Experimental Corporeality

When going to visit an exhibition I often try to understand the thought process behind the selection of the artists and the work. When it came to Lectus, a group show curated by Deirdre Morrissey at MART Gallery, this process was quite transparent: the three artists are awardees of a bursary for demonstrating excellent experimental practices by MART, Fire Station Artists Studios, and CIT Crawford College of Art & Design.

Working in the media of sculpture, moving image, and performance, the Lectus artists are recent graduates and their work is fantastically raw. Emma McKeagney’s selection of sculptures spread in the front gallery creates a tension between art and body by raising unexpected questions about how we engage with objects. The project features colourful, shiny rocks placed on rods in the space, and installed on the gallery walls. These bring up thoughts of body parts: an ear, a kidney, a decorated spleen. Together with frames that include compositions of natural and human-made materials, and studio photographs of the colourful objects hanging alongside them, the project read as a study of treating material in artistic practice. It is an invitation for the audience to explore whether the material is the work’s physical substance or is it its raison d’être. Does material even have raisons d’être?

With I,X… a performance and moving image piece also positioned in the front gallery, Sarah Diviney offers a critical point of view of a different relationship that exists between body and societal institutions and norms. In the performance, Diviney plunged into a bath filled with hot water, pensively soaking, scrubbing, repeating. A bar of soap was intensely rubbed against her clothes as she was scrubbing, rinsing, and pausing to submerge in the water. With the front door of MART Gallery open to the Rathmines street this very private mix of ritualistic cleansing and all-consuming housework got the most public moment as passersby poked their heads in to see the artist sitting in a bath scrubbing herself and her clothes. It’s difficult to ignore the connection between this piece and Amanda Coogan’s Yellow, particularly as Coogan worked with Diviney for a short while. However there is no doubt that this is new work with a different poignancy. There was an intimacy created by and around the work, both in performance, in the choice of clothing, and in the moving image. The trace of this domestic intimacy remained in the gallery after the performance with the bath, filled with soapy water and with Diviney’s performance clothes, which are also used in the moving image piece.

In the back gallery is Èanna Heavey’s moving image piece I’m Sorry I was Not Here… which, in a way, tied together the societal questions posed by the other work. The moving image piece includes archived and produced material to construct a narrative of Irish people’s past and, in some ways, current relationship with the body, with televised concepts of intimacy and sexuality, and the meaning of certain objects like televisions and condoms in the evolution of Irish contemporary society. Dominant in the piece are sections of videos showing Catholic sex education filmed lectures. The detachment apparent in the discussion of sex and the body joined in with edits of broken childhood innocence together with inserts from other informational clips shown with the frame of an old, tube television emphasise the dissonance between the ideas of worship and those of care in viewing the roles of certain practices in the near history of Irish society.

In an interview with District Magazine, MART Gallery Manager/Curator Morrissey discussed the gallery’s mission statement in light of the work on show. It’s worth following this to further think about the role of art spaces (particularly independent and publicly funded) in the current practice of contemporary art.

MART primarily supports […] art making practices that break new ground, that test and stretch the material and immaterial, and challenge conventions of ‘the norm’. MART Mission Statement

When researching the potential and capacity of expanded art practice to fulfil a more meaningful role in Irish society, I found that one of the key choices to make was that of location for dissemination. Many art places – galleries, museums, art schools, seem to be frequented almost exclusively by members of the arts community, their supporters and friends. Following this part of my research I believe political, or any sort of socially-meaningful artwork is better served in places where society acts: places of function and meaning for the target audience that can be changed (either temporarily or permanently) by a re-contextualisation that is hosting an artwork. I have previously referred to these as Found Places, applying the term Found Objects to locations.

This is not to say disseminating art in art places is wrong or meaningless, there is great potential in the role that galleries, and particularly independent and publicly-funded galleries, can play in society. MART’s curatorial intentions as quoted above, and the work done in spaces such as The LAB and Pallas Projects/Studios, to name a few Dublin-based examples, demonstrates this importance through practice. With commercial galleries acting as a marketplace, playing a role in artists’ ability to develop through financial support, independent/public galleries act as research labs. This is important particularly in the case of socially-meaningful art that offers creative, poignant critique on our everyday lives, our culture, and various building blocks of society: institutions, norms, and media, to name a few. It is important to be able to exhibit this type of work in a variety of settings for the primary reason that such work is only truly complete when it is shown. When artists complete their education the opportunities to create exhibitions in form of experimental showings are very limited. In a recent interview with the Visual Artists News Sheet, Eight Gallery director, Eoin O’Dowd said “If supports are not available for graduate artists after they leave institutions, momentum can be lost. Eight Gallery looked to avert this by providing a platform for engaging with a commercial gallery space.” Eight Gallery is now closed and so the task now remains to an even smaller selection of organisations.

It is almost impossible to quantify how important it is for an artist to show work in an exhibition so that they can see how their work stands in the context of others’ work when installed in a space, to get feedback from their peers or from visitors, both art professionals and non-art audiences. When people peeked into the gallery during Sarah Diviney’s performance I could envision this intimate comment on the treatment of women’s bodies and on the shame attached to the body by the Church performed in a public, non-art place. Perhaps the bath could be placed in the middle of Phoenix Park, or Connolly Station. I feel that the tension some part of Irish society still has with notions of sexuality and the body as commented on in Heavey’s work should be broadcast on public television or projected in the hallways of UCD or Trinity College. I can imagine McKeagney’s sculptures in the corridors of post offices or in a shopping centre. The work that makes us think about where and how we live loads our lives with important questions, and galleries provide the space and time to experiment, not to mention professional curatorial support.

Lectus thus has a dual role: it is a beautiful exhibition with experimental, inquisitive work that showcases the practice of three talented young artists. It is also a great demonstration of the importance of art places to our cultural life. I hope to see this work develop further and gain exposure outside the gallery’s walls. It is important work that can lead to much needed discussions about how we deal with the idea of the corporeal in our everyday.

Lectus at MART Gallery

Runs to: 14th February
Open: Open Tues – Sat: 1pm – 6pm

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