VAN Sept / Oct 2014: Isabel Nolan Discusses the Development of her Art Career


Isabel Nolan, The view from nowhere (digital print on paper), The weakening eye of day (mild steel, wadding, wood, thread), 2014



Jason Oakley: Would you subscribe to the idea that an art practice / career is about pursuing and sharing an ongoing curiosity about the world?

Isabel Nolan: Sure. I’m interested in the ways that people are interested in the world – the ways that scientists, poets, philosophers, artists etc find ways to interact with and activate the world. It’s both astonishing, unsettling even troubling when you look closely at how insights occur or how information is gathered, produced and disseminated. I’m generally looking at the big picture – the history as well as the current conditions of a discipline. I’m an erratic researcher so a lot of my reading is brain fuel or acts as a prompt. Mostly it is tacitly present in the work; it is only overt in titles or in my writing.

JO: Was this a motivation for the talks and events that accompany the IMMA show?

IN: It was Sarah Glennie’s idea (the Director of IMMA) that I curate some talks, primarily I think as a way of making public some of the reading / research I do in order to inflect peoples’ reading of the show. It’s been an excellent opportunity to get some very smart people talking at the museum about something other than art.

The programme includes people whose work I’ve really engaged with, like the astronomy / fiction / science writer Stuart Clark, and IMMA suggested additional contributors based on my interests. Paul Ennis and lecturers from the NCAD Art in the Contemporary World MA are organising a seminar on 20 September. We had a couple of conversations, but it was left to them to identify and invite people. My main request was that they work in areas I’d probably like hearing about.

One thing I find interesting and funny about the current moment – theologically, philosophically and scientifically – is a general acceptance that the universe is going to end. As a result everything needs to be rethought; the stories and narratives that we can project about our future have to take our annihilation into account.

JO: What resources do you draw on for research?

IN: None that are esoteric or particularly difficult. I’m not going into obscure libraries and blowing dust off tomes or going deep behind the scenes of some institution. It’s all in the domain of stuff that is readily available to the public. I’ve a core range of interests and usually I’ll just follow up on something I see in footnotes, or someone will recommend a text, or I’ll pick up on an idea or individual mentioned in article or radio show that will lead to other things. There are some podcasts I listen to a lot, like Little Atoms on Resonance FM – it’s great, if uneven, but I’ve bought books on subjects I would never have given any thought to before listening.

JO: What were your key educational experiences, especially during your college years and immediately after?

IN: With the disadvantage / benefit of hindsight the important stuff at NCAD (1991 – 1995) was the library, the joint course and certain friendships. I wasn’t particularly happy there so I didn’t exactly make the most of all that was available; I was influenced a lot by the literature I was reading at that time. After NCAD I worked on the tech crew at IMMA for a few years – that was really formative and led to freelance tech work. It was fascinating to see how different institutions, organisations and curators worked. I learnt practical skills, watched artists interact with curators and saw how decisions are made during an install. I came to appreciate and understand the level of care you need to put into a show. Tiny things are crucial. Something minor I remember was Catherine Yass insisting that the electrical cables on her light boxes were cleaned with lighter fluid to make them pristine so you didn’t notice them against the wall. It’s so obvious.

Around this time I also found that I wanted to read more and I needed some structure to make that happen. I went to UCD to do an MLitt (1998 – 2001). My reading included Norman Bryson, WJT Mitchell and some Kate Soper. One text I read then, which still heavily informs the way I think, was Martin Jay’s Downcast Eyes – the denigration of vision in 20th Century French Philosophy. It explores the suspicion of visuality, which is still really live in the art world and beyond. People are very sophisticated and very wary in the way they approach visual culture, but are still fundamentally seduced by beauty and driven by aesthetic compulsions.

JO: When did things really start to come together in terms of the your art practice?

IN: In 2003 I got a studio at TBG+S and in 2004 I think I got my first full Arts Council bursary. So I cut back massively on doing tech / installation work to focus full-time on the studio. This was the first time I’d done so since I’d left college. There have been various significant moments since then of course, but that period was kind of packed. I had a solo show in the Project Arts Centre in 2005, ‘Everything I said, Let Me Explain’, and I was part of Ireland’s representation at Venice in 2005. That same year I made a particular sculpture whilst on the IADT MA Visual Art Practices (MAVIS) and that marked a key shift in my work. I also made my first publication What it does to you, edited by Vaari Claffey. She and Atelier co-published it for a TBG+S project.

JO: With this and your current IMMA show, would you say that you’ve now achieved a level of ‘success’?

IN: I get to be an artist every day, so that’s something. The IMMA show has been great in many ways: to have those rooms to work in; for the timing of the invitation to be right in terms of your own practice so you can make the most of it; to get great intellectual / curatorial input, support and a budget to make a show – all of this is good. Many institutions are doing shows with artists but aren’t in a position to furnish them with the support or budgets commensurate with the shows that the artists want to make. The IMMA show will travel to Toronto and Vancouver next year. I’m looking forward to working with other curators and different spaces on the same project.

JO: Being represented by the Kerlin Gallery must help in a huge range of ways?

IN: Yes. I can put my energy into the things I’m most interested in. If I want to do something really ambitious or even something small, there are people I can go to and say: would you be interested in helping me make this? If I want to make a decision – practical, aesthetic or career-based – I have people whose opinion I trust to discuss it with.

JO: Do your gallery sales enable you to make a living solely from your practice – to both ‘get by’ and to be creative?

IN: Yes. And you’re right: sales don’t just mean the good stuff like eating, Netflix and living; sales mean the opportunity to make more work – to buy materials, books, assistance, etc. The real boon is having money to pay for the studio and to fund new work.

JO: How do you source fabricators for your larger-scale works?

IN: I rely on people I trust to make recommendations. The metal guys came through an engineer I know and I worked with them on the Dublin Airport Terminal 2 commission. John and John are at another company now but they still make my work. A brilliant 3D digital designer came recommended by another artist. The Kerlin identified some fabricators. NCAD and DIT staff have also recommended graduates to do work at the studio. Recommendations are the best way – I can’t work with people who aren’t attentive to detail or if I’m not comfortable with them.

JO: What’s a typical day in your studio?

IN: My routine? I walk in with the dog most days. I often listen to podcasts and have a think about what I am going to do. Mornings involve hours of staring at nothing, at a work in progress or at the computer. I like writing in the morning. If I haven’t been writing or staring productively there is usually some mild panic and an adrenaline rush some time after noon and I get more hands-on. A mix of what I feel like doing and what needs to be done ASAP determines any given day. I need deadlines. I work on the things that have to be worked on.