Another piece from some years ago: a 2007 Douglas Hyde Gallery catalogue essay for a terrific group show featuring Nina Canell, Clodagh Emoe & Linda Quinlan. This is a slightly odd piece, but I think I was in quite an odd state of mind when I wrote it…
‘Sleep through the rest of my days …’
— Joanna Newsom, ‘Cosmia’
The phone is ringing. No, not ringing: buzzing, pulsing. The squat black handset is suddenly, alarmingly animated on the bedside table — newly mobile, a living cell — its persistent, pestering vibrations shaking a half-empty glass of water that begins rythmically clinking against the metallic base of a small lamp. The clattering and murmuring music made by this random coming-together of objects quickly wakes me from a strange and dream-filled daytime sleep that I have accidentally fallen into while vainly attempting to work at home. Bewildered, I sit up and stare stupidly around. The swaying room seems wholly alien: the air feels thicker, more liquid than it should be, as if I have woken up underwater. Reaching for the still-fidgeting phone I see that no known name has registered, the glowing display showing only an unfamiliar sequence of digits. I answer with a low, croaking “hello?” and several slow seconds pass before I hear a voice — distant, male, elderly — asking with audible anxiety, “Son? Is that you? Where are you?” It is obviously a wrong number, but for a few fretful moments I am utterly confused; the sudden, disconcerting unreality of my just-woken state-of-mind instantly heightened by these fraught enquiries. I apologise to the worried stranger on the other end of the line and hang up, learning nothing more of him, abruptly ending this odd, momentary meeting of private worlds.
However fleeting, forgettable and meaningless these minor events and vague sensations may be, their lingering after-effects shape my mood as I return to the scene of the abandoned morning’s work. In the now-silent room, I gaze over scattered fragments of a writing project, contemplating my earlier optimistic efforts at piecing together thoughts on the work of three peculiarly talented artists: Nina Canell, Clodagh Emoe and Linda Quinlan. Looking again at the assorted plans, lists, notes, drafts and distracted doodles that litter the landscape of the desk (a terrain bordered by a forbidding mountain-range of largely unopened books), I see again that I have noted, here and there, a shared emphasis on eccentric combinations and transformations of objects in the work of these artists. I see that I have been drawn to highlight a common questioning of the reliability and fixity of physical forms — prompting in each case profound anxieties regarding the impact of an ‘uncertain’ physical world on our precarious subjectivities. And I see too that I have tentatively proposed that each of these artists in their own way strives to create or identify points of connection and overlap between what we might choose to think of as ‘parallel’ spheres of being: seeking correspondences between visible and invisble phenomena, encouraging ‘conversations’ between real and imagined realities, mapping in-between spaces between waking and dreaming worlds. But where, I wonder in these still-hazy waking moments, might such half-thoughts take me? And to what extent can I comprehend their implications?
‘The idea is to remain in a state of constant departure while always arriving …’
— from Waking Life, dir. Richard Linklater
My mind wanders back to two small photographs by Clodagh Emoe: two ambiguous images of interiors that seem, suddenly, to represent two places at once, or one place twice. The first is a view of a basic, somewhat sad and dreary, single bedroom. A pair of blood-red flip-flops and a slightly ruffled orange bedspread signal the presence of a current occupant, but otherwise this space looks barely lived-in, barely there at all. Presumably, it is temporary accommodation of some kind: functional, sparsely adorned, both homely and unhomely. Above a solitary mirror, a kitsch sign bids ‘farewell’ in a florid script to the anonymous resident: a ‘friendly’ goodbye, but also a curious welcome for any new arrivals — a welcome made still more curious by the creepy addition of a tiny skull drawing that lends ghoulish finality to the sign’s hokey send-off. The second, similarly unsettled, photograph promises a different ‘domestic’ view: this time from a deserted living room directly into a dense, sunlit forest. But this is a frustrated view, as any proper appreciation of the sumptuous natural scene is impeded by the blunt presence of another troubling text — an elaborate graffito painted onto the broad windowpane that sends out an uneasy personal message:“it seems that I would always like to be somewhere where I’m not.” The ‘I’ in Emoe’s work is caught, like the image itself, between the attractions of different positions, existing restlessly in a purgatorial state.
