Peter Nash, I Remember Nothing, I Remember This at Garter Lane Arts Centre
It has often been observed that Ireland suffers from an inferiority complex, a complex which is often embodied in a compulsion to mimic the ‘grown ups’. This may be why the Irish art scene seems to sometimes favour an austere minimalism, seriousness and a culture of ‘less is more’. This effort to convince our betters that, having emerged from our potato-ridden bogs and given ourselves a good rub with a flannel, we have curbed our nihilistic mick-taking and are fit to take our place among the ranks of homogenised states can make the gallery feel like a mausoleum rather than a crucible for a living culture.
Having said that, sometimes less is more. The restraint of Peter Nash’s sparse I Remember Nothing, I Remember This at Garter Lane Arts Centre in Waterford adds power to the stark mythology Nash has carved into being. Entering the dimly lit gallery through black muslin drapes, the viewer is confronted by a wall-to-floor projection of a nine-minute, silent stop-motion film which follows the journey of a blue-clad character carved from wood. Impelled to explore, he travels from a dark wood to a cliff above an arid yellow plain that is dotted with towers of brick. Led by a lowering figure wearing a dark suit and a bleak expression, he ventures down onto the plain where he meets the dour builder of the towers and discovers their chilling function. By the end of the film, he makes it back to the woods but there the cycle begins again, his quest endlessly, fruitlessly looping.
In the right-hand side of the gallery space stands a kinetic sculpture lit by a single spotlight. It consists of a framework containing three rows of carved wooden heads, roughly the size of golf balls, each tethered in place by thin wire. Whether bulging eyed, frowning or hollow cheeked, all are bald, all glum of visage. The jaw of each Beckettian head is hinged with delicate pins and connected to a wire leading into the base of the free-standing wooden frame in which they seem to float. Any approach to the piece triggers a motion sensor causing each jaw to flap and chatter.
At the opposite side of the gallery on adjoining walls, picked out by a single spotlight, are two framed etchings. One is a frame from the animation depicting the two figures gazing out over the plain of towers, the other a map – the plain of towers bracketed by areas of bare trees – which recalls both Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot set.
This merging of technology with handcraft, the enslaving of the handmade to a regulated, automated system reflects those modern anxieties underpinned by the suspicion that we are imprisoned by frameworks within which our choices are limited to either losing our freedom to automatons or becoming one of those automatons.
The exhibition’s sparseness initially masks a huge amount of labour. Each head in the sculpture is hand-carved, each jaw delicately hinged, each unit wired into a purpose-made circuit board. The stop-motion film consists of well over 10,000 individual frames. Even the two etchings represent a painstaking adherence to traditional print-making systems. The continuous struggle that is the artist’s lot pivots on the structures we live in: how to navigate them, to test them and Nash, operating firmly within the confines of the gallery system, uses this position to frame universal concerns.
Though I Remember Nothing, I Remember This is meticulously assembled, there is still lot of room for the viewer to make their own interpretations, but perhaps the most gratifying aspect of the show is engrained as dirt under work-worn fingernails: the undercurrent of black humour that is our heritage.