Through a Glass Darkly: Some Recent Work of
Niamh O’Malley by Luke Gibbons
‘Niamh O’Malley’ (monograph) published Linenhall Arts Centre, Ireland, 2
Our perception being a part of things, things participate in the
nature of our perception.
- Henri Bergson1
Writing of the problems presented by the Irish countryside to
art, Ernie O’Malley noted that while painters were often aloof, it
was the landscape itself that moved. Hence the array of effects
‘which may merge slowly or change rapidly . . . cloud forms rapid
in movement change land values as they pass overhead.’ It is for
this reason, O’Malley writes, that there is a distinctive ‘relation
of the impersonal to the personal’, as if the object of vision were
a subject in its own right.2 Though he does not mention it, the
still image is also compromised in these circumstances, as nature
itself bears witness to a passing of time that calls for the moving
image, rather than the single take of a moment.
It is these concerns that inform Niamh O’Malley’s vision, as the
closer we get to reality in her work, the more perception intrudes
on the scene. Human beings seldom appear in the frame but
there is little doubt about the presence of a spectator, or a visual
medium. In one of her few works to feature the body, ‘Model’
(2011), a male model shifts position on a dais to assume the pose
of a classic Greek statue. At times, the image comes across as a still
photograph, but the blowing of a tree in the wind, visible through
a window behind the model, destroys the illusion. At certain moments,
the tree is at rest and stasis is all but confirmed until, in
a corner of a windowpane, a cloud almost imperceptibly shifts
position. Time and space are subject to change even though, as
Walter Benjamin wrote of the pressures on the image under modernity,
dialectics may be at a standstill.3
In one of his last works, the French philosopher Merleau-Ponty
wrote of the invisible that constantly haunts the visible, not in
the sense of something unnoticed, or an object hidden from view,
but in the conditions of seeing itself, what is brought to the field
of vision.4 Niamh O’Malley relentlessly returns to this primal
scene, the mote that lies in the eye of the beholder. In Screen
(2011), a Mondrian-like minimalist structure of wood, glass and
paint on the gallery floor purports to give an uninterrupted line
of vision, until we realize at certain points that we are looking at
a reflection of its surroundings – a reflection that also provides
amputated glimpses of the viewer. There is a large black circle on
a central plane of darkened glass, reminding us of the blind spot
that cuts across vision, and in Scotoma (2008), this is the subject
of a continuous loop film, as if the eye – or camera – is casting its
own shadow, condemned to view the world through a glass darkly.
In ‘Island’ (2010), different shades are encountered, the ghostly
rituals of pilgrims who have visited St Patrick’s Purgatory at
Lough Derg for hundreds of years. A voice in Seamus Heaney’s
‘Station Island’ poetry sequence warns the poet against treating
ritual as simply ‘going through these motions’, but it is precisely
the ritual of motion itself, as in camera movements, that is at stake
in O’Malley’s ‘Island’.5 A series of slow tracking shots moving
from left to right mark the approach to the island in close-up,
but are interrupted by a black fade entering from the right. This
could be a cinematic device or a visual effect – but it could also
be an actual obstacle occluding sight, and it is this uncertainty
between inner and outer worlds that haunts these images. The
tracking shots move onto the island, enacting point of view shots
of paving stones where thousands have walked or kneeled, but as
the camera continues its passage, it faces limits; the shore edge,
or an embankment. Whether it surmounts these (as a spectral
presence might do) is left open as edits, in the form of wipes, cut
to a new scene: again, it is unclear whether inner or outer worlds
are calling the shots. There is no sign of people but over a long
ditch or wall, crosses are visible, followed by silhouettes of a tree
and church in the distance, framed against an overcast sky. In a
circular motion, the camera then returns to the choppy waves
encountered at the outset as if, for the renewal of the faithful, the
only constant was water.
If an island is surrounded by water, a bridge crosses it, but in
‘Bridge’ (2009), the substantive silhouettes of the bridge appear as
abstract forms, imposed as diagonals, or like sections of Malevich’s
Black Square, on the screen. A ‘frame-within-a-frame’, like a viewfinder,
moves hesitatingly across the pictorial field in search of
focus but is out of focus itself, unable to contain what is around
it. The bridge acts as a frame of sorts, its scaffolding connecting
water and sky as well as one bank of the Humber Estuary with the other.
In ‘Flag’ (2008), the camera tracks an unmarked flag in the
centre of the image but the windswept agitation of the flag, and
its change of shape as the camera moves in an arc-like movement
around it, throwing the eyes off-course. The screen itself is filled
out with distracting details of brightly lit office windows, neon
signs, and so on, in the background, while the diaphanous fabric
of the flag also acts as a small screen within a screen, with lights
barely visible through the fabric. The camera turns full circle, only
to begin its journey again in the continuous cycle.
For Merleau-Ponty, the invisible that lies at the heart of the
visible is due to the fact that the eye does not only see: it is also
seen. Even objects return our gaze in this scheme of things, as
if the world is also aware of being looked it. Kneeling stones
placed for pilgrims in ‘Island’ tell their own silent story, but in
‘Quarry’, stones are remnants of deep historical time, showing
the cracks and fissures of centuries. Beginning with a blurred
image of boulders piled below an imperturbable rock-face, a slow
wipe from right to left across the screen literally appears to wipe
the slate clean. Stones take shape as if cubist forms are composing
themselves in the breaker’s yard, evincing the sense of time
and movement introduced into the image by Cezanne. Still life
itself seems animated: in a green tinted image of a block on the
ground, stone itself appears to emit the pulsations of breathing
until it transpires that a ripple dissolve, of the kind that introduced
flashbacks in film, has been pulled across the screen. The
ripple dissolve simulates the crimped effect of water but in a
succeeding image, liquid appears to strafe the surface of rock,
giving the impression of rain. No sooner do we conclude that a
colour tint has been added to black and white images, moreover,
than yellow marks, probably breaker’s inscriptions, unsettle the
monochrome surface, at once inside and outside the camera.
Time is also somewhat out of joint, at least with the still image.
Presented with a smooth wall surface, it is not clear whether we
are encountering a photograph or a motion picture, until – the
stirring still also noted in ‘Model’ - a faint disturbance of vegetation
in the background reveals movement. In the work of the
Belgian artist David Claerbout, photographs come alive, the still
image of a Dutch landscape betraying disconcerting signs of rustling
leaves on a tree.6 As Thomas Levin notes, this violates one
of the fundamental tenets of ‘indexical’ images, the ‘homogeneity
of their signifying surface’.7 In Claerbout’s case, the disruption is
introduced by subtle digital effects, which throw into question
the referential claims of the rest of the image. In O’Malley’s
‘Quarry’, however, a similar impression is produced in real time
as if a still image and motion picture fuse in the same shot. In
case we attribute motion to special effects, a later image shows
the finished surface of a wall in which one of the stones almost
imperceptibly begins to move, easing itself of its niche in slow
motion until it finally tumbles out. A second stone is dislodged
in the process by the ensuing cavity but there is no sign of human
intervention, in the actual scene or from post-production effects,
only a tight cropping of the visual field. It is as if erosion is taking
place before our eyes, and invisible geological time unfolds on
Niamh O’Malley seems intent on retrieving the referential
claims of the camera on both space and time in an age of digital
production, but by being no less true to the potential the medium
as well as the object of vision. Under digital production, the ‘real’
may be usurped by the virtual reality of the ‘simulacrum’ (in Jean
Baudrillard’s terms) but the answer to this is not to posit an inert
‘objective’ reality, untouched by human presence. For O’Malley,
‘indexicality’ and real time hold their own not despite, but because
of, the primacy of perception: it is displacement of perception
itself that removes the personal from the impersonal, and severs
contact with the landscape of our lives
1 Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory , trans. Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer. (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1911), 237.
2 Ernie O’Malley, ‘The State of Painting in Ireland’ ; ‘Review of Thomas MacGreevy’s “Appreciation and Interpretation of Jack B. Yeats”’ , in Broken Landscapes: Selected Letters of Ernie O’Malley 1924-1957, eds. Cormac O’Malley and Nicholas Allen (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 2011), 403, 397.
3 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 10.
4 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible , trans Alphonso Lingis (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968).
5 Seamus Heaney, ‘Station Island’, in Station Island (London: Faber, 1984), 71.
6 Thomas Y. Levin, ‘You Never Know the Whole Story: Ute Friedrike Jurss and the Aesthetics of Heterochronic Image’, in Art and the Moving Image, ed., Tanya Leighton (London: Tate Publishing/Afterall, 2008). 463. Levin discusses Claerbout’s 1997 video installation, Ruurlo Bocurloscheweg 1910.
7 Levin is here referring to the fact that photography and film in the age of mechanical reproduction register physical traces of reality through the imprinting of light on film. It is this relationship that is jeopardized by digital production, notwithstanding a similar surface illusionism.
Niamh O’Malley by Matt Packer
‘Niamh O’Malley’ (monograph) published Linenhall Arts Centre, Ireland, 2013
At first, it's difficult to know if we're moving. When I refer to 'we', I'm actually referring to the camera. We are seated within a darkened projected room, so of course we're not moving. Or not yet anyway. Not for another 6 minutes or more. This is just the beginning.
In Niamh O’Malley’s video work Flag (2008), the camera slowly and tactically circles around a flagpole, set high above the night sky of the Helsinki docklands. The sparse street lamps and lonely illumination of office security lighting appear like a backdrop of distant stars. The pole remains centrally placed in the frame, effectively cutting the frame in two and acting as the organising axis of the camera’s circular line of movement. The flag itself kicks against the wind, and does what flags typically do, flitting this way and that, shifting its emphasis from the right to left-hand side of the frame as the camera completes its orbit and catches different directions of the breeze. The flag is made of semi-transparent fabric and carries no image or icon. Its only demonstration is one of its own material abilities, its texture, responsivity, and transparency. And all this toward a camera that seems to have the singular task of satisfying these same qualities. In Flag the camera performs the flag, and the flag performs the camera, to the full extent that the work (quite literally) draws a circle around traditional alignments of perception, subjecthood, and the camera as medium.
In O'Malley's work, the notion of a 'medium' extends beyond the material and technological specificities of artistic practice such as sculpture, drawing, or video. If we go looking for 'medium' through the back catalogue of her work, we quickly get deferred. Perhaps by her three dimensional sculptural work that often involves two-dimensional planes, screens, windows, or painting surfaces. Perhaps by her drawings that are often framed in coloured glass, thereby superposing the medium of graphite on paper with the extra mediating conditions of tinted glass. Or perhaps by her videos that counteract the form, structure, and transmission of her subjects, so that these subjects seem to take on the condition of being mediums in their own right. In O'Malley's work, mediums seem to be everywhere, inescapably and in layers: each proposing a slight but significant re-organisation of our perceptual compass.
This sense of layering is exemplified in Bridge (2009), a video work that presents a sequence of views of the Humber Bridge in North East England. Shot in black and white from the shoreline, aspects of the bridge's structure cut sharp lines and silhouettes against the cloudy sky. All sense of its monumental scale and workaday traffic loses dimension in its graphic reduction, further achieved by the lack of visible movement in the frame. Only in occasional scenes do we see a bird in flight, the gradual changes in the cloudscape, the ripple patterning of water.
There are other movements, but not similarly in the deep of representational space. These movements take place directly in front of the lens, as though part of the camera apparatus itself. Through the duration of Bridge, our views of the bridge become interposed with a succession of black masks or filters, that slowly cross the frame, move left and right, and obscure sections of the image. Some eclipse the image entirely and support the rhythm of scene changes. Other filters are transparent except for a small rectangular outline like the focus target in camera's viewfinder. The alternation of these filters play a part in the graphic assembly of the bridge, reinforcing the bridge's flat formal qualities, its symmetries and contours. The tensile wires of the bridge's construction and its vertical concrete supports, interacting with the black filters like cut out shapes on a page.
The graphic assembly that takes place in Bridge is also, in a sense, a disassembly by another description. Space becomes disassembled as images near and far (both upon and beyond the lens) find continuity with one another. The black of the bridge's silhouette; the black of the filters that pass across the frame; the black of the fabric projection screen in the presentation of this work; all of these blacks take on an equivalence so that the spaces between the bridge to the camera, and between the camera to its eventual projection, collapse into one and leave us metaphorically in the dark. Indeed, perception itself seems to become disassembled in the full effect of O’Malley’s work. Just as Rosalind Krauss described of Richard Serra’s film Railroad Turnbridge (1976), where the camera and the bridge in Serra’s film partake in a 'relationship, a transivity … traversed by the mutual implication of back and front, thus creating a visual figure for the pre-objective space of the body', O’Malley’s Bridge exercises a similar visual figure. The act of looking at a bridge is rarely made so physical.
