“All Humans Do”, essay accompanying a group exhibition curated by Aoife Tunney and Chris Fite Wassilak at Black Box, New York, and The Model, Sligo.

“All Humans Do”


Though its title has a sci-fi source – originating in the script for Andrei Tarkovsky’s solemn philosophical space-travel movie Solaris — let’s imagine, for a moment, All Humans Do as a type of tense, strange situation comedy. For here, first of all, is an appealing ensemble cast — a gathering of idiosyncratic and not straightforwardly compatible artistic ‘personalities’. And here too are a series of shared, interconnecting rooms in which we will see the distinct qualities of the protagonists emerge — and where we can also anticipate some degree of out-of-the-ordinary ‘conversation’ and carefully coordinated, antic clashing. What the characters have in common is where they are from, but this is a line-up of twelve Irish artists who are appearing together only on the basis of individual traits and talents — it is a group defined by an unprepossessing diversity — rather than as a result of overtly shared attitudes or pre-occupations. Beyond the notional commonality created by the given background bond — and maybe aside too from a collective predilection for the low-key as an aesthetic priority — this is a ‘situation’ set up to promote variousness, to promise offbeat interaction between highly individual art practices: it is an occasion for the contemplation of surprising, shifting convergences of creative plot-lines, for what P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves would no doubt call “concatenations of circumstances”, or what Bertie Wooster, searching for the same phrase, alludes to as “a something of circumstances which leads to something. Cats enter into it if I’m not wrong.”

But let’s also propose, for the sake of our thought experiment, that this comedy would be of a more precisely ‘modern’ variant than the previous reference would suggest — a form of representing the world, perhaps, that is dependent on a shared experience of awkwardness and fallibility, that refuses safe detachment from the actions and aspirations of characters even as the meanings of what they are undergoing remain obscure, that brings us into intimate and jolting proximity with what ‘all humans do’, but that in placing us in this predicament induces discomfort and confusion rather than distanced, observational comic delight. For the literary critic James Wood, this mode of comedy — the central tragi-comedy of the modern novel — is one of irreducible human complexity, but also, crucially, of interpretative inscrutability. In this realm of the imagined world we are given, Wood argues, “no guarantee of reliable knowledge”, and yet at the same time, a key tendency of such comedy is that “it continues to believe that the attempt to know a character is worthwhile even if it is beautifully frustrated.” This is the basis of fictional tragic-comic ‘situations’ defined by disorientating but compelling undecidability: “a state in which the reader may not always know why a character does something or may not know how to ‘read’ a passage, and feels that in order to find these things out, he must try to merge with the characters in their uncertainty.” Here “the knowable is replaced with the unknowable, transparency with unreliability”. This is a form of art, Wood contends, that is “based on the management of our incomprehension rather than the victory of our complete knowledge.”

Concerns regarding ‘knowability’ also form the content of the exchange in Solaris that gives this exhibition its name. The distraught figure of Hari — a revenant representation of the dead wife of space-travelling psychologist Kris Kelvin, brought to ambiguous life by the mysterious, powerful planet Solaris — cannot fathom the condition of her own freakish (un)reality: “I don’t even know who I am anymore. Who am I? Do you know who you are?” Dr. Kelvin’s reply is clear and confident: “Yes,” he says “all humans do”. This response is in some ways astonishing to the viewer immersed in, and perhaps perplexed by, the slow-moving subtleties of Tarkovsky’s film. The ‘real’ Hari is no longer in the world, having committed suicide prior to this journey into space. Her spectral appearance has been here conjured by the planet’s extraordinary and disturbing ability to draw out the deep desires of those floating in its orbit. This ‘other’ Hari is a projection, or (somehow) a material re-creation, based on Kelvin’s regrets, needs, memories, doubts. Her haunting presence indicates a shocking confusion of inner and outer worlds, of physical and mental reality; the co-ordinates of the ‘rational’ universe are disordered; its fundamentals altered. In these unstable circumstances, how can a position of ontological certainty be stubbornly, even blithely maintained? How can we know who we are?

