VAN November/December 2013: Critique Supplement – ‘Death Drive’ at Galway Arts Centre


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Installation view of Siobhan Mcgibbon, What’s between our legs ain’t no bodies business but ours and Stine Marie Jacobsen, It’s less an edit afterwards if you edit while you shoot, image by Aisling Bradley

‘Death Drive’
Vanessa Donoso Lopez, Stine Marie Jacobsen, Maximilian Le Cain, Siobhan McGibbon
07 September – 05 October
Galway Arts Centre 

Developed in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Sigmund Freud’s contested Theory of Death Drives posits instincts that strive towards a zero-point of tension; opposed to the life instincts, they yearn to bring the living back to an inorganic state. For the exhibition ‘Death Drive’ at Galway Arts Centre, four artists were invited to consider manifestations of the death instincts in their own work; whether through childhood play, recurring dreams or obsessive re-enactment of traumatic memories.

Seven sculptures by Siobhán McGibbon, dispersed throughout the gallery, punctuate the exhibition. The first artworks the visitor encounters are Parapagus and Omphalo-Ischiopagus, two small skeletons made from human toenails and fingernails. Craniopagus twin headband, in the next room, is a double headband-like form, covered in McGibbon’s trademark thin layer of wax sprouting a growth of human hair. The titles of these works are the medical terms for the different conditions of conjoined twins.

If her use of human residue has shifted from previous combinations with chairs and car parts to the medical grotesque, her exquisite workmanship continues to engender a distinctive mix of fascination and repulsion. The Freudian focus of the exhibition on inorganic states draws the viewer’s attention towards the peculiarity of those parts of our body that evade organic decomposition and are even said to keep growing some time after death. Like bones and teeth, they are the stable mineral part of us that we will leave behind.

Upstairs, an assemblage of second hand furniture and low hanging lights serve as a display setting for Vanessa Donoso Lopez’s playful scenography of craftily mended found objects. Doily flowers, mobiles of tiny paper boats, flags, pinwheels, handmade dolls, spools, feathers, needles, parts of clock mechanisms and various other things are animated with a whirring and clicking simulacrum of life created by electric fans, engines and magnets. With names like A nervous punch of flags interfering with a chasing or The sunflower project revised, each little arrangement invites further contemplation of these repeated acts of collating. The colorful epiphany of time captures the overall atmosphere best: a clock with its second hand slowed down by an adornment of colourful threads.

Three of Maximilian Le Cain’s films are presented in the exhibition. Point of Departure (2007) is a beautifully shot black and white HDV film of an elderly woman (Anna Manahan) in a retirement home. The film works through cuts and repetitions to suggest her confusion between her desire to dress up and go out and her constrained reality. Background (2011) and Areas of Sympathy (2013) push the logic of cuts and edits further in freely juxtaposing 16 mm film, Super 8, HDV and VHS footage. If there are elements of narrative woven into the fabric of images, they do not foreclose our reading of the film, and suggest multiple associations. The mix of elements in Area of Sympathy gives it the final texture of an old VHS, a noisy low contrast medium that breaks down the tension between the black and the white into a greyness that recalls the sandbox experiment described by Robert Smithson to prove the entropic irreversibility of time, in his 1967 essay A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey.

Stine Marie Jacobsen’s wall text printed on vinyl is a sober counterpart to the other works’ sensuousness. In unadorned grey lettering, It’s less an edit afterwards if you edit while you shoot demonstrates Jacobsen’s interest in the verbal re-enactment of visual memories and what this says about our relationship with images. She questions the identification of memory with film, describing a short scene in cinematic terms – a screaming Danish sculptor running towards a river and stepping into it. Unlike with film, we are free to construct this verbally described scene whichever way we want.

The exhibition highlights the best and worst features of the Galway Art Centre’s Georgian premises. The middle room on the first floor, with its elegant fireplace and wooden panelling, enhances the classically smooth forms of McGibbon’s What’s between our legs aint no bodies business but ours. In the adjacent front room, the tall interior window shutters darken the space just enough to complete the impression of a forgotten cabinet of curiosities. Less felicitous is the monstrous electric heater and the none-too-pristine walls of the back room, which jar with the delicate growth of Epidermodysplasia verruciformis (tree man) or the crisp cinematography of Point of Departure.

If they often sin by over-theorising, curatorial propositions can nonetheless offer alternative ways of thinking about an artist’s work and enrich our appreciation. Freud may well have first developed the Death Drives theory as a counterpart to the Pleasure Principle, but there was still plenty of pleasure on offer in this exhibition.

Michaële Cutaya is a writer and co-editor of Fugitive Papers. She lives in Galway.