In the characteristic give-and-take relationship that O'Malley develops with many of her subjects, it makes sense that she would be interested to produce a substantial work in a large limestone quarry in Kilkenny, Ireland. A quarry is, somewhat paradoxically, a negative imprint of its productive output, a space that is shaped and defined by the processes of removal, a structure in reverse. As a subject, a quarry comes ready loaded with some of interactive layers that we see elsewhere in O’Malley’s works. In the opening sequences of Quarry (2011), we are presented with details of rock that have been cut, scarred and fashioned by the processes of extraction. It’s possible to assume that these are a sequence of still photographic images. Only later in the video are there signs of movement: a tumbling rock; the water down a sheer rock face; the slow invisible force of a rock face being pulverised. There is nothing to see of the heavy technology that is at work here. As the video progresses, we yet again see filters. An out-of-focus image becomes in-focus. Colour casts become removed. In other instances, we detect the movement of filters that seem to carry no effect whatsoever. Whereas the interactions of filters in Bridge are tensioned between black and white, and between assembly and disassembly, the filters in Quarry operate on a different axis of abstraction. The filters here do not presuppose a ‘naked’ image, suffocating under all these effects. In an entropic loop that is someway analogous to the status of the quarry itself, the filters here only reveal the possibility of other filters. We acknowledge one only to encounter another. The work seems to declare that all images are mediated, the only difference being that some images are more apparently mediated than others.
It is remarkable how the body appears and re-appears in O'Malley's work, which at first impression is decisively absent of people and human activity. The movement of the filters that pass across the frame in Bridge, and that occur again (though significantly differently) in other video works such as Quarry and Island, are unmistakably movements of human hands. Although we rarely see the body at work behind the camera, we’re left with enough human inflection to introduce us to the tacit contract with its operator. This is a body that performs under the regime of technology and against its measure, doing its best at approximating an effect that is easily possible with editing software. Approximation, of course, is precisely the point. A reminder that we are not witness to a transparent process of depiction and representation, but one that is built with layers that are partly received by technology and partly counter-constructed by our own hands.
Perhaps, of all O'Malley's recent video works, the absenting of human signs and registers is most pronounced in Island (2010); a work produced at a historical site of religious pilgrimage in Lough Derg, County Donegal. In this work, the camera moves steadily though a concrete landscape that seems to carry the dreams of inhabitants that have long since vanished. All investments seem to have been exasperated. All life disappeared. The water lapping at the weather worn edges of the compound, only affirms what’s missing here. The camera in Island scans this place like a post-human rover, indiscriminate to the spiritual investments that have been bestowed here, and yet with a calculus of the rhythms and routines of the lives that have marked this place. This is a place of two halves after all, for 'connecting with suffering and starving people of our world, while keeping in touch with the soil and the rocks of the earth'; that, according to the website that still advertises retreats here. Like the flag in Flag or the bridge in Bridge, we might consider that the island in Island carries similar properties of a medium, shaping the conditions of its own image. The camera registering the visible discrepancies of material and spiritual agency, while the lack of sound (as in many of O’Malley’s videos) only emphasising the volume of missing pieces.
A shift of subject has taken place in more recent years, from the monumental spaces and significations of Quarry, Bridge, Island, and Flag, through to the more intimate and less travelled reckoning of Garden (2013), a work produced in the space of the artist's own home in Dublin. It was Robert Smithson in his ‘Cultural Confinement’ essay who once equated gardens with other mediums of picture-making, stating that 'gardens are pictorial in their origin – landscapes created with natural minerals rather than paint'. And for O’Malley, the garden is also a medium of conjuring images, a portal between intimate, domestic confines, and the space beyond. Garden exists as a double projection on two adjacent screens, each video presented onto a vertically orientated leaning frame. Throughout the two videos, we see mirrors being held askance, at angles to the camera. The mirrors defer our gaze toward other, reflected, aspects of the garden. Sometimes there are slivers of sky. Sometimes there is the detail of stonework at the garden’s perimeter. The mirrors tilt and move our gaze through this space, and though it is impossible to know just how large and expansive the garden is, the space seems constantly renewable in its perspectives.
There are numerous layers within Garden, and within each layer, a frame, a screen or a window. There is the frame of the garden itself, of course, with its organising limits. There is the frame of the camera that cuts all life in front of it into rectangles through the viewfinder. There is the frame of the projection screen, which, as always in O’Malley’s work, assumes a physicality and sculptural imposition of its own. Then there is the frame of the mirrors that feature in the sequences of this work, through which our viewing become both conditioned and extended. Finally, perhaps, we should acknowledge the frame of the gallery space itself, and the particular comportments that are presupposed here. Garden insists on deferring our gaze through one frame and then another, refusing the binary logic of our spectatorship in the development of subjecthood. The garden that we see, and the way we come to see it, follows a more wayward path.
In O’Malley’s work, we begin to question all interactions as mediating behaviours, including our own. Perhaps even the steps we take as we walk out of the room.
Matt Packer, 2013, Independent Curator / Associate Director of Treignac Projet, France
There are three elements to O’Malley’s show. Two screens propped against the walls contain eerie projections on black fabric, while a sheet of glass painted on both sides stands upright in the middle of the gallery. Patches of paint like scraps of charred paper occupy the centre of this pane while pale grey and white leaves curl in from the edge of the frame. The structure is both two and three dimensional depending on how you look at it. This question of perspective is addressed in her projections too.
On the screens, hands hold a mirror that reflects foliage blowing in the breeze. Only fingers are visible as the pane tilts to adjust the view, but a black-clad body stands behind. The reflection reveals the breeze block boundaries of a suburban outdoor space. We see sky, clouds and espaliered fruit trees. Passion flowers climb the wall.
This is art about containment and freedom, perception and view, wilderness and domestication. It is immaculately presented and quietly effective work.
Half Empty/ Half Full by James Merrigan
26 April - 22 June_
Project Arts Centre_Dublin_
Excuse the following preamble but these were the thoughts and criticisms I had in anticipation of Niamh O’Malley’s solo exhibition ‘Garden‘ at Project Arts Centre, Dublin.
The Dublin art scene has a tendency of late to get saturated with the same artists solo exhibiting at the same commercial and public art spaces with (in some cases) only six-month intervals between exhibits. Is this another latent side-effect of the economic crisis? No room for polarised opinion or taste in neither politics nor art: just flatline consensus? Can private and public art institutions only afford to lazily follow local trends? Perhaps better scouting is needed, not just a quick dash to the neighbouring art gallery or arts centre to help those decide their borrowed taste for the coming year. It cannot be the case that directors and curators are in collective agreement about what shows are necessary and what artists are deserved of their place in the spotlight at the exact same moment and place in time. It could have more to do with directors and curators being on trend (which every accomplished art professional should be!) than coincidence. There is one good excuse, however, as all art spaces, whether private or public, plan their visual art programme years in advance, and it is quite possible (rather than believable) that an artist under the local radar is coincidently selected to solo exhibit twice in one year at two different spaces in one city. Especially when you consider the small art scene and the visibility that an artist on a vertical trajectory gets in one fell swoop when plucked from the herd. If that is the case shouldn’t the onus be on the artist to really consider what it means for them to produce work in such quick succession in the one city? For the other artists in the community this causes no small amount of begrudgery: something we don’t need anymore of, thank you! More importantly, it leaves artists who are doing the rounds in such a fast-track manner open to criticism, as observers can compare, contrast and judge the artist’s work tied or untied from art market strings. The variation of this trend that usually produces the most intriguing results is when a gallery represented artist shows outside of their usual haunt, which can go one of two ways: the artist sticks to their guns and repeats what they do on their home turf, or they try something out of their norm, challenging themselves, their audience, and their gallerist. What invariably gets cut first is the supplementary wall drawings for those artists who work in video and sculpture, while ‘wall artists’ such as painters go Gung-Ho, conceptualising what was a strict formalism in their usual gallery stable. However, some artists are more suited to being directed, others curated, and the few exiled stragglers are best left to their own devices.
As mentioned, these observations came to the surface in excited anticipation of Niamh O’Malley’s solo exhibition ‘Garden’ at Project Arts Centre. Not because O‘Malley is one of those artists that hops, skips, and jumps from private-to-public venue—the exact opposite is the case. Even though I saw her work for the first time outside of Green on Red Gallery at Dublin Contemporary (2011), followed by eva International (2012), this was her first solo show at a significant public venue in the heart of Dublin since exhibiting at The Hugh Lane in 2007. As presumed, the walls of PAC gallery are left naked: no supplementary signature drawings by O‘Malley to set collectors’ beady eyes flickering. Furthermore, the gallery is not decorated from end-to-end: one aloof sculpture and two wall-propped art objects is all that furnishes the space.
O’Malley’s large bench with a seemingly freestanding pane of glass, entitled Window, is one of a line of glass and mirror works that the artist has made over the last few years. Usually quite reductive in form, and successfully so, this time around O‘Malley has gone ‘decorative’, with a filigree of painted leaves creeping around formalist splats of paint. Although I wish I could, I cannot help referring back to Duchamp and his Large Glass when standing before this work. Especially considering the French artist and O‘Malley’s shared factious relationship with painting.
As the large glass stands half-full/ half-empty and centre-stage in the space, it is evident that O‘Malley still has a soft spot for painting. However, this work is not successful as either stage-setting for the exhibition or standalone artwork. It is too self-consciously made: the painted leaves jitter across the pane of glass as if unsure of their place in the work. It actually reads like a memorial plaque for post-World War painting. All that is left is a conceptual muddle of flaky black and grey embers of paint, packaged with corporate-like precision.
However, leaning against perpendicularly opposing walls is O’Malley at her visual best to date. Two of a kind, improvised wooden ‘trellises’, immaculately frame projection screens positioned at different levels on each frame. Surprisingly looking and feeling more analog than digital, the dual black and white film projections are of a rectangular mirror—held by the artist presumably—being tilted up-and-down to reflect (we are told in the accompanying text by curator Tessa Giblin in the exhibition foldout) O‘Malley’s Dublin inner city garden. But the cropped image deletes anything that could be read as autobiographical: all the observer is given is the artist’s unsteady pivoting hands along with a band of real environment that frames the mirror. The black cloth of the projection screens is left teasingly exposed at the edge, leaving a velvety band with the same exquisite presentation that O‘Malley executed in her Dublin Contemporary digital work Quarry (2011). The wooden ‘trellis’ compresses the lot. As observers we are pulled in-and-out of the successive frames, while being pushed back-and-forth by the reflected garden.
My previous mention of the World War in reference to O’Malley’s freestanding Window, and combined with her Garden ‘frames’, I am reminded of what Gerhard Richter once said about the photograph being a ‘world’ unto itself, the memory of the photographer and the memory of the person photographed contained within the limits of each individual image, whilst everything outside the photographic frame of reference is forgotten, buried at the edges, but paradoxically alive. Expanding on Richter’s metaphysical observation we could diagnose the German artist’s painted simulations of his family photographs—his own family were literally ‘lost’ to him when the artist, alone, left his home of East Germany before the Berlin Wall came into existence—as a way of extracting something that is exterior to the photographic frame of reference. Richter’s personal history takes on further signification with regard to perimeters, borders, framing, when the artist revealed that he never saw his family again, the Berlin Wall enclosing them in a real an unmovable frame. The ‘reality’ that Richter paints is personally invested with family, friends, German history. And so, if Richter’s desire is to use painting to rediscover an essence of memory through mood and sensation, essences that lie beyond the dead photographic frame of reference, the question is: what desires are being played beyond O’Malley’s ‘frame’, if anything?
We could talk of gardens and colonialism and other such academic detours, but what makes this work by O‘Malley special is its self-reflexive existence inside the frame. The autobiographical reference to O’Malley’s garden in the accompanying essay is superfluous. This could be any garden, or for that matter a piece of manicured urban landscape beside passing traffic. Whatever existing sloppy everyday that exists outside the frame is deleted by the up-close crop of reality: when O’Malley does ’sloppy’ it is precisely scaffolded. And although there could be criticism flung at the compressed curation of the exhibition, whereby the observer has to crop all the uninhabited space that surrounds the three art objects, the fact is O’Malley’s raison d'être seems to be to make visually compressed art objects. The artist‘s decision to make two art objects that mirror each other in form and content is key to the dual artwork’s success. One on its own would have been an elegant objet d’art and nothing more. Instead, O‘Malley presents a very sexy simulacrum of reality whilst also stripping bare (like Duchamp’s Bride) the vanity of the artwork—a vanity that is certainly not visually empty.
Niamh O’Malley; on looking and materiality
Project Arts Centre, Dublin June 2013, online review by Andrea Kirsh
Andrea encounters a black and white garden that explores ideas about art’s materials and value
On entering the gallery at Project Arts Centre,where Niamh O’Malley‘s Garden is on view through June 22, the most striking first impression is that all the color has been drained. It is a resolutely black and white world. In the midst of the space a large pane of glass, framed as a window, stands in a slot in the middle of a two-sided bench.
The glass has seemingly-random patches of paint, as if the artist was testing her brushes, as well as small areas that appear to be shadows of vines. The double-sided glass raises the question of whether the viewer is looking into or out of the window. This focus on the multiple spacial and visual qualities of a window is the same territory that Monet explored in his late paintings of the pond in his garden, where the water’s surface functioned simultaneously as a plane on which lilies floated, as a window, through which to see the water below, and as a mirror that reflected the surrounding trees and sky.
Around the corner two huge, divided frames, again window-like, lean against abutting walls. Each contains a black section, onto which video is projected. The black and white videos are slightly out-of-sinc versions of the same scene, of a mirror that obscures all but the hands of the person who holds it. The camera is fixed, but the slow movement of the mirror reflects a panning view of a walled garden: some rusticated stonework, climbing vines of wisteria and roses that undulate in a strong wind, and a clouded, but un-remarkable sky.
Black and white is such a rare choice with video. We are surprisingly credible in believing that filmed imagery is real, and the abstraction of black and white certainly makes plain that we are seeing not reality, but a construct. It also gives a somewhat 19th-century cast to the scene, in its resemblance to early landscape photographs, although projected onto black screens, O’Malley’s images have both a focus and richness not found there.