The ‘beautiful frustration’ regarding knowledge of the self and of others that we find highlighted in James Wood’s account of the comic is sporadically applicable to the art of the twelve humans assembled for All Humans Do. Several of these artists’ work is in a much more mystified state of apprehension about their place in the world than the titular claim by Dr. Kris Kelvin might suggest. Some of the selections for this exhibition are the peculiar outcomes of ongoing artistic efforts to access different dimensions of everyday reality, or to act differently in everyday reality, than ordinary experience might allow. Yet these attempts to reach out into the world in unique ways frequently arise out of manifest anxiety and uncertainty — and they are often so singular in form and disposition, so private in their means of addressing a public, as to leave us empathetically bemused as to their motivation or meaning. Again, this communicative loss is not a failure as such; rather, as Wood says of fiction, in such cases we are “gloriously thrown into the same mixed and free dimension as the novel’s characters.”

Stan Douglas’s description of his art as “a closed world that is open to the world” comes to mind here: this is a paradox with particular pertinence to the fraught, faltering moments of contact and communication in All Humans Do. In Brendan Earley’s dramatic large-scale drawings for instance, a near-sublime evocation of a great beyond is presented: and yet this extravagantly methodical image-making is grounded in remarkably modest means — for in this art of outwards striving, aesthetically inadequate marker pens are Earley’s intentionally unsatisfying tool. Earley’s envisaged outer world closes down just as it opens up — and this is a notion, a melancholy condition, not wildly distant from the more small-scale intensities of Fergus Feehily’s paintings and assemblages. Feehily’s is an art of what we might dare to call furious reticence — it initially appears softly spoken but its sensibility can be hard-edged. His tensely condensed abstractions or taut arrangements of textiles and found images (in some works, all at the same time) involve a modulation between harsh containment and liberating poetic expansion — they speak simultaneously of barely contained frustration and of a steady, controlled capacity to seek out unconventional, unexpected beauty. Aleanna Egan too has an uncommon capacity to collate or reduce minor leftovers of the manufactured world (combining industrial strength materials with less sturdy substances), creating oblique new configurations. Often these are artworks that draw on sources in literature, and that are thus, despite the compelling opacity of their presentation, results of a ‘beautifully frustrated’ process of finding plural pathways to shared meaning. One point of reference lately has been Saul Bellow’s More Die of Heartbreak, in which the narrator comments on events in a manner that echoes Egan’s attitude (and actual sculptural forms): “oh so much human thread being wound on the most trivial spools.” In Dennis McNulty’s short film Carbon Dating, a film studies lecturer recalls the quality of the architecture at a university where she once worked, remembering at one point the reason for rapid changes in temperature within the building: “they discovered there was a hole in the wall of the office and that’s why it was so cold … it was a strangely permeable and flimsy kind of shelter.” As the voiecover describes this setting for labour and learning, we see on the screen a series of obscure technical diagrams being drawn onto carbon paper: their meaning is unclear, but they hint at points of communicative transfer — they are graphic suggestions of contact and movement that contradict the lecturer’s disappointed reflections on how in her college landscape “certain big zones are closed off to you, you never go to them …”. The idea of the university as an open space of social and intellectual interaction is frustrated by more a ‘closed’ bureacratic reality. McNulty’s work examines the authority of such structures, pointing to holes in the wall, to precarious conditions, creating imaginative portals to escape through.