Such an in-between condition may be disorientating, or productive and pleasurable in its indeterminacy, and Emoe seems to maintain, or repeatedly initiate, a restive search for ideas and experiences that might take her to such real or imagined territory. A series of purposefully unfinished pencil drawings of star systems demonstrate a hopeful but futile effort to map one’s position in the cosmos; a crudely crafted cardboard model of a long outmoded Soviet space-travel simulator offers a modest vision of humbled human aspiration; a projected photomontage morphs together the faces of the artist and a close friend as they hold hands in a forest — a sly homage to the committed conceptual dualism of Alighiero e Boetti. Each might be understood as pairing high-minded aspiration with a type of dissolution; each implies a quest for something ultimately intangible. And on noting this strong current in Emoe’s work I am, in time, taken elsewhere, reminded of other elusive subjects: my mind turning to the expeditions ‘in search of the miraculous’ undertaken in the recent work of Linda Quinlan. How, though, can I begin to cogently summarise the diverse and deep fascinations of Quinlan’s art? In her work she travels rapidly back and forth from the mundane to the marvelous: prospecting at the margins of the familiar; collecting haphazardly; avidly seeking discoveries beyond the everyday world. One literal journey has proved particularly impactful on the development of present interests: a recent residency in Tasmania, during which she set out to study the cultural and geographical importance of wilderness on this island state, while also contemplating the powerful pull exerted by vast Antarctica to the south. During her time there, Quinlan also lifted her gaze from the land each night to look into the deeper wilderness of space: tracking and filming the dazzling McNaught comet as it lit the Tasmanian sky, racing magnificently through our galactic neighbourhood, a mere thirty million kilometres from our sun. Such grandly ambitious concerns gradually combine in Quinlan’s work with more commonplace factors: so, for instance the unimaginable energy of competing, converging inter-planetary forces is representationally condensed as a set of small, muted paintings — the source for these elegantly diagramatic depictions being a second-hand physics text found in a Hobart thrift store. Or, there is the mysterious case of the Tasmanian Tiger: a wilderness animal hunted into extinction by settlers, but one that remains an enduring focus of routine lore and speculation as sightings of the nocturnal creature continue to be reported. Moved and intrigued by a 1934 photograph of the ‘last’ of these odd, striped dogs (the term ‘tiger’ is aptly inaccurate) Quinlan has fantasised a life for this lost beast, creating a haunting short film that allows us to observe the behaviour of another indigenous canine. Touchingly, the film is entitled ‘We forgot to write the end’…
This open-endedness is a marked tendency of Quinlan’s excitable, culturally omnivorous art. (Other titles easily confirm this assessment: ‘I don’t think they’ll ever catch us’, or ‘I can hardly sit still’.) A principle of unorthodox connectivity — of unexpected coming together — is advocated; and this essential, playful policy is most strikingly apparent in her compelling combinations of found and constructed objects. These sculptural works have, at times, a wonderfully goofy austerity, setting in play tensions between the specific objecthood of these simple, often fragile, forms but also (contradicting minimalism, maybe) between the abundant or uncertain cultural associations of the assorted materials. However physically ‘fixed’ these ‘things’ may appear to be, they become loosened by the flux of spontaneous reinterpretation. Perhaps also, however, it is not an especially bold interpretation that allows me (as I continue to prepare my own slender responses) to note a near automatic correspondence between these tactics, these aesthetic predilections, and the shape-shifting, synergetic, seductively puzzling sculptures and installations created by Nina Canell. These works are equally alive with the excitements and anxieties of unlikely connections. The multi-sensory stimulations of Canell’s objects and environments seeming to have their source in an unusually heightened instinct for ambiguity and paradox — there is a weighty whimsicality, an eccentric seriousness to all that she does — so that again we find ourselves in a state somewhere beyond the firm ground of the familiar world. The recent work ‘Bag of Bones’ is typical in its intimate outlandishness: a few