I paid much more attention to the reflection of the rather ordinary scene than I would have had it been filmed without the mirror’s intervention. The mirror captured and framed the image, focusing my viewing. It underscored the viewer’s agency, and the fact that perception is more than the simple reflection of light hitting the mirror and returning it, at the same angle, but reversed left-to-right. We inevitably associate the directions with handedness, an association made stronger here by the ever-visible hands holding the mirror, hands which might stand for the unseen body’s function in registering what is seen.
I found tension in the mirror’s laconic movement, over the question of where the camera was and how the pans avoided catching it in the act, as it were. Its absence certainly made it easier to project oneself into the garden, in its place. And the viewing self, although unseen, is certainly the subject here. Garden is a poetic examination of the place of the observer in the natural world, an updated and urbanized version of a subject common to Romantic poetry and painting.
video detail from ‘Garden’
I had lunch with the artist and with Tessa Giblin, the curator, and my first question of Niamh was about the use of black and white. She never considered color, which she thinks attracts too much attention. Trained as a painter and working in drawing, sculpture and video, she never studied or worked in photography, where black and white has a strong tradition within the area of documentary, so the choice was not pointed in what it rejected.
paper visual art journal
‘As with the aforementioned, the best work here - and there was plenty in a handsome and thoughtful exhibition – dealt with the now-ness of now. It demanded a specific focus on the immediate aesthetic facts of the present. This entailed both the objects immediately in front of you and the concatenated contexts of the exhibition spaces and social systems they are nested within. Niamh O’Malley’s installation, for example, arrested time through the juxtaposition of Screen (2011) – a sculpture of overlapping planes of mirrors and coloured glass – and Model (2011) – a high definition projection of a nude male model holding a pose before a gridded window. Yet close attention revealed that their apparent clarity and considered slowness were rather more uncertain and partial, if no less beautiful than they first seemed.’
+BILLION- #38 w: billionjournal.com
AFTER THE FUTURE
eva International, Biennial of Visual Art
Limerick City, Ireland, 19 May – 12 August 2012
‘At Limerick City Gallery of Art (LCGA) Niamh O’Malley’s work submits to the Biennale’s prevailing subtext of presentness on a surface level via the naked skin of a posturing model in the sumptuously presented black and white video work Model and the alternating reflective, translucent and opaque surfaces of the accompanying Screen.’
Niamh O’Malley, ‘Model’
Green on Red Gallery, Dublin
February 2012, online review by Niamh Dunphy
paper visual art journal
During a recent artists’ talk at the National College of Art and Design, Niamh O’Malley showed a segment from her recent film titled Island that was shot on Lough Derg. Shown early last year in Centro Cultural Montehermoso in Spain, it will be exhibited at the Model Niland in Sligo this year. The film consists of one continuous shot where the camera moves slowly across the island’s terrain capturing its rhythms and movements. As the camera pans from left to right, a black, flat screen interrupts the viewing (a mechanism set up by O’Malley on site) creating a blind spot. The whole image must now be imagined.
O’Malley’s exhibition Model which took place last October at the Green on Red Galley also draws on image-making and representation. It is through an investigation of materials that O’Malley heightens a failure to grasp and understand beyond the surface of things.
Screen is a Di Stijl-like structure made of timber, two large mirrors, clear glass, and coloured glass. It is well made and sits in the centre of the gallery space. When viewed from one side, there is a cloud painted in oil on the surface of a large mirror. Beside and slightly behind sits a two-way mirror with a large, circular black form painted in the centre, staining and interrupting the surface – obstructing a full viewing both through the glass and on the reflective surface. Screen, although physically static, is one which animates and transforms, thus also evoking a Minimalist relationship between object and bodily movements. The work, however, is not simply a reduction in form, her chosen materials are transformative, conjuring up a sensation of viewing that extends beyond surface. The glass and mirror surfaces are continually obliterated by the reflection of the viewer’s body, or by the large film projection behind it.
Model is a black-and-white HD video projection onto a large screen of stretched black cotton. Filmed in a life drawing studio in the Royal Hibernian Art Gallery, it is slow moving and at times, still. A nude male model sits on the table in front of a large window, stretching, adjusting, posing. The camera navigates around the room, at times closing in on details. This is an examination of the surfaces of skin, of absence of form, and of stillness. There are moments too when the video blacks out. The gridded black frame of the window behind the nude in this film acts as a flattening point to measure and draw an image from the body. The subject becomes an object to be deconstructed, analysed, reworded, put back together; in effect, O’Malley builds an image. The relationship between Screen and Model is central to this; both film and structure together offer a plurality of perspectives, which more closely recapture an experience of the world that “is not given but rather emerges over time.”
O’Malley’s delicate and neatly contained drawings in this show are framed in black and are hung, equally spaced across the back wall, and three are placed at the main entrance. They are given coy titles such as: Yellow, Grey, Pink, Blue. Each is covered in textured, stained glass which interrupts the viewing, creating a barrier between the viewer and the image. The glass itself creates a fluid effect and seems to animate these pieces where O’Malley re-demonstrates this failure both in seeing and image making.
Previous work and the work on show is made up of a variety of internal associations and extensions. Despite this fluidity, there is a denial of any definitive meaning. This endless, unfolding of image unveils absences that can never fully be grasped. O’Malley’s subjects – a bridge, an island, a flag, a life-model, a quarry – operate as fragmentary objects which expand and contract. They bring to mind Virginia Woolf’s essay “Street Haunting, A London Adventure.” Here the writer – seeking to purchase a lead pencil – wanders through London. The pencil becomes the starting point to explore the world, a mechanism to trigger experience. This comes not from the object itself, but from the bodily experience of moving through the world, and shifting angles of perception:
The eye is not a miner, not a diver, not a seeker after buried treasure. It floats us smoothly down a stream; resting, pausing, the brain sleeps perhaps as it looks.
Niamh Dunphy lives and works in Dublin.
Lough Derg is a lake island located in County Donegal. This remote island has been a pilgrimage destination for centuries.
Merleau-Ponty, The World of Perception, Routledge Classics, 2004, London. p 41.
Virginia Woolf, “Street Haunting, A London Adventure” in The Art of the Personal Essay (1995) New York: Anchor Books p. 257
October 2011, online review by Ruth Hogan
this is tommorrow
Contemporary Art Magazine
Amid much hype and anticipation, Dublin Contemporary - an ambitious new international contemporary art event staged in Dublin city - opened its doors to the public on 6th September. The initial idea was conceived four years ago prior to the economic recession and subsequent controversial bailout of the Irish economy by the International Monetary Fund. So it seems fitting that lead curators Jota Castro and Christian Viveros-Fauné chose as their theme 'Terrible Beauty: Art, Crisis, Change and the Office of Non-Compliance.' Their agenda; to create a discourse based on the local and global impact of the economic recession and resulting political instability. The quote 'Terrible Beauty' is taken from the Irish poet W.B. Yeats' refrain from his famous poem 'Easter 1916.' In it Yeats laments the doomed Irish uprising of 1916, a turning point in Irish history which acted as the catalyst for instigating change in Irish politics in the early 20th century. 'all changed, changed utterly... a terrible beauty is born' Change is central to the thematic conceit, and it appears the curatorial intent of Dublin Contemporary is to effect change by creating a forum for social and politically engaged art of which 'The Office of Non-Compliance' is a major aspect. Located in Earlsfort Terrace, the initiative is dedicated to the discussion of ideas and promotion of artistic proposals through lectures, seminars and performances. Earlsfort Terrace, an 18th-century Victorian building which previously operated as a site for the University College Dublin, hosts most of the 100 artists participating in Dublin Contemporary. Many of the small exhibition spaces still retain traces of this function - some are equipped with blackboards, office signs and office furniture which further intone the intention of Dublin Contemporary to instruct and educate its audience. Often the works included are so overtly political that there seems no room for critical manoeuvring, and in other cases the exhibits present a very literal interpretation of the theme of 'terrible beauty,' often incorporating the tools of war as a medium in the work itself. The prominence of monumental large-scale sculptural installations as a device to encourage audience participation, such as Wang Du's 'The Cradle' (2007) and Thomas Hirschhorn's 'The Green Coffin' (2006) is not necessarily a successful one, as the sheer scale of the works can dominate the gallery space and encroach on the viewer. The works which generated the most critical thinking were those where there was no explicit or determined ideal evident. Instead, more complex readings were encouraged through subtle nuances. Omer Fast's 'Five Thousand Feet is Best' (2011) a newly commissioned film exhibited concurrently at the Model, Co. Sligo was one of the prime examples of this. 'Five Thousand Feet is Best' dramatises the experiences of American pilots who operate unmanned drone planes over the war zones of Afghanistan. Edited with real-life documentary accounts and re-counting of obscure analogies, Fast raises questions of the authenticity of factual narratives through the manipulation of the media and a broader consideration of the effect of conflict on the human psyche. Doug Fishbone's take on a contemporary African soap opera, 'Elmina' (2010) spoke volumes about racial prejudices. 'Elmina' is a feature length film featuring well-known Ghanian celebrities where Fishbone's deliberate inclusion of himself, the only white actor, in the role of the chief protagonist was a simple but effective method of highlighting stereotypes.
Many of the other successful works were contributions from Irish artists. Niamh O'Malley's film 'Quarry' (2011) sumptuously captures the barren landscape of a stone quarry. Beautifully shot in gradient tones of grey, each still frame reveals the austere landscape through the gradual re-focussing of the camera lens or the drawing back of a camera filter.
James Coleman's multi-channel video installation '2004-11' in Gallery II at the Royal Hibernian Academy is a re-working of the Classical Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Played out like the acts of a theatre, the interaction between the two characters is recorded and presented from multiple angles, giving the tragic love story a contemporary twist while lingering on the subjects of loss and separation through sparse dialogue. In less subtle but no less effective terms, Nevan Lahart's whimsical take on the recession, 'Wankruptcy' offers a more humorous and theatrical response to the severity of the current economic climate, albeit underpinned with a political message. A cardboard installation replica of the Hollywood hills encompasses the entire room. Rubber missiles bursting through the flimsy mountain ridge are directed at a furry limbed life-size globe strapped with dynamite. A spontaneously erupting geyser of empty beer cans adds to the blatant spectacle.
Dublin Contemporary's first incarnation is not without its flaws. The decision to rely on large scale sculptural work as a method for audience engagement may not have had the desired effect. What has been proven is that as a vehicle for the promotion of contemporary art, the quality of Irish artistic talent on view is on par with that of the international artistic community.
Dublin Contemporary 2011
6th September - 31st October, 2011
Online Review by Darren Caffrey (EXTRACT)
Dublin Contemporary 2011 was a big ask. We are, in this country, often adrift of the curve, somewhere between a second thought and a small wish. In this respect, the whole conception from beginning to end was a true achievement in its ambition and also in its disregard for the rules of play. Let us not consider the politics surrounding the event as anything more than reality, no doubt one from which a lot will be learnt, and taken by those who must.
What is more is that thing called art, or at the very least, experience, and this is where the most value can be drawn. Broad, spectacular, light and deliberately opposing, it is perhaps then a funny thing to say that the expression of the works as a whole was portentously political. The building itself, a cadaver retrieved from back in the days when it facilitated science lectures, reflects well the type of ideology which has reanimated its shell, a kind of digging which is bound to lead to something of note being found that will support life.
Quarry, Niamh O' Malley, 2011
But still no art has been discussed, so why not begin with the work of Niamh O’Malley? Her cinematic quietude presented us with the bricks and mortar of decay. A moving piece, the simplicity of Quarry is its grace, each scene slowly revealed as an uncomplicated process of soft focus, gently introducing us to more weighty forms. In its visual form, the material truth of stone is represented as something found closer to our own experiences than the cold, hard silence that it may initially evoke. The simplified conditions of darkness and silence are in superb contrast to the black fabric screen which acts to hold in place the subtly of the video work, while still allowing for the obvious monumentality of each new revelation. Prior to this revealing, the visual suggests a type of pile-up which is synonymous with horrific images of corpses lying at the bottom of a trench. It is only through the second take of each scene that we are allowed to put that sort of worrying interpretation down and replace it with a considerably more solid understanding. If life too is so rewarding, then the degree of maturity exhibited by O’Malley is an enlightening prospect.
Due for Publication in ‘Art and Research 10’ Centro Cultural Montehermoso, Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain
It is a sacred place. A site visited by pilgrims and tourists, both reverentially hushed. But by the side of the dusty road there is inevitably a line of tables, each covered with the same objects: small figurines of the holy relic in a range of sizes, postcards, picture books. One has a basket filled with small, 2-inch plastic cameras: through the tiny viewfinder is an aerial view of the surrounding countryside. Looking up towards the sun with the machine over my eye, a button turns through a dozen hypercoloured, grainy images, a quick snapshot tour of the area’s highlights: seemingly deserted postcard views and panoramic shots that give away only a sense of scale, and possibly good weather depending on where I point the toy. Giving the imitation shutter button a delicate half-push, I get the excited shudder of making the view settle on the black ‘V’ that separates one picture from the next. Half of a green valley can be seen on one side, on the other an abandoned port, the dark no-space sitting uneasily between them. Like thinking about your own blinking, its automatic process becoming slowed and intentional, it is unsettling and revealing. It is a boundary, the limitation of how we see what we see; but this image of the material of the picture slide itself is also another view, another location, another entity. It is this liminal space, its uncertain dominion and hazy substance that is explored in the work of Niamh O’Malley.