Among the human ‘situations’ of this exhibition, there are radically dissimilar approaches to making connections with a knowable self or with others; and there are strikingly different understandings of how to occupy and analyse the world. But in each of these artistic speculations there remains something like a ‘management of incomprehension’ rather than a ‘victory of complete knowledge’. Mark Garry’s art thrives on a potential for connectibility: his is a hugely hospitable manner of practice, open to new collaborations and new translations between forms and ideas. Structure and material form alernative relations with sound and music; sound and music become sources for elegantly restrained visuals: there is a “something of circumstances which leads to something” (in this case all centering on re-interpretations of the symphony Song of the Earth by Gustav Mahler). These are tentative, tender realistions of evolving ideas: fragile forms based on unorthodox affiliations. David Beattie too draws on the potential energy of out-of-the-ordinary relations: objects are brought together in situations of suspenseful motion; odd configurations of everyday things are enlivened by elecricity or gravity or magnetism to act in strange relation to each other — their distinct qualities operating (like All Humans Do as a whole) through circumstances of charged proximity. In other selections for this show, occasions of contact might imply a dislocating collision: low-key content is treated in a manner that disrupts its familarity. Kevin Kirwan’s contribution to the exhibition is, for example, barely there, hardly noticeable: a collection of personal photographs, an accumulation of pictured moments from the past, is placed in an orderly pile. Weighing down these fragments of a life, however, is a fragment of the distant universe, a piece of supposed meteor rock that imposes the radical disorder of a world beyond onto this neatly arranged record of a life. Locky Morris’s work has a related forcefulness, despite the benign, routine reality of its content: his ‘Bathroom Suite’ is a cut-up and sonically compacted audio recording of teeth being cleaned; the simple everyday task is adjusted to seem like a jarring stuttering signal — a disjointed, distorted transmission from another world.

At one moment in the concatenation of circumstances created for All Humans Do, “cats enter into it.” They are the focus of a genuinely strange film by Bea McMahon and we see them separately pace up and down a domestic hallway, gazing now and then into the lens of the floor-level camera. One has a bandaged foot and so limps a little — creating an odd rhythm as it wanders back and forth across the wooden floor. At first, it’s not easy to understand why these animals have been treated to such sustained attention, but as we look into the eyes of these seductively uncommunicative creatures — considering just how alien these beloved housemates seem as they look back — and as we adjust to the off-kilter beat of the hurt cat’s steps (and what’s more, as McMahon shows us shots from other tangentially linking situations), we might gain a slight, mounting sense that the closed world of a cat’s existence is being opened up to otherwise unconsidered correspondences. There is nothing especially out-of-this-world in the content of this film, but after spending time with it, something surely seems different about the world we are unavoidably in. We might find ourselves ‘merging’ with the spirit of inquisitive uncertainty of this work — just as, indeed, we might share in the sense of apprehensive searching that characterizes Niamh O’Malley’s moody black-and-white film Island. In this contemplative but also quietly agitated piece, the artist’s camera patrols the edges of the Catholic pilgrimage destination of Lough Derg; but there is never any actual docking with the island, never any commitment to making a confirmed connection with this world. Each slow, panning shot of the landscape concludes with the abrupt occluding of the view by a black shutter: it is thus, in its attempt to consider the conditions of this space of religious communality, a film of beautiful frustrations. Where O’Malley’s work has a tone of troubled gravity, keeping its distance from a site of supposed spiritual uplift, Rhona Byrne’s contributions involve scenarios of co-ordinated levity that are nevertheless intriguingly unreliable or incomprehensible. At the entrance to the first manifestation of All Humans Do (at Black Box Gallery in downtown New York) a large bundle of blown-up, interwoven modeling balloons was presented high above human head-height close to the exhibition entrance — this was a party trick of a kind, a celebratory gesture, and yet it was also a hovering black cloud, a mystifying and foreboding introductory presence. (In addition, Byrne pairs the ‘cloud’ with recordings specially made with ‘laughter groups’: individuals gathered for a therapeutic exercise that creates staged, enforced situations of hilarity.) Equally dominant in its bold black presence, but differently disconcerting in its idiosyncratic formal intensity, is a sculpture by Tamsin Snow that in a sense stands out in this show — it is highly-glossed, heavily framed object that looks like it is from a different art planet to the works of Feehily, Garry or Beattie — but is thus, perhaps, paradoxically suitable, precisely because it maintains a kind of cool, but anxious separation. Snow’s sculpture is both an image and an object: it contains a set of repeating, doubling pictures of the human form within a shifting set of interconnecting visual planes, and it is held in place by an imposing, monumental frame, a ‘space odyssey’ monolith of a surround. The ‘picture’ is also, however, escaping its frame: it is neither full in this display setting or out of it. It is connected to something and breaking free from it. It is a distinct creation, maybe, that does not quite know what it is. Like much of the art in this exhibitin, its predicament is one of creatively attempting to ‘know’ itself. It is struggling to establish an identity — as all humans do.

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