|Front : Keith McCann: Cowboys and indians (II) – “What if Jiraffes Replaced Horses?", installation, 2006, carpet, glass, wood, steel, dimensions variable; right : Priscila Fernandes as Ana Garcini: Breakfast manifesto, 2006, DVD, 5 mins 40; Priscila Fernandes as Ana Garcini: various drawings; back : Sarah O’Neill: Untitled, installation, 2006, painted and unpainted wooden structure, dimensions variable; Máire O’Mahony: A stitch in time, wall painting and drawings on paper, installation, 2006, dimensions variable; Fiona Whitty: Conversations over food, DVD, 2005; photo Michael Durand; courtesy Visual Artists Ireland|
‘Making do’ is the customary practice of the creative consumer, or the ‘postproducer’. It is what Michel de Certeau calls ‘hidden’ or ‘nocturnal’ production:
[ It ] is devious … dispersed, but it insinuates itself everywhere, silently and almost invisibly, because it does not manifest itself through its own products, but rather through its ways of using the products imposed by a dominant economic order .
De Certeau has become a popular resource for artists and curators alike. His inquiry into the irrepressible agency and cunning of those undisciplined operations and nonlinear trajectories that bend the technologies and logics of power, offers both a riposte to those who despair at the total colonisation of daily life and nourishment to the semionauts of supermodernity.
Yet, it is somewhat disingenuous to apply de Certeau’s terminology comprehensively to an exhibition of artworks that are, for the most part, quite deliberately on display, and to a curatorial practice that is charged with affecting this display. Curating and ‘making do’ would seem to be especially incompatible, the one diminishing the possibility of the other. The devious and dispersed decisions made in the practice of consumption, in the tactical usage of hegemonic systems of signification, have no place in such displays, and manifest themselves only intermittently, in what is not fully intended, and certainly not in what is intended as Art. Operational tactics are “guileful ruses" made collectively “within the Enemy’s field of vision" (de Certeau): they are without proprietary aspirations. In fact, if de Certeau’s terminology is to be applied, then we would do better to describe many of these works as ‘strategic’, not ‘tactical’; ie, not as an ‘art of the weak’, but of the strong (or perhaps, given the nature of the exhibition, those who are ‘becoming stronger’).
This is not to depreciate the works involved or to romanticise the ‘art of the weak’, nor indeed to make a claim for my de Certeau as the de Certeau, so much as to take issue with spicy catalogue declarations that look to advance artists through modish systems of discursive validation, but in doing so rather reduce (at a textual level, at least) the complexities of the works.
|Front : Keith McCann: Cowboys and indians (II) – “What if Jiraffes Replaced Horses?", installation, 2006, carpet, glass, wood, steel, dimensions variable; back : Sarah O’Neill: Untitled, installation, 2006, painted and unpainted wooden structure, dimensions variable; Máire O’Mahony: A stitch in time, wall painting and drawings on paper, installation, 2006, dimensions variable; Fiona Whitty: Conversations over food, DVD, 2005; Fiona O’Connor: 1 + 1 + 1 = a latent landscape, DVD, 2006, 20 mins; photo Michael Durand; courtesy Visual Artists Ireland|
The most ‘strategic’ work on display is that of Keith McCann. His assiduous suspension of everyday materials through a system of lines and counterweights is shot through with machismo. Such confident posturing makes territorial claims, assuming proprietary rights over materials and the forces that act upon them: a rather uncomplicated continuation of the artist’s heroic struggle to fashion from the unwieldy raw material of the world meaningful form. One gets the sense of decisions already made, inflexible, hardened into a style, and that these decisions are to be stockpiled, defended against the encroachment of ‘foreign bodies’.
Contrary to this, Sarah O’Neill’s clutter of off-cuts, sawdust, and other installation detritus piles up, waste products of some unseen activity. Her junk is fluid, parasitic, offering impromptu staging. Its architecture is accidental, composed of an accumulation of redundant abstractions and decisions laying in wait, occupying spaces vacated by previous proprietors: in a word, this stuff squats.
Máire O’Mahony affects an elemental change and puts Sarah O’Neill’s junk to flight. The voluptuousness of her opaque, largely indecipherable figures climbing the walls elevates whimsy to the level of a proclamation.
