spaces / I want to be honest with you / places - VISUAL

VISUAL Centre for Contemporary Art &
The George Bernard Shaw Theatre

spaces / I want to be honest with you / places

Author Wendy Erskine responds to VISUAL’s Spring Visual Arts Programme, with its exhibitions by Eilis O'Connell, Jane Fogarty and Mona Hatoum. Using a subjective and fragmented approach, Erskine fuses her insights on the artists’ work with memories and anecdotes on different places and spaces, reflecting on how they shape – and are in turn shaped by – human behaviour

spaces / I want to be honest with you / places

  • I want to be honest with you, right from the beginning. I think that’s only fair! So, know what, I haven’t actually visited VISUAL Carlow. I’ve not witnessed the exhibitions in actuality. I’ve not been in the building to see In the Roundness of Being or Many Hands or watch Eyes Skinned or So much I want to say. I’m actually envious, I’ve got to admit, if you’ve walked up those seven steps into the building. My experience of it all has been on the three-inch-by-six screen of my phone. But I’ve counted the steps.
  • Alright, sometimes I notice visitors as much as the art in galleries. There was a time in a museum when I observed one woman looking at a painting while her partner made an attempt to kiss her neck. The woman in front of the painting shrugged her off. And so her partner, who had been brushed away, took a run and gave her a kick. And so I think, the Stedelijk, oh yes, that’s the place where I saw the incongruous act of violence.
  • But In the Roundness of Being! I would love to see the vast missile of Eilis O’Connell’s Capsule for Destinies Unknown – series two. I’ve looked at a photo of a man, tiny, beside its pristine fuselage. In this sculpture, the darkness of an entry point echoes the black rectangle of the gallery door. But leave the gallery room and there will be corridors, other spaces. Enter this sculpture, which I’d like to do, and you are contained. A paradoxical haven maybe, like taking shelter in a weapon, hiding in a bomb. Or maybe it simply feels like protection. I’d like to go in, look up at the metal roof.
  • The little wedge ramp looks like it can ensure Capsule for Destines Unknown is wheelchair-friendly. But there’s no door to the metal cave. It’s not a hermetic world. It’s possible, through a submarine-style porthole, to look into the structure. The view, in the photos resembles multiple camera shutters, circles and perspective, wheels within wheels, complication, distance, depth.
  • In O’Connell’s exhibition, large-scale fabrication and geometric control are juxtaposed with work that’s human scale, biomorphic, in natural materials. I can feel the power of that, even from the pictures. The irregular little pebble-like shapes and the galvanised steel missile, like the tender flesh of an upper arm and the blade of shrapnel. Or the family sheltering, shivering together in their precious metal shell as the hard rain drums down.
  • As I sit now, looking on my phone at the shadows cast by the plinths where O’Connell’s work is positioned, I see that on the table beside me there’s a vase of dead flowers, their water dank and green. There’s a plate with smears of hot sauce and a block of lined paper with a sticker saying HUGE SAVINGS 3 EURO. In some of the photos, there are cars and trees, beyond the gallery, a little out of focus.
  • In any place, I am drawn to doors. I’m a fan of the doorkijkje device in Dutch painting, where the viewer sees through to another room, other vistas, which makes everything contingent on other perspectives. An outcome of Jane Fogarty’s Many Hands project, which involved over 120 school children, is a piece of public art near the entrance to VISUAL. It has an arch. What might it mean, to pass through this curve of steel and pigmented jesmonite which in some ways symbolises a door? Or maybe no one passes through at all. The children involved in the construction of the sculpture, Jane Fogarty said, saw it as a safe place, somewhere to get into.
  • A place I remember as a kid is the primary school assembly hall with its parquet floor, stage, piano. It was a space for jumping over benches, singing hymns, having music lessons. One time a strange woman from England came in to do drama with us. She told us to go on the floor and make ourselves as small as possible. The English lady told us to get up and look at one person who had done it better than anyone else. It was a kid who on the coldest days of the winter only ever had a thin plastic coat. She had folded into herself most successfully in the big assembly hall. Even though she had been in my class for four years, I had never heard this girl with the plastic coat receive praise for anything before.
  • In Andrzej Wajda’s 1958 film Popiol I Diament (Ashes and Diamonds), it’s the first day of peace after the end of the Second World War. How old are you, a policeman asks a boy. 100 years old, he replies. The policeman slaps him. How old are you? he repeats. 101, the boy replies.
  • Later, I thought, what a thing to receive praise for. Making yourself as small as possible.
  • I’ve written, in the past, about how disciplined public arts spaces of architectural stringency are changed, humanised even, by, say, things like tubes of Pringles, plates of sausage rolls, the wires of a Christmas tree. There is something of that disruption in the positioning of the Many Hands sculpture outside the gallery. Its colour and vibrancy, its surrealism contrasts with the concrete, metal and glass of VISUAL’s facade. At the base of that arch there’s what could be huge coloured pebbles. Or big milky sweets. Bodies, bent over, huddled.
  • The shelves of public sculpture created by the children, a rainbow spill of colour, shape and the anarchic power of kids’ imagination. Jane Fogarty made a small maquette of VISUAL where the kids could place their sculptures.
  • In a video, Eilis O’Connell recalls her childhood and says, of art, ‘Making wasn’t mysterious. It was something natural.’
  • Another place, the Sligo Park Hotel. The Pushkin Trust ran a residential arts course there for 50 Irish school teachers with sessions in dance, environmental art, writing, sculpture. Before unpacking my stuff, I went to reception to check that I didn’t have to share the room with someone else. ‘In a hotel, you get the room to yourself,’ the receptionist told me. I wasn’t used to teachers being shown such largesse. In the function rooms of the hotel, we were invited to write, draw, dance. We were shy, unsure. We hung back.
  • I read that Mona Hatoum’s video work, There is so much I want to say, was filmed in Vancouver and transmitted to Vienna during a Slowscan video exchange. The screen is repeatedly wiped with iterations of a woman with a man’s hands over her mouth in different configurations. Her eyes flick to the side, but to me, she never looks panicked, or angry. She looks regretful, watchful, resigned, weary. At one point it seems that her own hands are placed on his, but there is no kinetic energy suggesting she might try to tear them away. When her teeth appear, momentarily, it feels like a triumph.
  • The accompanying words, So much I want to say, are repeated over and over, until I imagine that there are different stresses with each new utterance. I think I can also hear a door opening and closing, coughing, distant music. So much I want to say. So much I want to say.
  • I must be honest with you. I have not seen the second Mona Hatoum piece, Eyes Skinned, which uses footage documenting the 1982 massacre of Palestinians in Beirut refugee camps. It wasn’t available on Vimeo so I couldn’t see it on my phone. But what I did do was read Chitra Ramaswamy’s brilliant account of watching the film in her kitchen in Leith. And so I imagined the film and its contents. Will you be surprised when I say it wasn’t hard to do that?

Wendy Erskine is the author of two prize-winning collections of short stories, Sweet Home and Dance Move. She has also edited a collection of writing ’about art in the home and the home as art’, titeld well I just kind of like it.

Eilis O'Connell, In the Roundness of Being; Jane Fogarty, Many Hands; and Mona Hatoum, Eyes Skinned and So much I want to say are all at VISUAL Carlow, 17 February – 12 May 2024