The drawings, sculptures and installations of her exhibition ‘Island’ are a labyrinth of crossed perspectives and expectantly empty spaces meditating on visibility. Confronted with the monolithic presence of Untitled (2010) sitting at a slight angle, the tops of the gallery walls and the roof’s vaulted ceiling are reflected on its dark surface, while we can see through to the rest of the gallery space behind the tinted glass. Hovering between these, though, is an opaque, uneven rectangle. It is only when we walk around the other side an image reveals itself, a painting on the downturned reflective side of the two-way mirror of a rippled surface of water, a hazy white circle piercing the middle like a retinal burn. In the corner, another large sheet of glass is propped against the wall, that at first appears like a another white circle painted onto a mirror; but on approach we can see through this shape to the shadows of the mirror on the gallery walls, a space where the mirror’s reflective coating has been scraped away. Two adjacent sheets of paper hold hard, silvery strips of liquid metal that only in close scrutiny can be recognised as dense, meticulous pencil drawings depicting swathes of paint. With these reluctant revelations, O’Malley leads us to encounter a set of enigmatic, unfolding obstructions and absences; even the images we do see are surfaces that we might see behind, but they don’t yield anything more than shades of inscrutability. This room of holes and doubled mirrors could suggest a fractured distance that cannot be breached, a mark of the tragic impossibility to find a whole view of the world outside ourselves. But this Lacanian reading of the work would also imply casting it as the stern arbitrator of an external order, controlling and anxiously imposing. On the surface, the pieces appear final, fixed and certain. Among the fractured and doubled reflections of the walls, columns and glimpses of our own bodies, though, they disclose an instability, and enable a reinterpretation of that same mirrored moment. The experience unfolds as a more open-ended process; each piece holds a multiplicity of viewpoints that brings not only a self-awareness, but also an equal sense of the look of others. Here, as it was for Merleau-Ponty, Lacan’s claimed moment of looking in the mirror is not about the detracting misrecognition of external hierarchy, but about the affirmative realisation that the subjective body can be perceived from both without and within. This revelation of bodily consciousness extends and expands into O’Malley’s film work. Her short film loop Island (2010) is, on the surface, a black and white silent documentary. Through a series of eight tracking shots moving slowly left to right, we are given an even portrait of the eponymous island, the camera running along its edges and textures like a finger calmly tracing the lines in the palm of a hand. Through clear winter sunlight we can see snow in the distant hilltops, as we pan along the walls and courtyards of an archaic worn and lichen-crusted stone fortress-like structure. It is expectantly empty, like an unused film set. The camera follows the rushes at the water’s edge, an overgrown wall behind which three crosses suggest what might be a cemetery. Mediating and interrupting these equanimous observations, however, is a series of fourteen black wipe-action edits, a set of horizontally panning frames that take over the screen and turn the film into a sort of animated slideshow. These frames are both punctuations as well as transitions, in some cases temporarily blocking out the moving camera’s view, in others providing the cut between scene locations. Their rhythmic punctuations leave the audience in pitch black before revealing the next image, creating a procession where the nebulous gaps assert themselves as just as much part of the film as the imagery. In one key shot, the camera follows the silhouette of a church, a gnarled bare tree in the foreground. As we move, the thick trunk of the tree eclipses the church’s tower for several seconds, emerging again framed by branches until shortly after both are swallowed by the onsetting wipe. With this simple incidence, O’Malley highlights the analogous function between the content and form of her film. The wipes effectively are an object in our extreme foreground, an intervening shape.
In its weighted silences and patient emptiness, the film hints at a latent symbolism. Its tone and camera movements carry echoes of other filmic moments—the slow circular panning of Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen’s Riddles of the Sphinx (1977), the final 9-minute single take from Andrej Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia (1983) as we slowly follow Gorchakov in his three attempts to carry a lit candle across the drained pool of St. Catherine. Island also bears a striking structural resemblance to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), a thriller depicted in ten long takes which were edited so as to appear as one long shot that lasts the course of an evening. In keeping with the protagonists’ attempts to conceal a dead body, the majority of the edits of the film are disguised as momentary disruptions of our view by an actor’s back or the open lid of a chest. Island does the inverse of hiding its editing mechanism, but, like Rope, it uses an incorporated edit that transforms what is technically a disjointed montage into the illusion of one durational continuity, the appearance of real time. In a scene late in the film, Jimmy Stewart’s character narrates hypothetically what he would do if he were committing the murder; the camera follows his voice as if by command, moving around the empty apartment to each location and object he describes off-screen. The shot’s empty set has a latent sense of possibility and anticipation, but it also highlights the camera’s role as a perspectival storyteller. Its similarities suggest a corresponding narrator hidden behind Island’s wanderings, an owner for the slideshow in preparation for an impending event. But the film gives us nothing but surfaces and textures in constant motion. Island manifestly lacks the formal and narrative elements film theorists have used to explain what draws us in and how we engage and invest in the screen’s world. But, remarkably, the piece still creates a sense of empathy amongst its many facades. The idea of suture is classically thought of as the way we inscribe ourselves into the characters and gazes within a film, a process “producing the effect of self-enclosure...traces of the production processes, its gaps, its mechanisms, are obliterated, so that the product can appear as a naturalised, organic whole.”i In the uninhabited Island, these traces are extended, its gaps almost swallowing the images. Devoid of narrative, or any apparent subject, we find in the open disclosure of it own edits that the materiality of the film is placed on the same level of engagement as the water and stones. Its rhythms and interjections become a familiar character of sorts with which we come to interact. Here, filmic space is physical space, the film itself is a body with which we are coming into intimate contact.
Standing on our own among the film and objects of ‘Island,’ we are surrounded by clouds, bodies of water, walls. But with these silent surfaces and mute objects there remains the heightened sense that we are conscious of other consciousnesses, that we are interacting both within and beyond ourselves. Merleau-Ponty was describing the interaction between two people when he wrote that, “there is woven between us an exchange, a ‘chiasm’ between two ‘destinies’...in which there are never quite two of us, and yet one is never alone.”ii As the multi-layered works push at both their and our own limitations of what we are able and aware of seeing, these words echo in a new light. O’Malley foregrounds the issue that an image, a glance, a look, is always already framed, a look from a particular perspective. ‘Island’ reminds us that the image is already a subjectivity, a corporeal entity which mutually intertwines.
i Slavoj Žižek, The Fright of Real Tears, BFI, 2001, p 55 ii Maurice Merleau-Ponty, In Praise of Philosophy and other Essays, Northwestern University Press, 1963, p 82; see also George Butte, I Know That You Know That I Know: Narrating Subjects From Moll Flanders to Marnie, Ohio State University, 2004, p 24.
SPACE (Edition 509)
‘Striking up a conversation in the memorial garden’
Gaain Gallery, Seoul, Korea
April 2010, Printed and Online edition By Kim Yong-Min
Niamh O’Malley, Frame, glass, black
Green on Red Gallery, Dublin
December 2009, online review
By Slavka Sverakova
In an elegantly calm display a video, painting on glass, a mirror leaning against the wall and a dozen of drawings represent O’Malley’s focus on the issue of visibility. Unpopulated and still, except for few subtle movements of flying bird or shifting cloud, the shots of the Humber Bridge near Hull in England is projected on a deliberately constructed surface of a black screen. Each shot is opened and closed by a manual shutter action. Each image works as a stand alone and as a member of the set that gradually removes the ambiguity of the fragments of the subject. This imitates the perception vis a vis the long bridge which cannot be seen in its entirety from one point of view. The task of the visual perception is thus similar to the structure of film making something visible, frame by frame.
In Visibility, one of his Six Memos for the Next Millenium, Italo Calvino cites Ignatius of Loyola’s Ejercicios Espirituales : insofar as something or someone is visible “...this composition will consists in seeing from the view of imagination the physical place where the thing I wish to contemplate is to be found.”(p.84) In physical sense that place is the surface onto which light projects images, or facilitates seeing images, in the spiritual sense, it is the “mental cinema of the imagination “, when imagination does not refer to history or to authority either as its origin or a gaol.
That place for contemplation is forged by stillness, light and surfaces submitted to a kind of framing. Paradoxically, the projection screen is framed , while the mirror and the pane of glass are not. The “Mirror” has a part of the backing sanded away making it possible to read the surface of the wall and the floor behind it.Visibility is one of the six values Calvino wants to be saved. He warns that the power of bringing vision into a focus with our eyes shut must not be lost, calling imagination “thinking in images”.
“I have in mind some possible pedagogy of the imagination that would accustom us to control our inner vision without suffocating it or letting it fall...into confused ephemeral dreams...”(p.92)
The visual force of O’Malley’s poetic art does indeed, what Calvino hopes for: enabling “the images to crystallize into a well-defined, memorable, and self-sufficient form, the icastic form.”(ibidem) . Plato’s idea of icastic ( as different from phantastic ) poetry after all convinced John Milton (1608 – 1674) that writing poetry is a socially productive labour – a sign of instrumental value of art, should one be needed.
O’Malley’s visually intelligent, sensual, sensitive and beautiful inventions enrich experience and imagination alike.
Note: Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, 1988, Engl. Trans. Publ. by Vintage 1996.
Niamh O’Malley, Frame, glass, black
Green on Red Gallery, Dublin
December 2009, online review by Miranda Driscoll
paper visual art journal
Walking into the darkened gallery of the Green on Red, the first image that catches my eye is that of an enormous shadow cast across a stretch of rippling water. What appears to be a sliding shutter, moves across the image. The gallery space is briefly plunged into darkness before a formidable bridge tower is revealed with steel cables cutting into a saturated skyline. I am reminded firstly of the ethereal nature of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s seascapes and then, in contrast, the sharply defined photographs of Paul Strand and the modernist, detached structures of the photographer Albert Renger-Patzsh.
Niamh O’Malley’s Frame, glass, black, reflects the physical space of both the subject and its context. This constantly reminds the viewer, not only that he or she is involved in the act of looking, but also of the presence of the artist – the maker and the tools used in creating the work. The work is presented in a variety of mediums including pencil drawings, painting, sculpture and video.
Niamh O’Malley: Bridge, 2009, production still
Bridge is a black-and-white video piece projected onto a large, black canvas. The black surface of the canvas creates dramatic, contrasting tones which gives the appearance of a filter on the lens of a 35mm stills camera. The blacks have been rendered dark, so that no detail is visible. This creates a stark frame around the other areas, namely the sky, clouds, and water. The frame, an ongoing and important theme in O’Malley’s work, forces the viewer to reflect on the viewing experience. Each shot appears unedited, and is flanked by a black ‘filter’ which slides across the image just like the mechanics of the 35mm camera where the leaves of the shutter expose the film to light. Occasional shots also contain a smaller black frame which appear and disappear intermittently. I learn later, that the frame is drawn onto a piece of glass before being pushed in front of the lens, while the camera is rolling.
German photographer Albert Renger-Patzsh, drawing from the sensibilities of the ‘New Objectivity’ of the 1920’s and 30’s, rejected Expressionism and determined that work is less about the maker, and more about the materiality of substances. By removing the subject from its historical and social context, he attempted to depict the subject to be viewed with ‘fresh’ eyes. Renger-Patzsh claimed to ‘purely’ document, yet at the same time, to capture the beauty of material things in a matter-of-fact way without the baggage of context. Undoubtedly, O’Malley’s work is overtly about the maker, the medium and therefore, the act of looking. The image is interrupted by the frame and there is a dramatic and simple beauty in the work. References to the mechanics of both the still image and early cinema is apparent. Filters and frames appear and disappear in a slightly amateurish and childish manner, making the presence of the artist evident.
Niamh O’Malley: Glass, 2009, oil paint on two-way mirror, 1000×2000x50mm
O’Malley’s choice of black-and-white over colour, certainly seems to reference something historical or fictional- we don’t see the world in black-and-white after all. Yet, what of the social context and indeed, the subject, the Humber Bridge? The subject, itself, is a towering, ominous piece of architecture that once held the record for the world’s longest single span suspension bridge. It is the longest bridge in the world that can be crossed on foot and has a main cable that apparently contains 11,000 tonnes of steel wire – enough wire to wrap around the world one and a half times. Each tower was built a further 36mm apart at the top than at the bottom to take into account the curvature of the earth.  O’Malley’s work is a dramatic portrait of the biggest, longest and the strongest bridge. It is claimed to have opened, socially and economically, two seemingly remote areas of northern England. Is this, the chosen subject matter purely incidental? Perhaps it demands a relation to the modernist notions of order, geometry, space by looking towards a new, brighter future for two communities now linked by way of this vast structure of concrete and steel.
O’Malley’s work appears to shift from the illusionary to the very real. The bridge, seemingly a symbol of strength, connection, and unity, contrasts with the etheral, opaque mirrored images and pencil drawings. The medium used for Bridge is overt – the lens, the camera are unconcealed. While the sculptures and the mirrored pieces provide a reflection, they also offer an ambiguous view of what is beyond the image, on the other side. Glass shows a cloud painted in oils on a two-way mirror. As the viewer approaches the piece from the front, he or she is confronted with numerous images: an ethereal ’shadow’ of the cloud; the other side of the gallery; the reflection of the physical space; the viewer’s own reflection; and finally, Bridge. The mirror, therefore, contains frames within frames.
