Place Placeness Perception
Chris Attenborough and Angel O’Leary
Burren College of Art MFA Show, Co. Clare
by Phillina Sun
This spring’s earliest and smallest MFA show was to be found deep in the west of Ireland at the Burren College of Art. The two graduates, Angel O’Leary and Chris Attenborough, find common ground with a reduced, if not post-minimal, aesthetic at times, but unsurprisingly they diverge on subject matter and approach. Indeed, this is the nature of all degree and graduate shows, however it is highlighted here by the intimacy and modest scale of the programme.
The territory shared by the two is self-described in the exhibition’s title of Place Placeness Perception. O’Leary takes an autobiographical route with her introverted expression of remembered spaces, while Attenborough explores the impact of globalization on our aesthetic relationship to space and history.
Angel O’Leary’s installations set out to describe the psychology of interior spaces. Nets for Shadows occupies one small room where a half-dozen large wire “nets” glint from the soft reddish light cast on them. These hand-woven sculptures are comprised of the finest wire and resemble the nets mass-packaged onions or garlic come in. As the viewer moves among the nets, shadows collect and dissolve in a delicate play on contingency. The work’s construction is uneven, imperfect, hinting of struggle; whatever these once contained has escaped.
Formal simplicity marks O’Leary’s work. My House is a ramshackle patchwork of broken sheets of plywood, which have been tied together to form a 4+ meter high arrow. Pointing up, it resembles the traditional icon for “house”, conspicuously without the door and windows, and it also suggests shanties with its haphazard construction. Intriguingly, a noticeable orange glow emanates from behind the piece, which is mounted just in front of the wall. Curiosity beckons the viewer to inspect the fluorescent radiance. The back of each sheet of broken ply is painted, the glow is its reflection.
The use of humble, everyday materials is carried into The Cage I Caught Myself In, which employs a high modern formalism in its expression of the existential paralysis that confronts those who create. A chair and table occupied the corner, their construction familiar to anyone who has attended an arts college. Mounded carmine powder atop the white plastic chair overflows onto the floor, black ink streams from the worktable leg across the floor. But O’Leary keeps us at bay. Using her material of choice, fine wire, an impenetrable web blocks the table and chair, subtle shadows are cast on the wall, flashes glint from the direct lighting. With this work one wonders if we are supposed to derive universal meaning from the use of these materials?
Everything I Love (in 2 Rooms), an admittedly autobiographical installation, deviates from O’Leary’s work. A long corridor connect two identical rooms. The corridor is filled with one door following another. Each is framed by simple exposed timbers, recalling unfinished house construction. Coupled with identical destinations on either end of the passage, the effect is disorienting and reminiscent of Mike Nelson’s 2007 Turner Prize installation. The rooms each contain a table casually piled with photographs. “Take any you love,” a sign urges, inviting the viewer to commit to an exercise in futility, seeking the punctum--“the accident which pricks me” , as the philosopher Roland Barthes famously wrote--amid the artifacts of someone else’s memories. Sound recordings--of a family party in one, a site-specific string composition in another--lend a melancholic aural ambiance. The participant embarks on an archaeological investigation of the artist’s life, of her youth, her culture, her life as it was. Here, youths at a costume party. Here, a man on a motorcycle. Autobiography is ever an exercise of asserting one’s identity, which is constantly being extricated from circumstances of location and history. This work unintentionally highlights the problems that accompany public representations of the personal, of intimate times and spaces that recede even as their artifacts--material memories--accrete.
Chris Attenborough is interested in location and place, especially as aesthetic expressions of modern utopian desires, or the fleeting promise of. Dominating the main gallery is Liquor and Poker, a collaborative work by Attenborough and fellow MFA student Sean Naftel under the group name Peacock. The installation plays on the fictionality of place in its version of a ramshackle, hybridised Ireland called the ‘Git Inn’. Here art school meets local pub via images, reconstructed signage and found sculptures arranged via a non-hierarchical, democratic process of layering. Icons of black resistance abut sports memorabilia and postcards of the Irish coastline. A poker table is set up in the corner under goat skulls and an Irish flag. A poster of Obama Barack hang under the window, next to a poster declaring Guinness: For Strength. “Does the ‘Real Ireland’ still Exist?” asks an Irish Times article tacked to a bulletin board next to the bar where a photo of JFK hangs under the blue and yellow checks of the Clare County flag. The ‘Real Ireland’ may be a romantic, nostalgic utopia, overtaken by the postmodern kitsch of “I’ve got Irish roots” baby bibs and other tourist paraphernalia. This installation is visually stimulating but, due to its sheer scale, overwhelms the rest of the exhibition; with its authentic smell of last night’s party, it also makes me wonder: Is this the last haven for American art students? Is the walk to the local pub too far?
The rest of Attenborough’s work is a sharp, elegant contrast. Gas Petrol Pavilions is a series of large giclée prints. Each photograph is composed of two horizontal strips, one of sky and one of signage, which have been closely cropped to reveal only its essential parts, blocks of vivid color. With individual titles like Topaz, Texaco, Top, Maxol, Shell, Sunoco, and BP Attenborough hints at their origin: petrol station awnings. These landscapes evoke numbingly isolated, paradoxically ubiquitous spaces which, nevertheless connote the postmodern traveler’s anticipation of a utopian elsewhere. Using a post-minimal aesthetic, Attenborough creates images of beautiful formal simplicity and appropriately hangs them at an uncomfortable height.
Airport Blackholes is a series of black square images. Black ink printed on black paper and simply hung on the wall, they only reveal form upon close inspection. The imagery is ambiguous, flattened shapes overlap each other. Are these diagrams or microbes? These abstract amalgamations of airport layouts are more exactly revealed only in the titles: CDGSNN, LBAGWY, BWIORL, MUCPRG, ATLBWI. Arcane maps of nowhere real, they recall the esoteric etched patterns of circuit boards. Or, more appropriately, they are prototypes, now inscrutable remainders of a recondite civilization, no longer expressions of a mass produced, standardized dream of better, efficient living.
Place, Placeness, Perception takes two routes in the exploration of space. The first, O’Leary’s, is personal and intimate, refracted through light, that natural agent that stimulates sight and makes things visible. It is the visibility of these things that allow the sighted to negotiate terrain, familiar or not. What is a photograph but an image burned into light-sensitive material? While it seems that O’Leary is more interested in personal symbolism, her play with light arouses the viewer's fascination with the relationship between shadows and objects, light and memories. Meanwhile, Attenborough’s approach is a detached ontological exploration of hypermodern utopias, where even the utopia of ‘real Ireland’ is revealed as a postmodern phenomenon, uncertain in an age of deterritorialized bodies and capital. Within postmodernism, belonging is uncertain; identity--that thing we attach to place, or placeness--is revealed as integral to the ambivalent process of perception.