Dukkha

Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin, Ireland

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‘Dukkha’, 2014, installation view

‘Dukkha’, 2014, installation view

In Jaki Irvine’s video Guanajuanto 14 (2010), a hummingbird flutters around a feeder hanging in an apartment window. The bird energetically dips its long beak into the nectar reservoir. The feeder is red, plastic, a little tacky; the bird a fast-moving flash of exquisite beauty. Behind, a street scene plays out as people go on with their lives, unconscious of this small avian drama. Irvine is one of five artists, all Irish and drawn from two generations, whose work has been selected by gallery director John Hutchinson to enlighten the theme of ‘dukkha’, a Buddhist term that translates as ‘suffering’, but which also describes the stress of trying to hold onto the transient.

Spiritual connotations aside, ‘dukkha’ is also a good description of two distinct strands of contemporary practice, which are exemplified in this exhibition. Each have similar starting points and source materials, but tend towards utterly different outcomes. Aleana Egan, Fergus Feehily, Sam Keogh and Paul Mosse all take fragments, large and small, resurrecting the forgotten detritus of familiar and everyday objects, to assemble artworks that hover on the edge of meaning, vague in their associations. But while Feehily and Egan’s work is spare, elegant, and subtle, Mosse and Keogh give the eye a riot of colour and texture, a chaos of shape and form.

In Egan’s story on his hands (2014), a thin panel of off-white material hangs in a loose arch on the wall. Facing it is the steel outline of a chair, the seat empty. The ghost of an audience facing the memory of a stage? Perhaps. In Egan’s haunting work, potential meaning and fleeting ideas resonate gently. But then, high up on the adjacent wall hovers Keogh’s Eyebrows (2014). This is a mad bat-wing extravaganza, a glossy creation of paper, marker, pencil and Sellotape.

Eyebrows is hung too high for any attempt to glean pattern, shape or meaning, but you could get up close and personal with Mosse’s Double-sided (2013), which reads like a three-dimensional cousin to Keogh’s piece: forms emerge from the hectic cacophony of shattered wood. A tiny heart here, a little figure there, a window, a forest, a flower – unintentional serendipities on the part of the artist. Double-sided demonstrates how, in even the most abstract of artworks, the mind seeks a narrative, and literal associations crowd all meditative attempts to engage. 

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Jaki Irvine, Guanajuato 14, 2010, HD video still

Jaki Irvine, Guanajuato 14, 2010, HD video still

Alone in a small alcove, Feehily’s Otherwheres (for MK) (2013) is a delicious little red-painted frame containing a patchwork of floral cloth. If material can hold memory, this perfectly conveys a sense of domestic history and brilliantly captures the way in which the tragedy of loss attaches to the everyday.

Less successful is Feehily’s Ever Ending (regained) (2014), a work in progress in which the artist draws our attention to pieces of paper, plastic, acrylic and tape, singling them out for notice by imposing them on the gallery wall. They, too, are forgotten fragments and while one element in particular looks as if its constituent parts (parcel tape, paper, a piece of green plastic bag) may dream of one day growing up to become Henri Matisse’s The Snail (1953), the overall work is too ephemeral, too slight, to do much.

Irvine’s series of photographs, ‘Streetworks’ (2014), is stronger both visually and conceptually, referencing Richard Wentworth’s project ‘Making Do and Getting By’ (1970–ongoing) in their focus on small streetscapes, in which human ingenuity is both absurd and strangely wonderful. In Streetworks (Tree Socket) (2014), a plug socket is screwed into a tree, half occluded by foliage and sheltered by a tacked-on strip of metal. Next to it, Streetworks (Tree) (2014) shows another intervention on an urban tree – this time a Heath Robinson-esque shelter has been made from an arrangement of buckets, plastic and an upended chair. What it is protecting is unclear, but it’s the type of thing Keogh might have been proud to produce.

Streetworks (Dogs) (2014) adds another note, which separates Irvine’s project from that of Wentworth. A pair of elderly dogs are photographed in front of some fading graffiti. Is there anything as nobly, wonderfully tragic as an old dog? Irvine has discovered the moment of beauty behind the suffering represented by ‘dukkha’; the saving grace that makes living possible, and life worthwhile.

Gemma Tipton is a writer and critic based in Ireland.

Issue 166

First published in Issue 166

October 2014

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