Nina Canell
Nina Canell: Expand Expand Through Bush & Land, installation view, 2008; image held here; courtesy the artist / mother’s tankstation

At no point whilst viewing Slight heat of the eyelid by Nina Canell in Mother’s Tankstation did I find myself thinking, ‘clearly this is in reference to how “the first endogenous circadian oscillation was observed in the 1700s by the French scientist Jean-Jacques d’Ortous de Mairam (1678 – 1771) who noticed that 24 hour patterns in the movements of the leaves (of the plant Mimosa pudica) continued even when the plants were isolated from external stimuli.”’ [1] I have never heard of Jean-Jacques d’Ortous de whatever and won’t pretend to have even a vague grasp of the notion of circadian oscillation.  I did enjoy the exhibition, however.  On a purely superficial level it is impossible not to be attracted to the minimalist retro aesthetic of the sculptures.  There is something deliciously new-age and folksy about knitted socks and thermos flasks and drum skins.  In twenty-first century Ireland where recycling, minimalism, neon and moving to the countryside represent the pinnacle of cool, Slight heat of the eyelid feels as though it is at the cutting edge of style, and Canell‘s growing reputation both here and beyond attests to this. Be it accidental or deliberate, she is unpretentiously tapping into a growing trend toward alternative lifestyles, where activities such as Woolgathering and Digging are much coveted by the middle classes of contemporary society as symbols of redemption from the TV screens and sound systems to which we are all so accustomed.  There is a distinctive gypsy flavour offsetting the electronics and trappings of technology, which at this point in time can only serve to fuel her popularity. Nonetheless, to dismiss the work on the premise of trendiness would be to do it a gross disservice.

Nina Canell
Nina Canell: Expand Expand Through Bush & land, Beam Hang and Like Hands, Like Feet, Like Eyelids, Like Rows of Upper & Lower Teeth, installation view, 2008; image held here; courtesy the artist / mother’s tankstation

Canell is clearly bright as a new pin, and there will be numerous unscientific brains stumbling their way around the several sculptures and single video piece that constitute Slight Heat of The Eyelid .  While most of Canell’s pieces have wire exiting from them and some form of electronics involved, she liberates us from the potentially baffling physics with obscure but descriptive titles and reassuringly familiar objects.  The presence of knitted woollen socks on a row of maracas and the idea that they are somehow Like Hands, Like Feet, Like Eyelids, Like Rows of Upper and Lower Teeth is comforting.  There is a particularly ordinary twig on a stack of concrete blocks, a bashed piano-organ and a pair of scuffed tennis shoes.  The unmistakable tinkling of a wind-chime seems to override all the other vibrating, creaking and buzzing noises emanating from the space.

Nina Canell
Nina Canell: Ventilate the Bright White Light and Digging a Hole, installation view, 2008; image held here; courtesy the artist / mother’s tankstation

To quote Declan Long, there “is no definitive reading or meaning or status that can be guaranteed” [2] from the work of Nina Canell in general.  The beauty of her sculptures and installations lies in the combination of curiosity and confusion.  There are no apparent messages or statements trying to assert themselves through the physical objects, and so we are allowed to grasp our own personal meanings as we specifically identify with individual elements.  Coming from a rural background to living in a big city, I find the juxtaposition of the natural and the artificial really speaks to me.  I am engaged by the bleak landscape and the determined simplicity of the old man’s repetitive digging in the film projection.  The noises that are occurring simultaneously in the main exhibition space strike me as the sounds that make up silence – the indescribable whirrs and hums of the inner mechanisms of the universe at work.  Canell has described her work as “a way for me to compile an alternative sculptural vocabulary.”  Through her choice of sounds, materials and objects, she is using a language that may not be especially easy to access, but that we all have the capacity to understand if we look and listen with the attentiveness it deserves. 

Nina Canell
Nina Canell: Bucket (Woolgathering), 2008, bucket, 135 liters of water, bass drum-skin, mist-machines, amplifier, hydrophone, timer; image held here; courtesy the artist / mother’s tankstation

Working as an invigilator in the Lewis Glucksman gallery in Cork during a group exhibition entitled Beyond the country, it was interesting to note the reaction of visitors to a sculpture by Canell that was included in the show.   Bag of bones (2007) consisted of a scrunched-up knot of neon amongst a small pile of camp-fire coals.  It was winter, and in a curious pattern people would instinctively spread their hands above the orange glow, despite it’s total lack of heat.  On many levels, this represents the impossible energy emitted by all of her work, beyond the fashion, beyond the cool minimalist aesthetics and even beyond the engaging tangle of electronics, that cannot be explained or quantified or accurately assigned to either the physical or the scientific.  Neither can it be disqualified from anybody’s range of memory or experience or capacity for comprehension.  As an organised, logical type of person, I am a reluctant Nina Canell fan. On first appearances, Canell’s art seems to be about things that I am accustomed to dismissing – magical, spiritual, tiny, invisible, irrational things. Yet through attempts to fathom the science and intangibles and metaphysics of the work, I find that I arrive, unexpectedly, at an understanding of the shallower appeal and unembellished essence.

Nina Canell
Nina Canell: Thermal mass, 2008, maraca, synthetic fur, string, bucket, light, insulation, water; image held here; courtesy the artist / mother’s tankstation

[1] Nina Canell, 2008, from the gallery website,
[2] Declan Long, from the exhibition catalogue Come together published by the Douglas Hyde

Sara Baume is an artist based in Dublin.