|Patricia McKenna: Seachange, 2008; courtesy the artist|
It is evening on board a large yacht. A chef is preparing the evening meal for a large and important party. The owner of the yacht comes into the kitchen to inspect what is going on. He takes a look at the desserts, tastes one or two, and pronounces them bad. They are inappropriate for his guests, he says. The chef begins to get angry. A fight ensues, followed by a food fight amongst staff and the chef ends up throwing trays of desserts overboard. He is fired on the spot.
Next morning there is an array of desserts floating in the water at Sandycove beach, some washed in by the tide. All manner of coloured jelly concoctions float just under the surface of the water or have made their way onto the beach. Coachloads of tourists stop to look on their way to the nearby Martello tower. Other passers-by inquire as to the provenance of these colourful desserts. Many invent stories to explain their origin. A swimmer at the Forty Foot, emerging from the sea, holds aloft a blood-red cup that he brings from the water; a trophy from the deep, which he then casts back into the water. A dog chews on a star-shaped jelly landed on the sand. In this way, various narratives emerge from the objects and their interaction with people and the tide.
There is a sense of the party or communion in Patricia McKenna’s Seachange, which nestled in the small Sandycove beach on 3 September as part of the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown Per Cent for Art programme. At dawn, the gelatine objects were laid out all over the sand when the tide was far out, and by lunchtime, when I arrived, the tide was already in, and the objects were already mainly in the water. There were at least two parties evoked by the work, the one that actually seemed to be happening that day as people gathered and left, watching the slow changes as the objects moved with the tide, and one or a series of imaginary parties: children’s birthday parties that had been and gone, or perhaps also parties that had never happened, and would never happen, for unborn children, or one’s own lost childhood as an adult. And then there is the artist’s creation of these objects, which may have resembled the preparations for an uncanny party. The sheer overload of jelly desserts seemed to conflate them all in one overdetermined memory. This absent party, which takes place elsewhere in time or space or in imagination only, while here on the beach there is only us, conjures up a sense of displacement and loss or as if the real party is over, and this is merely its form in memory.
Perhaps there is even a hint of Ulysses in this day-long sea-inspired excess, as the differently shaped colourful objects shift and change positions like so many events and characters. The whole of life in one day.
As the objects constantly change location, sometimes suddenly moved a long way, sometimes sitting in virtually (but never exactly) the same place for an hour, sometimes gathering together or moving apart, there is a sense of time moving things on, ever in flux, of the shifting nature of people and situations in life. The lack of control we have over the tide and time and life itself is evoked and the work attempts to allow us to see that and to accept it, even enjoy this fragility and find it beautiful.
Many people return later in the day to see how the tide has affected the objects. There is a desire set up by the work that makes the viewer want to see the end, like a long film. The work itself explores notions of return, many happy or unhappy returns, the return of memory, of objects being taken away and then perhaps returned to us by the tide.
The work seems to carry a strong sense of loss, and indeed one of the roots of this particular work was the death of a friend’s son. This is apparent in the work, without even knowing it, in its meditative, Buddhist aspect. There is something of the ritual, a funeral ritual, rather like a scattering of ashes at sea; an attempt to let go of something in a quasi-comical fashion. A healing ritual which is an attempt to make peace with the changes and shifts and the passing of time of life. Wine and bread are translated into jelly desserts in this communion. Water itself and particularly the sea symbolises renewal and rebirth, as well as having religious connotations of abundance. The Sea is also the Freudian Unconscious, and these seem like so many new experiences cast into the Unconscious to become memories, freed from the pain of the conscious mind. And they neither float nor sink, but rest just under the surface of the water, like so many semi-conscious thoughts. And indeed, for the viewer it does achieve some of this ritualistic quality. It is a peaceful, soothing experience, a letting-go. There is something sweetly poetic about the differently shaped and coloured jellies, the tumblers, the trifles, translucent globes that look like crystal balls, ones that resemble jelly fish so much that they seem as if they might transform themselves and start stinging by the end of the day, the inky black houses, the petri dishes, yellow, black, red, green, and so on, some with glitter and gold leaf inside, as children’s birthday party meets science experiment meets afternoon building sandcastles on the beach. And the loss of all that will not be as well as all that was.
Susan Thomson is a writer/ artist living in Dublin.