Niamh O’Malley: Untitled, 2009, pencil on paper, 149×199mm
Hung on the wall are two pencil drawings in strong black frames. Again there is the ongoing theme of a frame within a frame, as seen in the previous pieces. The drawings, however, seem to be somewhat overshadowed by the video and sculptural work. The abstract nature of the drawings are not visually striking in comparison to Bridge. They do, however, provide something to grasp onto and a reason to stand still for a while.
O’Malley’s body of work takes time to explore. I am continually drawn back to the video piece, Bridge. O’Malley’s work seems to me, like the bridge; it is something that appears to be static, factual and unchanging, yet upon closer inspection, is constantly moving and evolving. Similarly, her sculptural pieces are illusionary and almost transparent, until you get up close. It is in that moment of revelation that you see yourself and your own reflection looking back.
Published in ‘Torch’, artists monograph, April 2008
Some time in 1660, Edmé Mariotte, prior of the abbey of St.-Martin-sous-Beaune near Dijon, retired to a room alone to conduct a curious experiment. In a letter to a colleague, M. Pecquet, written eight years later and subsequently sent to the Royal Society in London, the abbot writes: ‘I fastn’d on an obscure Wall, about the hight of my Eye, a small round paper, to serve me for a fixt point of Vision; and I fastned such an other on the side thereof towards my right hand, at the distance of about 2. foot; but somewhat lower than the first, to the end that it might strike the Optick Nerve of my Right Eye, whilst I kept my Left shut. Then I plac’d my self over against the First paper, and drew back little and little, keeping my Right Eye fixt, and very steddy upon the same; and being about 10. foot distant, the second paper totally disappeared.’
What Mariotte had discovered was the blind spot or scotoma: a gap or hiatus in the visual field that corresponds to the absence of photoreceptive cells at the point where the optic nerve meets the retina. Scotoma denotes all manner of obscuring intrusions into the visual field: the results of more or less grave or pathological conditions, temporary or permanent impairments. The word means darkness, though this is confusing, because (as Mariotte points out) the normal blind spot is not dark at all: the hole in our vision is filled by information from the other eye – the void as such never makes itself known.
Something of this paradox – the appearance of an abyss whose edges we cannot quite see – is well known to anybody who has experienced a migraine. At the onset – during an unsettling, almost hallucinatory interval that is known as the aura – you feel no pain, but experience diverse invasions of the visual field. Lights flash at the periphery; jagged lines advance, lightning-like, before your eyes. What seem to be floaters or motes on the surface will not be blinked or wiped away; nor will they resolve themselves into discrete forms: rather, they slink about at the edges of your vision, obscuring things while never actually obtruding as definite shapes. At worst, such an almost-entity can lodge at the centre of the visual field: things, people, printed words and speeding cars can enter it, as if it were a fog, and (you trust) emerge again from the other side. You move your head about jerkily, like a bird, hoping to glimpse obliquely what will not settle in front of your eyes; this causes the optical artefact to flash painfully. It is because of such flashing that the blind spot in question is known as a ‘scintillating scotoma’ – to scintillate means to give off sparks – which odd etymological conjunction means that what the migrainous patient sees is the paradox of a literally sparkling or illuminated darkness.
In the title of her video Scotoma (2008), Niamh O’Malley draws on both the normal and morbid forms of the physiological blind spot, and conjures several kinds of metaphorical and aesthetic significance out of the obscuring light. As in Mariotte’s ophthalmic elaboratory, everything depends upon a small scrap of paper: in this case it is attached to the camera lens itself. Its shape is unclear; at times it seems uniformly circular, at others it stretches, pulses or dilates in unexpected directions, appears to shrink from the visible world around it, then acquires a distorting halo that pulls adjacent objects into its irregular orbit. The eye of the viewer hopes to edge around it, looking for the central subject of the image; this effort is persistently frustrated.
In Scotoma, the blind spot itself seems to go in search of something: it ranges over the contents of an antique shop like a disembodied shadow, allowing us to glimpse jewels and ornaments for a few moments before they are swallowed up by the void. It drifts among paintings, showing their frames but refusing a clear view of the pictures themselves. It briefly hints at a real landscape – there is water, foliage, a startled flight of ducks – before reverting once more to a partial, painted world. Our vision is constantly blanked, as though the gaze of the camera were in itself an obscuring medium, as if the act of looking were also a physical abutting of the world, and therefore groping and clumsy. The blind spot becomes an obtuse sort of being: a monstrous, wavering outgrowth of the failure of vision itself.
Scotoma is in one sense the optical, formal and psychological mirror of Torch (2007), a video recorded in an urban garden at night and projected onto a black canvas. According to a conventional visual schema, a patch of light in the midst of darkness seems to us both actually and symbolically more revelatory than a halo of visibility about a central core of night. Why should this be so? It is partly physiological: our vision is always directed, like a lamp or a camera; it probes or penetrates the darkness. Our peripheral vision is literally beside the point: in certain diseases of the eye, we may not even notice it going, until the darkness bears inward and it is too late. But on the other hand this is merely a metaphor; enlightenment, discovery, revelation: these are always, we like to think, lights at the end of the tunnel, not partial glimpses to be gleaned frustratedly at the edges of obscurity.
Torch plays with all of this in an especially elegant and economic fashion. A circle of projected light slowly explores the benighted garden, illuminating flowers and trees as it passes, but denying us an overall sense of the place, which is plunged twice in darkness: once in the recorded scene itself, again by the black canvas on which it is projected. More than this: the scene seems flattened, as if it were a painting in the first place, as if what we are seeing is a weak spotlight cast against a theatrical backdrop. Which is also to say that the gaze that moves across the canvas is not properly our own. We speak of ‘training’ our eye on an object, but here the eye is ‘trained’ in another sense: coaxed around the canvas according to a logic or regime that remains obscure to us. It is as though we are being taught, in the manner of a traditional art historian, to follow a painterly narrative or formal design: the structure in question, however, keeps disappearing into blindness, ignorance, darkness.
Our ability to turn projected light into an imagined reality seems natural to us now: the trick effected alike by the camera obscura, the Victorian phantasmagoria or magic-lantern show, the perfected technologies of film and video. But we are hardly capable of apprehending projected darkness. Consider the moment when a cinema screen goes dark: the eye is plunged into nothingness, but quickly adjusts so that the illusion is broken – darkness, as it were, fades to white; the support becomes visible and we are bathed in its pale reflection. At such moments, a certain failure – of the technology, of the imagination, of the eye itself – becomes visible for the first time.
It is exactly this failure of which O’Malley takes advantage when she combines projected image and painted surface. On the one hand, she posits a complete accord between light and paint: the first illuminates the second, the latter deepens and enriches the former. We have to imagine the artist, somewhat in the manner of Edmé Mariotte with his vanishing paper disc, working in the full glare of the projector’s eye, training the image on a sheet of paper then pulling it away to reveal the surface on which she paints; labouring, in other word, on an image made of countless blind spots. In Butterfly (2008), for example, the image of a somewhat kitsch artefact – a foil-print landscape overlain with a clock and a pair of real butterflies – slowly fades to reveal the meticulous painting underneath. In Amiens St ‘Vignette’ (2007), the filmed image of steam from an inner-city heating system results in a constant confusion of foreground and background: everything threatens to evanesce, including the painted scene beneath, in white clouds.
Among the earliest techniques to lend a painterly aspect – and a particular ephemeral or even vaporous quality – to the harsh and novel realism of the photograph was the vignette. The term itself already denoted certain kinds of textual or theatrical voyeurism: a vignette is a small fragment of a larger narrative, an anecdote or sketch. In the photographic vignette, whether by distortion of the lens itself or by subsequent manipulation of the plate or print, the image is made to condense to a central bright patch of clarity, surrounded by more or less deepening obscurity. The result is a portrait, a landscape or still life with all extraneous scenography removed: only the essentials remain. This is in part the logic of O’Malley’s ‘vignettes’ – we see it, for instance, in the almost spotlit lake-divers in Lough Owel ‘vignette’ (2006) – but she has extended the notion so that it covers the whole surface of the picture: clarity and obscurity may obtain anywhere within the frame, and the concept of a distinct vantage or ‘overlook’ may fade away at any moment.
What the photographic vignette was in part intended to replicate was the eye of a painter trained in the eighteenth-century aesthetics of the picturesque: an eye that views the natural world according to privileged views or vantage points, and excises accordingly from its ambit all inessential matter. (By a neat technological and historical correspondence, pre-photographic enthusiasts of the picturesque were encouraged to view such scenes through coloured glasses or reflected in black mirrors.) It is the aesthetic that, in New York in the 1850s, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux put into practice in their design of Central Park: a space conceived according to definitive lines of sight and formally pleasing vistas.
In ‘Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape’, an essay on Central Park published in Artforum in 1973, Robert Smithson takes issue, however, with the conventional art-historical view of the picturesque as a rigid way of seeing. Smithson writes: ‘the contradictions of the “picturesque” depart from a static formalistic view of nature. The picturesque, far from being an inner movement of the mind, is based on real land; it precedes the mind in its material external existence.’ The picturesque scene depicts, says Smithson, a dialectical landscape: it hovers between formal abstraction and actual, unruly matter, even entropic disarray.
What becomes of such a way of seeing at a remove of a century and a half? O’Malley’s The dene ‘vignette’ (2004) provides one answer. The scene is the meeting of several paths in Central Park; walker pass by, the static image is overlain by history and the contingent uses to which a once picturesque view is put today. But the whole is also subtended by O’Malley’s painting of the same scene: an image that reminds us both of the painterly contemporaries of Olmsted and Vaux, and of the material basis of a territory that the video image, with its ghostly passers-by, has somehow failed to fix. The dene ‘vignette’ is a dialectical image: it reveals and conceals it subject at the same time, and never lets us finally settle the question of whose historical and aesthetic blind spots we are being illuminated.
Seeing, contends the philosopher Bishop George Berkeley in his Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision (1709), is never merely a matter of vision itself. The ‘visive faculty’ discerns form and colour, for sure, but only because we also possess the ideas of extension in space and tactile apprehension of the objects before us. Sight, in other words, is also a form of touch, even where touch remains at the level of pure potential. It is perhaps this tactility that Niamh O’Malley’s paintings restore to her partial, naturally enfeebled projections; except to say that these in turn reveal what the painting would hope to deny: that all seeing is a question of partial perspective, selective focus, aesthetic or physiological vignetting. The light falls – as in her image of the smoky aftermath of an imploded power station, illuminated in places by a succession of primary-coloured discs – only on enigmatic portions of the scene. What the human eye sees, writes Berkeley, is not only narrow and limited, but also for the most part confused: ‘the more we fix our sight on any one object, by so much the darker and more indistinct shall the next appear.’
Niamh O’Malley - Frame, glass, black
Green on Red Gallery - Dublin
ARTPULSE, online and printed edition December 2009
By Maria Minguez
Niamh O' Malley, Bridge (Production still), 2009. Courtesy Green on Red Gallery
“Frame, glass, black” is the result of a new productive period of the Dublin-based artist Niamh O’Malley. For all those who have followed her career, it will be interesting to see how her ideas develop without any kind of boundaries. From the monumental wall drawing in Ormeau Baths Gallery, Belfast (2001), the painting on a window frame in Open House, Casino Luxembourg (2002), passing through the moving video images sunk into hand-painted canvas, till the most recent glass sculptures, drawings and video; there is as a continuing story, an “illusionist-magician’s” aim to activate a kind of inherent action and positioning on the part of the viewer.
With a solid background in painting, O’Malley is interested in the fabricated nature of the viewing experience. Her style could be the exact definition of the term “expanded painting.” Her work is about trying to put painting into a new frame by broadening its frontiers and making it adapt to her time. As O’Malley has stated: “My work investigates the difficulties of viewing, how does one go about the act of viewing and whether any attempt at a deliberate, knowing appreciation negates the authentic experience.”
The pieces selected for the show in Green on Red Gallery, Dublin, are skillfully mounted throughout the main space, acquiring a sculptural character and dialogue between them, generating different perspectives and multiple viewpoints. In a darker area, a video projection is followed by two delicate sculptures that, with deliberate manipulation of optical properties, attract the viewer’s attention. A suite of small works on paper in pencil are displayed in the entrance corridor showing sketches that O’Malley created.
All of the artworks, completely silent, offer room for reflection and contemplation. In the new sculptural pieces -part mirror, part glass- large panes are held at angles in the space. They form viewing thresholds, double-sided spaces whose shifting reflective surfaces deny and periodically reveal their imagery.
In the video, Bridge, O’Malley fixes in her shots, parts and angles, unusual perspectives, which projected onto the black screen become evocative and mysterious shapes taken from no longer recognizable structures. In the framed images what matters is that each portion of reality contains other realities. The shots have been simplified by the use of black and white, making more contrast between the sections of the bridge and sky, as if she were drawing instead of recording.
A closer look uncovers that O’Malley did not digitally manipulate the video. Her projections reveal things otherwise overlooked by the eye, reverting back to a kind of antique use of the medium. The film texture and timeless landscape make us travel, as if we could actually be in the 50’s watching a silent sequence of “slides.” However, unlike much projected art, there is no real beginning or end, and the viewer can approach this piece at any time.
