Difference Engine: Accumulator II
Oriel Myrddin Gallery
23 February - 23 March 2013
Review by Ciara Healy
The collective nature of ‘Difference Engine’ bridges the gap between artist and curator, and in doing so it shows multiplicity rather than hierarchy. During its journey from the Wexford Arts Centre on the East coast of Ireland to Oriel Myrddin on the West coast of Wales, themes such as convergence, states of being, duality and time were nurtured through conversation, into new manifestations.
Dualities are apparent in the titles of the works as much as in the works themselves. ‘Viewing Spectacles’ (2012), for example, by Wendy Judge, is a plasticine Grand Canyonesque landscape on wheels. When viewed through a pair of binoculars, (or spectacles), the spectacle of the landscape is revealed as real, yet it simultaneously remains a fabrication.
‘Travel sized view of Early Warning Radar Facility’ (2013) is made in a similar way, but this time the eerie hyper-reality of its fabrication is playfully amplified using green and red gel lights. When the work is viewed through the goggles provided, a disturbing double 3D dystopia is revealed. Surveying these malleable places from a fixed point sets the parameters of where our gaze should be, a method of viewing that has been comparably exercised by the tourist industry for many years.
This challenge to fixed perspectives is also apparent in Mark Cullen’s ‘Infinite Preserve’ (2012) and ‘Carpet’ (2013), two works concerned with the way in which Eastern mathematical configurations are currently emerging in Western physics. Using aluminium insulation foil - the type worn by American astronauts in the 1960s, Cullen has carefully drawn a series of ancient Islamic patterns with permanent felt tip pen.
Another visual metaphor for the dissolution of binary opposites can be seen in ‘Mandala’ (2013) - a large sheet of plastic tarpaulin, which hangs at an angle in the gallery. The sheet divides the space, but simultaneously allows light through the circle of holes which have been cut into its centre. These holes are analogous to the gaps in the landscapes of our minds, gaps that allow knowledge from different times and perspectives to overlap.
Myth and fact converge in Jessica Foley’s ‘The wallpaper in_formation,’ (2012) a film installation based on the story of a Russian woman, whose childhood bedroom was decorated with algebra from old maths books. Absorbing this wallpaper into her subconscious, she became, so the story goes, a genius. Foley’s Super 8 film is projected on to the back wall of the gallery, flanked on either side by two iron towers. In the film a woman is desperately caught up in the act of trying to install a series of mathematical notes on her child’s wall. Her efforts however, are fated futile, as the soggy paper crumples and folds. This point of frustration is suspended in perpetuity and serves as a subtle but sophisticated observation of our on-going struggle to come to terms with the alienating world in which we now live. The anxiety in Judge and Foley’s work, far from being introspective catharsis, is a healthy response to a barbaric circumstance. Our contemporary obsession with the pursuit of happiness desensitises us to the fact that social stress, like rigorous exercise, can be adaptive, conditioning and possibly, transcendental.
Transcendence of another kind is seen in Gillian Lawlor’s paintings, where terrible destruction gives rise to beauty. ‘Centralia I’ (2012) is based on an abandoned mining town in Pennsylvania, where coal deposits deep underground caught fire. Lawlor has transformed this destruction into spacious flat planes with spiralling columns of ochre-red smoke. Futuristic virtual structures hint at possible solutions in the form of floating or elevated buildings, but disappearing horizons create a sense of unease. The abandoned Centralia in underlying ways resembles the ghost housing estates of post-Celtic Tiger Ireland. Lawlor’s paintings map out the sinking, sloping architecture of dispossession; their temporary beauty belies the hostile reality of permanent loss.
Since the fall of communism, a slow nostalgic revival in early modernist ideals has been taking place in Western visual culture. Writer Jane Rendell argues that these socialist ideals are continuously presented in the West as failures because they do not facilitate economic growth. Difference Engine’s interest in abandoned moments in modernist history is important because it disrupts the idea of this failure. In the rush to find new and better utopias, much was discarded in early modernist thinking before it had a chance to be fully developed. Perhaps this show is a platform for some of those ideas to become what they never had the chance to be in the early part of the 20th century.
However, while it may seem progressive, like it did to the early avant-garde modernists, to bypass hierarchies, this counter-point can also go full circle. Elif Shafak warns of the dangers of ‘communities of the like-minded’ and their resultant tendency to alienate others. So while ‘Difference Engine’ might exist in the context of an art world which has become commercialised to the extent that meaningful content is often incidental, it might be appropriate to remember that in the latter half of ‘The Birds’ by Aristophanes, Euelpidies is absent.
In our digital age the demise of ritual means we have lost touch with the authentic human experience because we have fewer threshold points in which to ‘become.’ Because ritual became associated with authority, we have developed, since the Enlightenment, a secular and now technological way of being. Canadian theorist Ron Grimes stresses the importance of creativity in ritual in the Western world today. ‘Jamming Is A Form of Error Detection’ contains myth, echoes of ancient rituals and, in Judge’s case, gentle humour, to question the spectacle of perception and the supposed respectability of science, so that rites of being can be ritualised in new and creative ways.
If artists aren’t given the opportunity to do this, technology will do it for us. And who wants a technological ritual to support us into or out of this world’