If anyone ‘makes do’ here, it might be Aoife Merrigan. “Silently, almost invisibly" (de Certeau), becoming-spider, she makes additions that are brave and intrepid in their understatement. Spun out in a fantasy of architectural intimacy, she adventures through the experiential contingencies of the space, extending and wrapping.
Niall de Buitléar’s drawings are equally understated. He catalogues the aleatory traces of discarded chewing gum: an index of the body, of personalised consumption returned to pavement anonymity.A parody, perhaps, of attempts to decipher the pathological or prophetic from the unwanted and unintended, or of current obsessions with forensic investigations – the drama of the incriminating detail. De Buitléar partakes of the seriality that is a key trope of many works here, but, more so, he continues the Baudelairean avocation of (modern) poet-as-ragpicker: a position far more in keeping with the character of his co-exhibitors than that of de Certeau’s ‘tactician’.
Four artists work with video, wholly or in part. As Ana Garcini, Priscilla Fernandes acts out her Breakfast manifesto . This is an attempt to standardise consumption, to align its behaviour with axiomatic or arithmetical predictability. She puts her “‘anti-chaos’ method into practice when eating a strawberry jam sandwich for breakfast." (Garcini) The attempt to erase contingency from consumption is an attempt to deny the body its silent functions and noisy pleasures. With Fernandes’ role-playing, such regulation comes up against the dispersal and multiplication of identities and, with the cod-conceptualism of Garcini, the depleted returns of digestion.
|Front : Niall de Buitléar: Chewing gum drawings, 2006, pencil on paper; Sarah O’Neill: Untitled, installation, 2006, painted and unpainted wooden structure, dimensions variable; top : Máire O’Mahony: A stitch in time, wall painting and drawings on paper, installation, 2006, dimensions variable; back : Marie Louise Molly O’Dwyer: Daytime gardening and nightime gardening, DVD, 2006; photo Michael Durand; courtesy Visual Artists Ireland|
Two further video works are Fiona O’Connor’s 1+1+1= a latent landscape, which again trades in the pathos of the overlooked, but which comes away rather empty-handed, and Fiona Whitty’s Conversation over food, an uncomplicated ‘relational’ work, the naïve realism of which lacks any awareness of the specific economics of culinary practice and exchange, or indeed of the incongruities of its own ethological position.
Marie Louise Molly O’Dwyer has two works. Stacking cans (2006) shows just that: the artist emptying food tins from a cupboard, polishing them briefly and stacking them across the screen. When the screen is full, and the artist is partially obscured behind a wall of tins, she fills up the cupboard again, with equal care. A response to boredom, perhaps, a means by which to occupy time: or a variety performance in the midst of homogeneity, a search for difference in repetition: or again, a displacement of intellectual activity, a deferral of the moment of decision … In this one video, the question of consumer agency begins to turn.
The second video reverses, or at least confuses, the gendered roles of the vita activa and vita contemplativa as a male figure watches indifferently from over the top of his newspaper the uncanny occupation of a garden by a woman of unknown relation. Directorially more adventurous than the first, we watch here the arrangement of disguised (distress?) signals that prepare a space of enunciation from the latent grammar of domesticated femininity (pots and pans, vacuum cleaner, laundry, etc).
Through the use of reflection, the gaze of the man, which appears to fall directly upon the activities of the woman in the garden, instead aligns itself with the camera: his gaze is refracted through ours. This is a sleight of hand that elegantly implicates an audience as party to a gender bias without forcing regressive dichotomies.
|LAUNCH / Making do installation shot, 2006; photo Michael Durand; courtesy Visual Artists Ireland|
To return lastly to de Certeau, the potency of his theorisation of ‘making do’ consists in its dispersal of artistic agency (ie, improvisation with limited resources, decisions made on the wing, the appropriation of objects through use and of language through the act of speech, the development of distinct signifying practices, the complication of given positions, identities, and so on …) to cover heterogeneous forms of cultural consumption, and to include those not traditionally privileged as producers of meaning. It seems, then, something of a rearguard action to resituate agency and cultural literacy as the preserve of creative professionals (artists or curators) who are said to “penetrate" the obscurity of everyday life and “transcend the passive consumption of the stuff of everyday consumer culture" (Paul O’Neill).This asks the wrong kind of questions, and thereby lays unrealistic expectations upon what is an innovative display of exciting work.
Tim Stott is a writer based in Dublin.