María Mínguez is an art critic based in Dublin, Ireland.
Sometimes even the simplest and most familiar ideas can yield extraordinary results. "Vignette," Niamh O'Malley's first solo exhibition in a Dublin gallery, was based on a coalescence of the traditional concerns and effects of painting and cinema, a merging of domains that has informed much contemporary art but which was here rendered literal rather than notional. The show featured two separate works placed some distance apart on opposing walls in the large, darkened main space--DVD projections onto what, on entering the gallery, at first appeared to be blank screens. It gradually became apparent, however, that what one was seeing was in both cases a visual palimpsest, a doubled representation of the same scene. A suite of small works on paper in pencil and watercolor was displayed in an adjoining corridor.
The larger of the two main works, The dene "vignette," 2004, was a short (two and a half minute) video loop of a quiet corner of New York's Central Park taken from a fixed vantage point. (These works were all produced while the Ireland-based O'Malley was on a residency at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens.) This loop was then projected onto an enormous canvas on which the same scene had been sketched out and painted to the exact same scale as the projected image. The underlying painted landscape was empty and unpeopled, its central presence and visual focal point a lone, Victorian-style black lamppost. During the course of the looped footage, however, various passersby stroll through the scene, their presence rendered ghostly by the fact that the painted landscape shows through the superimposed moving imagery. When both frames are empty of people the still scene shimmers uncannily, especially when viewed straight on from a distance of several feet. As the viewer shifts around in front of the canvas or moves closer, the painted surface gradually asserts itself and the artifice becomes more apparent. At the end of the loop the projected image suddenly, briefly, and gorgeously dissolves into the painting before reestablishing itself and starting over again.
Skillman Ave "vignette," 2004, a still view from on high of a building surrounded by trees, occasionally disturbed by the flutter of flying birds, works on the same principle to the same unsettling but mesmerizing effect. This structurally simple strategy of infecting the space of painting with cinematic effect has complex ramifications. O'Malley speaks of an attempt to "present multiple viewpoints that frustrate the achievement of spectacle" through "a marked ... reproduction of the real production; an acknowledged representation of a representation." Yet this dutiful genuflection toward the self-critical image does little to detract from the fact that these mildly disconcerting, flickering pictures are visually lush and intensely seductive, and O'Malley also acknowledges that the distancing mechanism of the double framing within these works may have the paradoxical effect of actually intensifying "the aura of the original moment" rather than diminishing it. The dene "vignette" in particular manages to suffuse the mundane mechanics of contemporary video surveillance with the nostalgic glow of traditional landscape painting in a manner that is both enthralling and gently thought provoking.
COPYRIGHT 2005 Artforum International Magazine, Inc.
Structures Of The Visible & (Tele)Technological Performatives In The Work Of Niamh O’Malley, 2008
(Publication ‘Living Landscape’ 2010) Armelle Skatulski, 2009
In the contact of the recorded & projected image with the surface of the painted canvas something happens not only to our understanding of perception, the art object & its relationship to a thinking of perspectivalism, vision and representational models, but something also happens to time and the materiality of the art object. In Niamh O’Malley’s vignettes, while the technologically mediated, moving image somehow ‘animates’ & ‘illuminates’ the partially painted canvas surface, the work acquires a performative dimension. The art object is made to perform in an investigation of the ‘structures’ of the visible, and produces a form of image that can only be apprehended in the moment of its happening in the encounter of two media and its being viewed. The duration of the viewing experience is constituted or produced by the very encounter of the materiality of the painted surface and the immaterial materiality of the technological record. This duration (repetitive, cyclical) possesses a peculiar relationship to the present (of the viewing experience), the past (of the painted trace or the recorded moment) and the future as technological trace. O’Malley’s investigation of the structures of the visible in the encounter of human vision with the materiality of the art object & technological vision may be considered within a thinking of tele-technologies and the spectral. While reflecting upon the haptic dimension of light, the work is concerned with the possibility of illusion and the structural elements of such illusion, while disturbing received notions about perception and the technological record.
North Street Vignette (2005) produced for Living Landscape, is constituted of a real time video loop projected onto a painted canvas. The video documents a work scene in an office in Skibbereen (West Cork, Ireland), during which an office worker opens mail as part of their morning routine. In the repetition of the sequence, while the interior of the scene is quite dark, the sheets of white paper handled by the worker catch the daylight from the window at intervals. The section of landscape framed by the window, which has been painted onto the canvas acquires a new luminosity from the overlay of the projected image. The representation of part of the sequence as painted produces a disjunction in the space of the image: the painted section, i.e. the framed view, seems dislodged from the interior. O’Malley thus disrupts any claims to objectivity in the production of perspectival illusion and exposes or spectacularises the artificiality of perspectival depth through the performative technicity of the art object. Further the technological sources of the moving image, i.e. dvd player & projector placed on a small table, are intentionally left undisguised and the artifice of the partially painted, partially blank canvas is revealed at the end of the video sequence once the projector beam disappears. The material supports to representational effects are laid bare. The production of images is thus considered in its structural elements.
Yet one comes to unstable conclusions as to the nature of the structures of the visible, the image, and as to the location of representations. For structures (of the visible) hold this uncertain place between materiality and immateriality, between matter and cognition. In the performative play between differing media or supports, one is led to reflect upon the problematic of knowing the nature of materiality and its relationship to representation or cognition. As noted by O’Malley, while her treatment of landscape in North Street Vignette is determined by a desire to comment upon a history of codes informing the representation of the Irish landscape, hence by art historical & cultural investigations, the work is also concerned with phenomenological investigations. Landscape is dealt with as a form of visual production, a ‘view’. The device of a window interrupting the experience of landscape and pointing to its constructed nature recurs in several of O’Malley’s installations. But further, her work becomes an allegory for the difficulty of thinking & knowing what Martin Heidegger terms ‘representedness’ in a critique of Cartesian metaphysics – marking the conditions of the (human) subject’s apprehending of the world through representation and as representation in modernity – i.e. as ‘object’ rather than immanence. According to Heidegger, modern science inaugurates, in Descartes’ wake, a metaphysical and anthropological understanding of the world as world picture, corresponding to the emergence of the relationship of man-subject to world-object. The world-picture designates nature, the cosmos, and history, but ‘nature and history do not exhaust the world’. The world-picture as ‘standing-together, [and] system’ constitutes ‘the unity of structure in that which is represented’. Epistemology is faced with the aporia of human apprehension as the source of the world-picture and the impossibility of knowing what lies outside it. The world-picture does not ‘exhaust’ what is.
In O’Malley’s work, time passes, technologically & non-technologically: it is heterogeneous. Does it repeat itself as record or does it return? The possibility of the repetition of the technological record becomes uncanny. O’Malley refers to a plurality of ‘speeds’ in the moment of viewing her work – the stillness & permanence of the painted image, the speed of the recorded image, and that of the cognitive image & our imagining – a plurality of speeds which she has linked to a thinking of entropy. There is something ethereal and spectral in the contact of the projected image onto the painted surface. In several of O’Malley’s vignettes – The Dene ‘vignette’ (2004), Park ‘vignette’ (2005), Croagh Patrick (2006), Lough Owel (2006) & Talbot Street (2006) ‘vignette(s)’, human subjects acquire a ghostly presence within the video record, as they gain a relative transparency in relation to the materiality of the paint. Hence subjects seem to walk through objects while painted elements acquire a new density and luminosity. The moving image seduces & tricks reason – and while reason may resist this seduction, the possibility of the technological trace cannot fully be answered. The consumption of the technological as act of faith may only be confronted, it seems, by the laying bare of its structural elements, of its technicity in a performative, non-linguistic act.
Technicity, artifice, perception and structural elements of the production of illusion are also at the centre of Torch (2007) & After Bellacorrick (2008). In Torch, the video of a torch illuminating an urban garden at night in a strobe like manner is projected onto a black canvas. O’Malley was interested in the flattening that was occurring in this process. Again there is the difficulty of locating the image spatially: it is somewhere inter-media, in the haptic of the projected beam meeting the black surface of the paint. One is thus faced with the illusion that the projector’s beam is revealing an image that would exist on the canvas. The recorded image ascertains a certain presence through the authority of the technological. The eye follows the imperfect halo along the canvas in a quasi-mechanical way, thus mimicking the initial movement of the torch recorded by the video camera. There is thus a layering of gazes – human & technological – and potentially a contamination of the latter by the former in the form of a seduction, a luring. In After Bellacorrick a painting depicting the aftermath of the implosion of the cooling tower of a power station in the west of Ireland, sits on the floor, leaning against a wall. A slide projector projects circular planes of elementary colours onto the painting in a continuous flow, thus illuminating the monochromatic painting at a slow pace. The gradual illumination produces the illusion of motion within the still image by leading one’s attention to differing parts of the painted surface. Simple structural choices such as a leaning canvas and the display of the mechanical saccade of a slide projector endow the work with a performativity which aims at deconstructing the possibility of illusion.
O’Malley currently focuses her attention on the space of the memorial park (The Memorial Gardens, 2008) and a dialectical relationship between the event and the non-event. The artist videos social activity within the memorial park over an extended period of time and then edits the footage in short, but non-altered sequences. There is an insistence on the absence of choreography, while the formal element of the entering and exiting of subjects in the frame contributes to the feeling that they may be an event at hand. It may be argued that the event, understood in its messianic dimension, i.e. as the possibility of a moment of revelation, is the technological record itself. The everyday is transported in the spectral temporality of tele-technologies, to use Derridean terminology. This archiving and the repetition of the record – its re-iteration – may constitute the only event: technicity as the condition of permanence. The technological is thought as a form of distanciation, a tele-, which guarantees the possibility & safeguard of singularity through its inscription in the universality of tele-technology, i.e. the universal inheritance of the tele-technological. Technology constitutes a privileged form of medium for thinking the possibility of a disruption in time, i.e. of the erasure of a clear distinction between the past, the present & the future – and hence for a thinking of the event.
Return Again: Subjectivity and Spectatorship in Niamh O’Malley’s ‘Vignettes’
‘Window’ Monograph, Palazzo delle Papesse, Siena, Italy, by Maeve Connolly
Ritualised behaviours seem to dominate the moving images that form part of Niamh O’Malley’s ‘vignettes’, echoing and indexing a more structural concern with repetition. Each vignette is a composite of projected and painted imagery, typically consisting of a static scene, often a landscape, which is temporarily animated by the play of light and shadow emanating from a video projector. Human figures move through these hybrid environments, often engaging in activities that are repetitive or cyclical in character. The weary climbers filing past the camera as they reach the summit of the mountain in Croagh Patrick ‘vignette’ (2006), for example, are following a pilgrim trail that has been established for centuries. Similarly, the boys that launch themselves again and again from the diving platform in Lough Owel ‘vignette’ (2006) are engaged in a familiar rite of passage, possibly inherited from parents or older brothers and sisters.
While some of the video footage has obviously been recorded at a distance, suggesting covert surveillance or scientific observation, the camera is often placed directly in the path of the passers-by. But its presence is rarely acknowledged and this contributes to the sense that these human subjects share a trancelike state, which serves to remove them from their environment. This apparent dissociation between figure and landscape is heightened through specific processes of production and exhibition. With each vignette, O’Malley begins by making a series of video field recordings, which she then projects in her studio before isolating a specific fragment of action. This fragment is then further distilled, yielding both a moving image component, which is looped and repeated, and static features that are transposed to the canvas through painting.
While she paints, O’Malley refers repeatedly to the video projection but also pays particular attention to the surface of the canvas, adding specific textures or finishes to create depth or luminosity. This careful and deliberate manipulation of optical properties is an established feature of her practice, and it is worth noting that the vignettes were preceded by a series of large-scale wall paintings incorporating persuasive and seductive visual effects, in the tradition of the trompe l’oeil. This exploration of artifice and seduction, in both the vignettes and the earlier work, exists in dialogue with a critique of established modes of pictorial representation. The Return ‘vignette’ (2005), for example, depicts a large new house set against a colourful backdrop of rolling hills and dramatic clouds. The scene initially appears idyllic, marred only by the presence of passing traffic, but as the cars move past the camera, the lack of action elsewhere within the frame creates a sense of unease. When the projection fades to white, it become apparent that the picturesque backdrop is partly invented; the mountains are actually relatively stark and the dramatic cloudscape is entirely artificial.
This moment of revelation is central to O’Malley’s work, and each and every moving image sequence is briefly suspended so that the painted canvas can be viewed. The technology of projection is never hidden and the absence of recorded sound tends to solicit an explicitly visual and spatial interaction with the work. Unlike many film or video installations, the vignettes do not replicate a cinematic experience; instead of seating themselves in front of a screen, viewers are more likely to move around and repeatedly reposition themselves in relation to the canvas and projector. By directing attention to the apparatus of cinematic illusion, these works evoke earlier moments in the history of avant-garde film practice, such as the anti-perspectivalism of Stan Brakhage or the ‘expanded cinemas’ of Peter Gidal and Malcolm Le Grice. In the vignettes, however, illusion is somehow never fully dispelled. The revelation of the painted canvas should provide a sense of closure, but the opposite is often the case so that repeated viewing actually generates ambiguity.