handfuls of volcanic rocks (found on the slopes of Vesuvius) are clustered over orange neon bulbs while white electric cables curl around and away like wisps of low-lying smoke: the ‘fire’ we can see here and the burning heat we might sense, are obviously illusory, yet this modest arrangement of mostly solid things is conceptually molten. Another new work (planned to be placed in close proximity to the last) is identified as ‘A Meditation on Minerals and Bats’ and fleetingly turns — through a process of imaginative, associative alchemy — a set of hanging maracas, bizarrely and beautifully covered in knitted socks, into two sleeping bats. Maybe again, in this meditation on visual, material and crucially sonic potential the strange mid-air objects can also be mentally re-imagined as a set of suspended microphones. And maybe not. That there is no definitive reading or meaning or status that can be guaranteed for these curious sculptures — and so too for worldly phenomena more generally — would seem to be a proposition that is highly valued. In ‘The Case of the Homesick Cattle’ a more literal process of transformation takes place, but it is nevertheless artfully, scientifically ‘magical’. Making elaborate use of the humdrum domestic buckets and basins that Canell has previously expressed an odd enthusiasm for, this work involves a process of irrefutable physical change brought about through the coming together of matter and energy— sonic signals (unheard by the human ear) buzz repeatedly into pools of water, creating a pulsing, vibrating effect that causes the water to evaporate and yet somehow linger over the collection of containers as a delicate mist. The altered atmospheric conditions of the exhibition space — the subtle, ongoing climate change — might well alert us to the certain instability and unavoidable impermanence of our lived surroundings: delighting or disturbing us as the solidity of the waking world shimmers before our eyes.
“I was aware of his thought like a force as palpable as heat, light or wind. This force seemed to be an exceptional capacity for seeing ideas as external facts and for establishing new connections between what seemed to be utterly disparate ideas…” — Rene Daumal, Mount Analogue.
At the peak of a pile of books on my chaotic desk there is a copy of Mount Analogue — the somewhat obscure short novel left agonizingly unfinished when the tragically youthful French writer Rene Daumal died of tuberculosis in 1944. I have read this strange, incomplete novel several times now and still find myself (or lose myself) struggling to comprehend its wild logic, agonizing over the implications of its extraordinary claims. This same, slim volume has been recently studied by Nina Canell, Clodagh Emoe and Linda Quinlan as the three artists prepared to show their work together. And so Daumal’s tale has remained a rewarding, unexhausted resource as I have made efforts to draw out what might be the core characteristics of the parallel realities constituting this exhibition’s ‘multiverse’. Central to this dizzying novel fragment is a singular vision of a fantastical realm that is, adeptly and paradoxically, made ‘real’. With great imaginative and intellectual legerdemain, Daumal spins a yarn that brings us on a journey to an undiscovered country — a new world hidden within the known world — a land where a mystical mountain is said to offer a sure connection between earth and the heavens. By any ordinary reasoning, the proposed destination is an ‘impossible’ one — a vast island terrain not featured on any map, its central peak reaching higher than any other on the planet — and yet the philosophical explorers imagined by Daumal conceive of a way to not only turn long-standing symbolic cultural associations of mountains into natural certainties, but also to map co-ordinates for the invisible. They perfect a plan to bring incompatible worlds together and yet as they set sail on a ship called ‘The Impossible’ we can never be quite sure if their mission is profoundly absurd or absurdly profound. It is a narrative that we may choose to read as both “magically untrue and magically more than true” (as the critic James Wood has said of imagery in the writing of Joseph Roth) or we may decide, in the way of an old argument offered by the early Christian theologian Tertullian concerning religious faith, that we should believe because it is absurd. Like the works of Canell, Emoe, and Quinlan though, the questions need not — can not — be properly resolved; everything hangs like the ‘concluding’ moment of Mount Analogue on a moment of doubt, on an unending pause, on a sentence that finishes with a comma,