This year’s graduates are entering an art community with a cultural economy based heavily on reputation. As such, graduates are expected to be involved in determining and contributing to the cultural landscape in very concrete forms, by self-organising and by being both maker and distributor of their work. Irish graduate’s voices are desperately needed to ask difficult questions, and to quote Raqs Media Collective in this context:
“…art neither kills us nor keeps us alive, but being in the presence of art is sometimes a matter of fathoming exactly how alive we are prepared to be.”[i]
Winnie Pun, double projection, installation shot, GMIT degree show, 2011; image courtesy GMIT.
It is through this lens that I viewed the recent degree exhibition at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, Galway. It became very clear that while there is an urgency in this institution to address the world around us it is done in a quiet, more introverted than one would expect during this current economic crisis. Alongside this there was a nod towards professionalism and the selling of oneself; we are familiar with every graduate having a business card these days – calling cards to an Irish society that repeatedly marginalises the arts. This was coupled with the artist’s statement – something I am thinking of collecting, the way one collects stamps or teapots. Some were promising the world and its mother, others were deliberately obtuse, creating a deflective wall around the work.
The statement of Tina Hopp stood out as being playful, with an awareness of our text driven art world. Her statement was literally two-sided – one side of the paper was in academic speak, the other side in her own voice. The academic side laid claim to concepts and promised a concrete vision for the work while the personal side was full of questions that may never be answered.
Hopp’s degree show is made up of fragile wire sculptures and other wires tracing lines across the space, the floor, walls and ceiling. This a juxtaposed with delicate paintings, again exploring line in space. The installation is brought together by a sculpture in the middle of the room, made up of cupcake cases. These objects, made of the lights and translucent paper, defy gravity by making a precarious tower on a plinth. Through line, texture and abstraction Hopp invites us into a carefully planned world of enquiry. There is a sense of open-ended experimentation here as she invites us to consider the form of one line, then two, and so on until we accept this accumulative way of exploring the world around us. Hopp’s work is concerned with the internalisation of this world, how we negotiate and understand both real and imagined space. It celebrates the intertwining of intuition and intellect.
Helen Caird, photograph, GMIT graduate show, 2011; image courtesy GMIT.
This exploration of space is also apparent in the work of Winnie Pun. Her two projected video works show an unchanging rural landscape featuring a lake and some trees with an overcast sky. Pun has filmed these two projected video pieces by taking one video camera and lining it up with a stills camera. The landscape is filmed through the lens of a stills camera. The stills camera’s viewfinder acts as a pointer towards the centre of the compositions, a direction so deliberate it becomes futile. What it is pointing to is as unassuming as the rest of the composition, asking the viewer to contemplate the space between the real landscape and on the landscape seen through the stills camera. These video works are shown alongside beautifully rendered photographs and paintings which explore different elements of a prosaic, everyday landscape. All of the works are small in scale, showing a rigour in research. Her skilled application of paint on gessoed panels is done to perfection. With this confidence in materials and concept, Pun delivers a delicate idea – that of just looking. There is an impulse on the artist’s part to make sense of, what we perceive as, the quiet and non-changing elements of our world.
Similar concerns emerge in Helen Caird’s work which examine the spatial memory and presence of ghost estates. This is a familiar theme in contemporary Irish art. Caird’s use of material, ink and wax drawings on large paper, lit from behind by fluorescent light, allows conceptual space for the viewer to navigate. The use of a sound piece, recording the quietness of the space, is effective. There are no expected sounds of a housing estate: traffic, children playing, TV, radio or people talking. Instead, there is the sound of what we can assume to be the artists footsteps moving through the house. The accompanying narrative implies that that no one except the artist has ever been here. There is a sense of loneliness in these images – empty houses lovingly rendered in paint and wax on large sheets of Fabriano paper. Caird successfully communicates the idea of the anti-home as a space where intimacy and safety can never propagate.
Elmarie Collins, Maybe they were human once, video still, 2011; image courtesy GMIT.
Elmarie Collins’s well considered installation allows the viewer to uncover and explore the work in a physical way: picking up images and looking at them though a magnifying glass, controlling the miniature and fragile LED lights and choosing what to look at and in what order – and indeed choosing how to leave these lights for the next viewer. The audience must crouch down to peer at other sculptural and video pieces. The title of the installation Maybe they were human once shows protagonists, masked, in photographic and video images looking lost in a wasted landscape. They gather in groups or appear alone on open roads. An old radio sits in the space, evidence of an attempt to connect to something outside of this micro-world. There are traces of interference within space: holes in the walls, mark out of dots in an attempt to map or track something unknown to us. Collins successfully engages the viewer with this anxious mindscape. This is a lifelong goal for any artist: to communicate a meaning that they may not fully understand themselves.
Mary Ahearne, video still, GMIT graduate exhibition, 2011; image courtesy GMIT.
This transmission of meaning can often by hijacked, as mentioned above, by an artist statement. A well executed, formal sculptural work by the brilliantly named Tom Crean is somewhat hindered by its accompanying statement which imposes a very specific perception of the work on the viewer. Two giant metal tables confront the viewer in a space made sinister and dark. Vibration and sound pulse through the tables, and this kinetic frenzy changes according to the amount of people interacting with it. They are aesthetically impressive, but are somewhat lacking in conceptual clarity and rigour.
Mary Ahearne’s installation of video, sculpture, sound and performance is heading in the right direction and it will be interesting to see how she develops this work, which is at present aesthetically strong and gripping on an emotional level, but like Crean’s work, it needs more critical development. I would expect the next body of work from both of these artists to be rigorous and resolved.
Maeve Mulrennan is the director of the Galway Arts Centre.
[i] Raqs Media Collective Wonderful Uncertainty Curating and the Educational Turn ed. Paul O’Neill & Mick Wilson Open Editions / de Appel 2010 p.77