The Lough Owel ‘vignette’ is particularly interesting in this respect; as already noted, this work depicts a group of pre-adolescent boys as they repeatedly climb up and jump off a diving platform. Each leap disturbs the calm surface of the lake, sending ripples outwards towards the edges of the canvas. As the action repeats, certain details begin to stand out. For example, one boy is too afraid to jump from the top of the platform, and he waits until the others cannot see him before diving from the lower level. It is tempting to read this scene through the frame of psychoanalytic theory; the rippling of the water is of course suggestive of submerged memory, while processes of repetition are also central to both Freudian and Lacanian accounts of loss and desire. According to Freud, the child’s game of continually throwing and then retrieving a plaything may serve as a means of coming to terms with the loss of the maternal figure. Lacan subsequently reinterpreted this scenario to explain the transition from the realm of the imaginary (associated with plenitude and the maternal) into that of the symbolic (associated with language). He suggested that the child’s gestures could be linked to the process of acquiring language, emphasising that language functions as a system of differences. Within this system, meaning is derived from the relations that exist between words rather than from their intrinsic properties. Entry into the social realm involves recognition of difference, and also acceptance of mediation by others within a system of exchange. The combination of component elements in the vignettes dramatises a parallel process of transition between states, most obviously through the play of surfaces animating the Lough Owel piece.
O’Malley’s work can also be theorised through reference to the history and social context of early cinema. Several vignettes feature representations of nineteenth century leisure spaces, most notably Phoenix Park ‘vignette’ (2006) and The Dene ‘vignette’ (2004), which is set in Central Park. Both works are concerned with the status of the park, as a highly constructed landscape that is designed to be experienced as a series of visually pleasing scenes. Significantly, the development of public parks during the nineteenth century parallels the emergence of a broad range of leisure spaces. These include both educational environments, such as museums and libraries, and spaces of spectacular entertainment, such as arcades and fairgrounds. Emerging on the margins of these leisure spaces, cinema seemed to offer a fusion of both education and entertainment. Just as the nineteenth century parks drew inspiration from painting, cinema borrowed from a variety of established narrative and pictorial forms, extending from photography and journalism to stage melodrama, fairytale and the magic lantern. This complex genealogy is directly evoked in O’Malley’s work both by the term ‘vignette’ (suggesting a familiar or conventional view) and by an intriguing fusion of fantasy and documentary elements.
Early cinema is often thought to be dominated by two opposing traditions; one associated with fantasy and artifice (exemplified by the trick films of Georges Méliès) and the other characterised by naturalism (as evidenced by the Lumières’ actualities). For many audiences, however, the technology of cinema itself was the primary attraction, whether used in the service of naturalism, fantastic illusion or both. As Tom Gunning has noted, the ‘cinema of attractions’ appealed to audiences that were familiar with theatrical spectacle but equally fascinated by the science of cinematography. In the vignettes these traditions seem to co-exist, and even to merge at various points; everyday images of the natural world (reminiscent of actuality filmmaking) are combined with optical trickery. Also, in keeping with the conventions of early cinema, the vignettes deliberately display rather than disguise the material and technological supports that make illusion possible.
Through these references to early cinema and the evolution of other forms of public spectacle, the vignettes offer an oblique but compelling commentary on changing modes of subjectivity. As film historians have noted, early cinema constituted an important ‘public sphere’, which was accessible to a very diverse array of urban dwellers, including women, workers and immigrants. But the reinvention of cinema during the late 1910s, through the efforts of filmmakers, entrepreneurs and censors, contributed to a shift in modes of storytelling and exhibition. Cinema began to demand a new level of emotional and psychological involvement and live performance (in the form of musical accompaniment, commentary or interval acts) declined. Gradually, new modes of reception emerged and the collective gave way to isolated spectators.
It is within the context of this exploration of spectatorship that O’Malley’s use of digital media acquires particular significance. Many artists working with the projected image have specifically sought to explore themes of obsolescence by utilising formerly industrial (analogue) media such as 16mm film or 35mm transparencies. The vignettes clearly engage with themes of obsolescence, simply because of the fact that digital video is likely to displace 35mm film projection at some point in the future. The combination of video projection and painted canvas could also be read as a commentary upon processes of privatisation. This is because both painting and projection were once, at different moments, associated with public space but have since been reinvented for domestic consumption. Ultimately, the vignettes seem less concerned with technological obsolescence than with the decline of certain forms of collective subjectivity. In fact, critique of privatisation is already in evidence in O’Malley’s work, perversely encoded within the representation of public spaces. At first glance, the joggers and walkers moving through Central Park and Phoenix Park seem to be engaged in a social activity that involves interaction with their environment and each other. But the structure and form of the vignette emphasises the extent to which these individuals remain detached from the spaces that they pass through. As one loop gives way to the next, and as the figures return again to animate their static landscapes, it becomes apparent that most will never be fully present in these places.
Amid the glitz and rock video allegories of Sam Taylor-Wood’s last show at the Mathew Marks Gallery (NYC), one work held my attention for longer than I would like to admit. A digital image of a bowl of fruit withered, and decayed, right in front of my ‘very eyes’. Artfully lit (think Chardin) in some corner of Sam’s no doubt awesome studio, the accelerated time-lapse photography seemed to evoke a bygone era, when a camera could be adjusted to make magic. It occurred to me that in this day of ‘post chemical’ imaging, the entire category of the ‘trick photograph’ has been made redundant. But doesn’t every photograph mess with time and play some kind of trick on us?
Niamh O’Malley’s projected work “The dene, ‘vignette’, part of PS1’s ‘Visa for 13’ exhibition engaged me in much the way Taylor-Woods ‘fruit bowl of Dorian Gray’ did, and without the blue chip YBA guilt. Modest in both scale and execution (in contrast to the ponderous Doug Aitken down the hall) O‘Malley pulls off the rarest of feats in a New York debut; that is- something you’ve never seen before. O’Malley constructs and animates a single image by projecting a short (2 minute, 36 second) video loop of a stationary corner of Central Park onto a canvas (244x137cm.) where the same image has been painted to scale. As the two silent pictures dissolve in and out of each other, an odd effect is produced, a shifting between the rendered and the real. There is something mildly irrational about the hold this work has over those who encounter it. Perhaps some secret pictorial rule was broken in allowing this fragment of cinema to operate in the space of painting. O’Malley’s ‘living picture’ hybrid has a slight whiff of the antiquated around it, with all the associated mysteries and pleasures. Sixties ’underground’ film icon Jack Smith had this great word for describing the undefined, mesmerizing quality that certain films conceal; ‘pastiness’. And “The dene, ‘vignette’’ is somehow awash in the stuff. How? The selected corner of Central Park depicted is generic, but not sentimental in any Hallmark Card kind of way. Maybe it’s the plumb-colored sunset and the ‘hand painted’ quality of the brushwork, like something you’d find on a treasured ceramic piece. Usually, when the ‘hand’ gets involved with the photograph, busywork and excess ensues; take the Starn Twins, for example. O’Malley’s use of paint on canvas is, to my knowledge, unprecedented in the crowded field of what is referred to as the “cinema of exhibition’. It is also the specificity of the situated canvas that differentiates O’Malley from those who plunge costly Chelsea real estate into darkness simply to show movies on the walls. It should be said that I am also a sucker for any park image, ever since being caught in ‘Blow Up’s’ lush sway that evening in 1966. If this ‘movie’ has a star, it’s the faux, ‘turn of the century’ lamppost that occupies the center of the frame, much like the Empire State Building did in another epic of dislocation, Andy Warhol’s ‘Empire’ of 1966.
But instead of sublime boredom, the seamless continuum of this urban pastoral invites scrutiny. Ghostly passerbys and other marginalia function as markers in any attempt to measure how long we have spent looking. I recall a character in a Kurt Vonnegut novel who, having become ‘unstuck in time’, careens between nightmare and idyll. With the projection as the only light source and with no curtains to part in the doorway, the gallery’s small space was unusually welcoming and ambient; people who came in tended to stay and interact.
Is it that lamppost that signals the way back, to cinemas prehistory, for relevant precedents? The camera obscura would be an obvious precursor; but a more intriguing example is found in Victorian-era “Magic Lantern” shows. Audiences were both amused and mystified by images projected from a kind of stone-age slide projector. Desired effects were achieved by using retouched overlays, (early ‘mattes’), dissolves, and even by jiggling the projector. Should we then add Niamh’s name to the list of contemporary artists who employ 21st century technology to address 19th century concerns? Jeff Wall’s moralizing duratran friezes, Mathew Barney’s DVD dream worlds, and Justine Kurland’s group portraiture comes immediately to mind. By taking us back to the flickering origins of the motion picture, O’Malley relieves us from the responsibility of finding a narrative drive in what we see. Free of this burden, we are allowed to drift; minus that ‘arrived too early or too late’ feeling that attends the majority of gallery/cinema experiences. With ‘The dene, vignette’ the surface of a canvas unexpectedly plays host to both the fact of the camera and the fiction of the hand. And as it did for one swinging London photographer, it is a single image of a park that holds us in thrall.
Tim Maul is an artist who lives in New York City. He teaches at The School of Visual Arts and contributes criticism to ‘afterart’ (Paris)
“One of the half-cities is permanent, the other is temporary, and when the period of its sojourn is over, they uproot it, dismantle it, and take it off, transplanting it to the vacant lots of another half-city…Here remains the half-Sophronia of the shooting-galleries and the carousels, the shout suspended from the cart of the headlong roller coaster, and it begins to count the months, the days it must wait before the caravan returns and a complete life can begin again.” “Invisible Cities”, Italo Calvino
I’m looking at the saved drafts of unsent e-mails. They’re hard to retrieve for me. Informal words tugged into a day they weren’t set down for. I find an unsent reply to a message sent to an electronic art mailing list by the Nigerian artist Olu Oguibe. Amidst the usual flurry of calls for papers and exhibition announcements he’d written a short reflection on the view from his window one evening and I’d always meant to write and thank him. I’d even forwarded the draft to myself when I’d changed computer, but never completed the acknowledgement of his slight and beautiful description of an evening view on an African sky. I carry the fragment though. In another draft I find further fragments of descriptions of Niamh O’Malley’s work in an unsent message to myself. One phrase says:
“Coming round, trees/concerned.”
It puzzles me, until I remember that when I went to see O’Malley’s studio there was a small canvas leaning against a wall – brilliant white but for a half-ring of tree foliage painstakingly painted around the edges of the bottom half. It served both as the meeting point for the projected video footage she uses to complete one of her works with paint and film (‘short triangle (vignette)’, 2004) and as a visual touchstone for our mutual speculation on her work as we leafed through a catalogue of previous projects. Glancing up, I’d read the marks on the canvas (or screen) as trees or a concerned crowd shot from below (the filmic convention for framing a protagonist’s return to consciousness as the subjective camera squints at the sky). O’Malley had devised a different function for the way this ‘frame’ worked but acknowledged my simple perspective as we glanced back at the pages of documentation I was flipping through – precisely rendered trompe l’oeil pastoral scenes visualised from unique perspectives and rendered directly onto the fabric of the built interiors which occluded them.
The uniqueness of those perspectives is of course key to much of her work (O’Malley has acknowledged the impossibility of successfully working with an assistant, given her take on subjective experience and rendering). Yet the artist’s more recent work has introduced a more complex take on that absolute subjective experience, partly through combining the contrasting temporal frames of paint and video (first seen in Pathetic Fallacy (the recovery of experience), 2003). In these works, the constructed nature of the ‘eternal’ landscape is placed against the equally constructed conventions of the media-literate viewer’s gaze. In ‘the dene (vignette)’, 2004, O’Malley superimposes video footage of a site in Central Park onto an exact painted rendering of the scene. The footpath, as a site of motion, is left unpainted, yet the action projected onto it reads as allusive rather than definitively narrative. Not-quite protagonists negotiating a not-quite space. A taxi moves off in the distance; a figure wanders past the lamppost in the center of the frame; but this is video spooling whilst paint dries – a moment offered before, or after, resolution and thus uncanny to our understanding of backdrop and action, permanence and prominence. Calvino’s Sophronia, with its permanent infrastructure of funfairs and circuses and its intermittent travelling courtrooms and banks. Olu Oguibe’s Nigerian evening - summarised for strangers in an e mail, ‘pasted as quotation’ and carried unresolved in a shoulder bag, amongst the concerned trees.
Niamh O'Malley: Green on Red Gallery, 2006
Circa Art Magazine, Issue 118, Winter 2006 by Brenda Moore-McCann
The combination of two representable objects achieves the representation of something that cannot be graphically represented. Sergei Eisenstein
On entering the central space of the gallery, we are presented with three screens on adjacent walls each with its own projector. There is no curtain to the usual dark enclosed viewing area leaving one free to walk between screens in a random fashion. Each screen shows a different scene using looped videos of varying length. In ‘Talbot St ‘vignette’, the only urban scene, we see people coming towards us or passing away from us down the street. Initially this appears to be a view observed everyday in a city as a train passes on the bridge above and flags and a tree gently wave in the breeze.
