured soundscape of curling winds and crickets. Rooney lifts a black cloth screen up and down revealing and concealing himself. The objects placed on painted black wooden boxes deter from the visual impact of the flowing folds of cloth. The performance was shamanistic and echoed the boundary of cloth between audience and artist – between chosen object and everything else.

Declan Rooney: Happenings and Nonevents, The Butler Gallery, 2010. Declan Rooney: Happenings and Nonevents – Performance Four, performance view, 2010, photo: Darja Vas, image courtesy of the artist.

By giving the exhibition certain structural elements, he mirrors the need for structure in groups and the common objects or themes which groups operate within, while also offering the viewer and insight into the dynamics of each group. The structural elements of the wooden boxes gave the exhibition a cohesive feel as did the equally awkward positioning of video footage in each room which challenged and manipulated the viewer.

In titling the exhibition a ‘nonevent,’ it removes a commitment to the idea of a ‘happening.’ It also questions the practice of such events. The common elements of a happening such as: time, space, constructions, sound were all present. However, the audience interaction was less involved as the performers in the pieces comprised of various groups that Rooney had worked with previously, thus removing an element of spontaneity and chance.

Video documentation was carried out by Vanessa McGrath, Jean Tormey and Darja Vas.

Edel Horan is a writer who lives and works in Kildare.