Ciara Phillips’ work is founded upon a belief in printmaking’s potential for political activation. For previous exhibitions, including the 2014 Turner Prize-nominated ‘Workshop (2010 – ongoing)’ at the Showroom Gallery in London, this has been effected through collaboration. She has invited other artists, designers, and community groups to participate in producing prints, creating process-based, politicized work that builds upon long-standing connections between politics and print-making.
For ‘What we recognise in others’, at CCA Derry-Londonderry, Phillips presents a more traditionally conventional solo show. Several large works, screen-prints on linen or paper, are hung around the gallery, incorporating photographic images, bold text, and layers of block bright colours in abstract forms. They bleed into the walls, on which are painted vertical floor-to-ceiling strips of graded colour (one wall sea-green to azure, the other baby pink to bright neon), dotted with precise white shapes like scattered, incomprehensible icons. The first impression is of a sort of constructivist parade: bright abstract forms, black and white photographic reproductions, and the joyous extension of the work over the walls of the gallery. Closer inspection reveals a more composed, less univocal arrangement. Strident codes of composition and colour belie a muted, deliberately unyielding quality to the work.
In what seems an extension of the collaborative dimension of her previous output, almost all of the large works incorporate images of other female artists at work: one reads on a laptop, another takes photographs, a third simply sits looking out of a window. None of these women face the camera. They are absorbed in their pursuits, refusing identification – suggesting, maybe, that such absorbed, reflective work might be the true radical gesture in contemporary context. They are further obscured by their presentation, the photographs mediated through layers of bright block colour or set behind text. Some of the images are reproduced and repeated across different works, forming disorientating motifs and misleading codes. This is a show full of scrambled ciphers.
On one of the taut linen canvases, obscuring yet another female figure, three uneven shapes suggest the Irish tricolour. (This is no accidental or token gesture. Phillips, a diplomat’s daughter, born in Canada and raised all over the world, considers nearby Buncrana, in Donegal, home: one solid navigational point in a peripatetic childhood.) Pasted over the disassembled flag, in bold white capitals, is a phrase which recurs elsewhere in the exhibition, and gives this work its title: ‘every woman a signal tower’. The words reformulate the proposals of a Royal Navy lieutenant, Sir James Spratt, who in 1808 devised a system of semaphore whereby, with the aid of a handkerchief, the human body could become a maritime signalling device. Such metaphors of navigation and semaphore are anything but incidental in an exhibition which reflects upon the interplay of activism and representation; an exhibition in which the refusal to mediate becomes itself a subtle act of resistance. Phillips reclaims this system of embodied sign language, creating subtle coded interrelations between the bodies of her subjects, producing a charged non-declarative semaphore of female identity.