But very quickly the scene becomes spatially and visually disorientating. The figures take on ghost-like immateriality as they walk through the tree or a black bollard in the foregrounds of the screen. As the 3min 40sec loop ends, the tree and the bollard are revealed to be oil-painted representations beneath the looped video imagery. In the other two rural landscape scenes, ‘Lough Owel ‘vignette’ and ‘Croagh Patrick ‘vignette’, a similar experience occurs as the ghostly figures pass through a solid diving platform beside a lake or through the rocks of Croagh Patrick. In spite of knowing and anticipating O’Malley’s unique superimposition of two different modes of representation for this viewer at least, they still exert a strong impact. This is because the work manages to do a number of things simultaneously. By complicating viewing conventions associated with painted and filmic image, O’Malley neatly subverts them and makes it apparent that the assumptions surrounding them are inherited, cultural, historical constructions. By exploiting pictorial, cinematic and temporal space. notions of the ‘real’ become challenged to highlight the age-old tension between seeing and knowing in a novel way. Perhaps O’Malley’s strategy could be described as a new form of montage? Eisenstein, explaining how montage worked, used the analogy of Egyptian hieroglyphs: “…each taken separately corresponds to an object but their correlation corresponds to a concept.” If we accept this an analogy, in which abstract meanings can be created by the juxtaposition of two different kinds of objects/ media, what concepts are explored in O’Malley’s art?
A number of points become clear on close observation of the three works in the exhibition. The circular, repetitive visual structure employed in each ‘vignette’ creates an echo with the mechanical means used to produce the moving imagery. In addition the experience of looking becomes intensified by the complete elimination of sound. Thus the gap between two different modes of representation is maintained: the silence of painting and the typically narrative mode of cinema. The effort to assert a pictorial rather than a cinematic response to the moving imagery is further reinforced by the use of ordinary video projection which effectively eliminates the lush glossiness associated with the cinema screen. The utilisation of a pictorial rather than a cinematic scale for the moving imagery reinforces this anti-cinematic anti-narrative mode of reception directing attention to the hand, touch and physicality of paint, as oppose to the ‘neutrality’ of technological production. The painterly treatment of the static, acidic coloured sky in ‘Talbot St vignette’ is an example of this. The white static ‘spotlight’ in ‘Lough Owel ‘vignette’ on the other hand, may refer to the ‘long take’ and ‘deep focus’ photography of earlier cinema, most notably in Citizen Kane (1941). The ‘long take’ implies a lack of fragmentation, the dramatic unity of space and time. However, this is paradoxically overturned by the constant looping of the video-film, where figures appear and disappear form the centrally-framed spotlight. In these reflexive documentary films, the spectator remains a voyeur distant from the filmed events, in part due to the documentary form but also to the static position of the camera over a long period of time (5mins 28 sec). O’Malley constantly repositions the viewer by disrupting the process of viewing from the comfort of habit, as the gaze oscillates between gestalts and the rabbit/vase paradox created.
O’Malley’s work operates within the gap between formalism and realism, between the notion of realistic ‘truth’ associated with the documentary form and the illusionistic realism of the traditional hand painted image. But in addition, by framing and reframing people and events, O’Malley’s hybrid films make a montage that suggests abstract notions of time, transience and human mortality. Her work takes its place alongside artists of an older generation, like Patrick Ireland and James Coleman who also probe the complexities of perception and reception, although with different means and in different ways. O’Malley’s continuing exploration will be worth following in the coming years.
Niamh O'Malley: Window, Palazzo delle Papesse, Centro Arte Contemporanea, Siena, May 2005 - 2006
Circa Art Magazine Online: www.recirca.ie, October 2005
by Brenda Moore-McCann
Niamh O'Malley is a Dublin-based artist who has been steadily building an international reputation since completing a fellowship at P.S.1. MoMA, New York, in 2004. Her work is an interesting hybrid of traditional painting and video art in which art and nature are fused by the superimposition of moving video images of trees, parks, the sky, birds or people (The dene, vignette, P.S.1 MoMA, New York, 2004) over a single, static, hand-painted image. Recently O'Malley was selected for the ongoing programme of installations in the bookshop of Siena's Palazzo delle Papesse. Initiated by Director Marco Pierini in 2002, Leni Hoffmann's kukkuruz was followed by art books chosen by artists by Luca Pancrazzi in 2004. O'Malley is the third artist invited to interpret the space.
Situated on the ground floor to the left of the main entrance of the Palazzo Piccolomini 'delle Papesse'(1460-1495), the bookshop is a spacious room lined with bookshelves and a single long window facing onto the Via di Cittá. O'Malley, who has used windows as a framing device since 2000 (Window, British School of Rome), has represented the real window of the bookshop in a work (also entitled Window) situated on the opposite wall over shelves of catalogues, books and contemporary-art magazines. The painted window is almost the exact replica of the real one and depicts a dark, dramatic sky of grey / black "Tiepolo-like" clouds over which a video shows the familiar sight (in Siena) of swallows swooping, swerving and diving in groups. Within a couple of minutes the film 'dissolves', presenting the spectator with a novel form of trompe l'oeil: the surprise of realising that the 'window' is in fact a painting. Visitors often re-view the work a second time in order to verify the perception.
O'Malley remarks: "My work often involves a double framing, in other words, a marked and intended representation of the real production, an acknowledged representation of a representation." O'Malley's ability to animate a given space, whether a gallery or, as here a commercial area, and at the same time attract the interest and attention of the viewer in an unexpected way, demonstrates a sophisticated artistic vision. It is no surprise to learn that she earned a practice-led Ph.D. from the University of Ulster entitled Repositioning the Landscape Viewer: Investigating Models of Appreciation and Visual Representation, in 2003. What makes her work so engaging and thought-provoking is the relatively modest but skilful means employed together with a playful, unobtrusive tone which successfully invites the attention of a broad range of spectators.
Brenda Moore-McCann is a recent Government of Ireland Post-Doctoral Research Fellow and a member of AICA Ireland; she is currently writing a book on the art of Patrick Ireland (a.k.a. Brian O'Doherty).
…Niamh O’Malley’s Vignette (Brookline ‘vignette’ 2005) incorporating a projection of a moving image onto a painting of the same scene, evokes art-historical rather than pop-cultural references. The stillness of the foreground objects (a collection of potted plants on a window sill) is continually disturbed by the play of light and shadow on the glass and transparent curtains. This generates a confusion of spatial and temporal registers, which persists long after the projected image has faded to white and the ‘trick’ has been revealed….
Niamh O'Malley: Green on Red Gallery
The Sunday Times, Culture Section, October 24th, 2004 by Cristin Leach
Fresh from her stint at the PS1 studio programme in New York, Niamh O’Malley’s latest work projects real-time footage onto oil-painted canvases, achieving a kind of hybrid between classical landscape and fly-on-the-wall video art. Such silent installations have the potential to be arid and didactic, but there is something magical about O’Malley’s work, as real birds fly across a painted sky and people take on the aura of ghosts as tree trunks materialise through their moving bodies. ‘The dene ’vignette’’ blurs the line between static and moving image, as O’Malley questions the connections between real-life perception and artistic representation. There is only a brief second of revelation, a blink-and-you’d-miss-it moment in which the DVD fades to reveal the trick. But unlike much projected art, there is no real beginning or end, the viewer can join at any time and the pleasure of discovery will be the same.
Viva La Révolution Surréaliste!
Padriac E Moore, Visual Artists Newsheet, July/Aug, 2007
In his 1929 essay “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia” Walter Benjamin coined the term Profane Illumination to describe how, during states of dreaming or intoxication, perception was transformed to reveal the mundane and quotidian as strange, irrational, even disquieting. According to Benjamin, Profane Illumination was a central component of Surrealist Art, which also was capable of disorientating, estranging and disturbing audiences by circumventing the logic of the conscious mind. It was this ability to undermine reality itself that the Surrealists claimed made them a revolutionary faction.
Yet, while artwork produced by the Surrealists was irrefutably seminal, their Revolution (like most insurrections conceived during the 20th century) never materialised. Surrealism’s potent but unwieldy hybrid of Marxist/Freudian ideologies was eventually jettisoned while, concurrently, its palatable, digestible surface components – seductive deviancy and risqué visual conundrums – were hijacked and neutralised by fashion, movie and advertising industries.
Until recently, I assumed that, for we inhabitants of the 21st century, the provocative power of Surrealism– that capacity to expand consciousness, or incite fresh interrogation of ‘the given’ – had long been neutralised. This was until, several months ago, I attended an exhibition of object d’art and installation by the legendary American film-maker David Lynch at the Fondation Cartier, Paris. This excursion into the uncanny confirmed to me that, while revolutionary assertions may have been discarded, the Surrealists’ desire – and ability – to undermine and unnerve observers remains central to the work of many contemporary practitioners.
Upon entering the Fondation Cartier I was captivated. The first fantastical space, permeated by unsettling sounds, contained towering curtained scaffolds suggesting theatre sets, upon which hung sumptuously framed paintings resembling a malevolent union of Bacon and Baselitz. These, and the hundreds of compulsively composed drawings also on display, were merely a preamble to the true tour de force, located in the shadowy basement. In this subterranean enclave was a garish, inexplicably eerie interior – a life size simulacrum of an illustration hanging on the wall of the very space which it depicted. Upon exploring this quasi domestic cell, one became deliciously disorientated – as the scale of the installation diminished, plunging the viewer into a state in which depth and of scale became incomprehensible. The imposed incoherence of this encounter shared commonalities – in both intention and aesthetic – with “classic” Surrealism, as outlined by Breton and his compatriots in the 1920s. Indeed, the distinctively atmospheric use of sound, light and household furniture made a direct allusion to the pivotal International Surrealist exhibition, which took place in Paris in 1938.
Though eclectic, the Surrealist movement was unified by a mission to arouse criticality and perspicuity in their audience and to liberate society from the stultifying “reign of logic”. While Lynch and several other practitioners within our cultural zeitgeist remain devoted to this duty of liberation, the true importance of their work lies in their ability to achieve the difficult task of captivating today’s audiences in order to confound them. Another artist whose work achieves a similar end is Michaël Borremans, whose paintings depict – like Lynch’s movies – hauntingly capricious, etiolated voids recalling a fantasised epoch sometime in the 1940s or 1950s.
Also like Lynch, Borremans conceives detailed fragments of enigmatic dream narratives and unspecified acts. In stark atmospheric locations resembling film sets, the sinister marries with the melancholic, the nightmarish with the sensual and all are rendered equally beautiful and compelling. Perhaps following in the tradition of Belgian Surrealists such as Delvaux, Borremans’ imagery is explicitly inconclusive and contrived especially to vitalise the subconscious of the viewer.
That tropes and tenets crystallised in Surrealism remain laden with provocative potential is also emphasised by Niamh O’Malley, whose work – unlike that of the aforementioned artists – focuses almost exclusively on landscape. A disquieting, entrancing quality distinguished her most recent series in which projected motion pictures merged with static painted pictures in a process evoking and extending from Magritte’s obsessive scrutinising of ‘the treachery of images’. In engineering a ghostly clash between the assumed verity of the filmed image and artifice of its painted counterpart, O’Malley’s ‘vignettes’ render seemingly stable landscapes spectral. By exposing the visible world as riven with duplicity, her work compels one not merely to acknowledge the fallibility of sensory perception but also to question the actuality of reality itself.
Though reluctant to label these artists ‘latter day Surrealists’, their ability to “examine with a critical eye the notions of reality and unreality, reason and irrationality, knowledge and fatal ignorance“ unquestionably unites them with their inter-war predecessors. However, what delineates these practitioners from the Surrealists, and makes their work germane and decisive, is their ability to machinate their own form of Profane Illumination that is wholly contemporary. Captivating and seducing us into realms of the enigmatic, these artists invite us to become enchanted and perplexed. In our numbingly rational, increasingly regimented and sceptical society this must be acknowledged as a crucial, laudable endeavour.
 Interview with Niahm O’Malley, Armelle Skatulski, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin (16/06/2008).
 See Window, 2000, & Window, 2002, British School, Rome (2000/02)
 Martin Heidegger, “The Age of the World Picture”. In The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Trans. William Lovitt. New York: Garland, 1977, p.129.
 Ibid. p.141.
 Torch (2007) featured in the group show Chronoscope, Newman House, Dublin (13 June-2 July 2008).
 I am indebted here to a discussion of tele-technologies, spectrality and inheritance by Jacques Derrida in Derrida, J. & Stiegler, B. Echographies of Television: Filmed Interviews. Trans. J. Bajorek. Cambridge: Polity Press in association with Blackwell, 2002.
 Tom Gunning theorises the cinema of attractions in various contributions to the anthology Early Cinema: Space, Frame and Narrative, edited by Thomas Elsaesser (London: BFI Publishing, 1990).
 Miriam Hansen, Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film, (Harvard University Press, 1994).
 See Rosalind Krauss’s discussion of obsolescence in relation to the work of James Coleman “…And Then Turn Away”, October 81, Summer 1997: 5-33.
 Benjamin, Walter. ‘Surrealism: the last snapshot’, 1929,in S.Sontag (ed.) One Way Street.London.Verso, 1985.
 Breton, André.First manifesto of Surrealism.1924.
 Title of René Magritte painting from 1928-9.
 Breton, André. Second Manifesto of surrealism.1929.
[i] M.H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition, W.W. Norton & Co, New York, 1953.
[ii] All quotations from the artist, unless otherwise indicated, are from a conversation with the writer on July 22, 2013, as well as some subsequent email correspondence.
[iii] Garden is the first two-channel work produced by O’Malley.
[iv] Rosalind E. Krauss, ‘Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism’, first published as ‘Video and Narcissism, October, no. 1 (Spring 1976) and reprinted in Krauss, Perpetual Inventory, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts- London, 2010, p.p. 3-18.
[v] ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XVIII, The Hogarth Press, London, p.15.