For this exhibition at Pallas Projects, Brian Duggan, Sarah Glennie, Jenny Haughton and I were asked to select some artworks, documents, publications or other bits and pieces that related to memorable moments, tendencies, issues, practices or whatever else in Irish art over the last twenty years.
I picked some works and related things by Willie Doherty, Nina Canell & Robin Watkins, Fergus Feehily and Isabel Nolan, along with a series of publications produced by the Douglas Hyde Gallery during this period. Each of the selectors were asked to write a short text too. Here’s mine:
Pallas Projects, Periodical Review
Often, in the middle of the night, worrying about what to select for this expanded Periodical Review, I have fallen into and out of sleep without being fully conscious of which state I’m in — half-remembering the relevant bits-and-pieces of the past that I’m casting around for, and half-dreaming them as hazy, alternate versions of what may have actually happened. Every attempt to mentally revisit a moment in the past — like the time-traveller’s visions in Chris Marker’s La Jetee (a film I first heard about from the late Willie McKeown when I worked at Temple Bar Gallery & Studios) — becomes a moment of subtle re-invention, re-arrangement, re-activation. Years ago, in an article for Circa — and maybe, though I can’t quite recall, on other occasions — I quoted Milan Kundera, musing on similar issues. We are ‘separated by the past’, Kundera wrote, ‘by two forces that go instantly to work: the force of forgetting (which erases) and the force of memory (which transforms).’ Should we be able to delineate ‘the slender margin of the incontestable’, Kundera says, we will find beyond it only ‘the realm of the approximate, the invented, the deformed, the simplistic, the exaggerated [and] the misinformed…’ At night, in the dark, half-asleep, these forces continue their strange, subtle work – updating our operating systems while we slip in and out of sleep mode. The next morning, after a night of hypnagogic historical travelling, things are never quite as they were the day before.
Looking back can lend consistency and coherence to things that were, once, unresolved, unsettled and uncertain. Or, the retrospective gaze can itself have unsettling effects: re-positioning remembered moments, altering the record. Evidence of the apparently ‘incontestable’ past can be newly appraised. This is why, when I thought back to the 1990s, I was sure of the importance of Willie Doherty to this period and since — but also sure that his work was important precisely because of the way in which it plays with our perceptions and misperceptions regarding what has taken place. The work represented by Doherty in the Periodical Review is, in one sense, from ‘outside’ the time period we’re working in: taken from the 2012 series Lapse, it is a photograph that was actually first taken in the Derry of the 1980s, but it was only later, after Doherty re-viewed a set of undeveloped negatives, that these images made sense — and hence were actually made — in the present. Records from the past were re-evaluated, taking on new relevance in a new time.
I like the sense, in this form of looking back, that an artist’s work — even from an earlier, ‘concluded’ moment — remains part of an open-ended process. Thinking back on the work of artists I have admired, it has felt right to respect this spirit of sustained, self-reflection and self-testing — about what might be important, about what should be remembered, about what has been forgotten and what might be revived, about what the limits of one’s supposed ‘practice’ might be. Recalling exhibitions such as Fergus Feehily’s Strange Mountain (Green on Red, Dublin, 2008) is to recall an artist’s work in beautifully pensive, probing motion — pressing against its own boundaries and sensing out the world in fresh ways. Flicking back through the numerous small publications Feehily has made over an extended period is also to discover, or re-discover, the studiously myriad-minded and open-minded investigations of his work.
Isabel Nolan’s Unmade — shown in Ireland on different occasions, including at the Goethe Institute’s ‘Return’ Gallery and at Gracelands in Co.Leitrim — arises from retrospective discovery and scrutiny. The photographs shown here are representations of representations — altered images of re-imagined objects. Fragmentary ‘rugs’ made by a patient of a German psychiatric hospital in 1894, are re-conceived by Nolan in a present-day, adaptable sculpture and then, in different configurations, documented as photographs. Typical of Nolan’s compulsively restless art, they advocate a re-making and un-making of the past. This ‘restlessness’ is a quality that seems right to celebrate in retrospect (especially as I toss and turn through the night, trying to bring memory into focus).
Recordings of performances by Nina Canell and Robin Watkins (from 2007) also share something of this agitated, energetic spirit. Listen back and we hear the sound of tenacious exploration and experimentation — as little sonic connections are made and unmade between collaborating partners. But we can stress too, in remembering, the accidents and contingencies of the now-distant performance moment — and note that what is ‘recorded’ is only part of what resonated beyond and within that situation.
A series of small books, each with a differently coloured hard cover, displayed side-by-side. These modest mementoes (of the exhibition programme at the Douglas Hyde Gallery since the 1990s) have a trusty, systematic consistency; they represent an ongoing, patient effort to archive artists’ interests. They are neat, orderly records of the past. And yet within each one there are divergent traces of individual artists’ wayward inclinations. Each simple book is a slim compendium of worldly concerns, and private obsessions — recording, here and there, artists’ recurring daydreams, their restless time-travelling.
— Declan Long