VAN Critique March/April 2014: Jaki Irvine at Frith Street Gallery, London

Jaki Irvine, Shot in Mexico. On the Impossibility of Imagining the Numbers of Dead and Disappeared, 2014, wallpaper and set of 20 archival pigment prints on Hahnemühle paper, dimensions variable, courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London, photo by Alex Delfanne
Jaki Irvine, Shot in Mexico. On the Impossibility of Imagining the Numbers of Dead and Disappeared, 2014, wallpaper and set of 20 archival pigment prints on Hahnemühle paper, dimensions variable, courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London, photo by Alex Delfanne

Jaki Irvine
‘this thing echoes’
Frith Street Gallery, London
17 January – 1 March 2014

Golden Square, where Frith Street Gallery sits reservedly, is a be-statued lulling-patch just off the persistent traffic of London’s Regent Street. In what might be an homage to a visitor’s typical route to the gallery – traversing buzzing throngs of shoppers and caffeinated urban professionals – you’re greeted at the door by a short video piece depicting a sucrose-binging hummingbird.

The protagonist of Irvine’s Guanajuato 14 sips the nectar from a bird feeder hung at the back of the eponymous address in the big smoke of Mexico City, where the artist lives and works part of the time. The bird arrives only halfway through the piece. The circumstantial sights and sounds of a residential complex, visible but off-focus through the balcony’s ornamental ironwork precede its third-act entrance. The hummingbird’s momentary feast introduces the exhibition, serving as prelude and caveat, reinforcing the artist’s sustained gaze at the fleeting almost-nothings that decline to assert themselves.

The work that occupies Frith Street’s basement, Shot in Mexico: On the Impossibility of Imagining the Numbers of the Dead and Disappeared, is a more sombre call to awareness but is delivered with similar quirk. More pointed than the video works in the exhibition, its titular wordplay and verdant settings provide the digestive by which the gravity of Mexico’s unremitting drug and gang-related violence can be stomached. A colony of countless yellow monarch butterflies is captured on the room-height photo paper mounted to the wall and a group of smaller archival photographs framed and hung against it. In the rich panorama of the forest near the town of Angangueo and its accompanying details, we are afforded a numerically suggestive but visually merciful analogue for the magnitude of that violence.

Jaki Irvine, Guanajuato, 14, 2010, HD DVD 4 mins 6 seconds (still), courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London

Other artists based in Mexico, Theresa Margolles first among them, have been keen to make such needless death harder on an audience – but Irvine’s take is less urgent and more elegiac. It is also consistent with her tendency to approach her subjects elliptically. The butterflies congregate on the undersides of branches, float above the mossy floor, and festoon the purple sky, placidly indifferent to the horror they signify. Her illustrative tack may not confront exactly, but it hangs in the air like a gunshot report.

Were I more knowledgeable about traditional Irish singing, I might detect a cuing of opening, closing denouement there, but Irvine’s intermittent portraits of street peddlers and scroungers, set to a sean-nós performance by singer Louise Phelan and accompanists, betrays linearity only in its beginning, when all the players in the settings of studio and street are assembling. Rather than spinning narrative, the looped projection Se Compra: Sin é captures a milieu of distinct but similarly tenuous lives in the locale of Mexico City. When documenting the native precariat polishing and grinding, it is crafted but unostentatious, non- cinematic filmmaking. By relation, the interspersed musicians, shot with mirrored attention to the scraping and plucking of their tools, seem less real. Against the enclosed black of the sound studio, they present a strange contrivance encroaching on the convincingly earnest urban graft, even while their asynchronous melodies overlay and echo the street vendors’ work.

Jaki Irvine, Se Compra: Sin é, 2014, HD DVD 17 mins 37 seconds, courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London, photo by Alex Delfanne
Jaki Irvine, Se Compra: Sin é, 2014, HD DVD 17 mins 37 seconds, courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London, photo by Alex Delfanne

Albanian artist Anri Sala employed a similar trope in his 1395 Days Without Red, interspersing a real- life orchestra with the nervous, fictionalised sniper- crossing of besieged workaday Sarajevans during the Bosnian War. Irvine’s take on Mexico City is less rarified. There is no painterly fixation on daylight. The artist’s technical manipulations focus rather on stitching the percussive, perfunctory acoustics and visuals of the peddlers with those of the musicians. We viewers are cast as unpresumptuous witnesses, spared the trenchant insecurity of tourists. And for all its apparent paucities, Irvine’s Mexico City is a moveable feast.

Though appropriately unsentimental, there is something of an ambivalent, infectious homesickness in Irvine’s work, maybe even a knowingly futile exertion to will two very distinct places closer together – geography be damned. There is, in the way the knife sharpener of Se Compra is photographed, a respect for his precision, as the hummingbird is foregrounded for its vivacity. Phelan’s voice undulates into prominence as the sound of an old and remote Ireland, valued for its scarcity and fragility. The more romantic aspects are applied drily and never left to over-sweeten the pot. Instead, the tincture leaves the viewer feeling nostalgic for something he’s never known, which is somewhere between a welcome bit of generosity and a blunted ruse.

Curt Riegelnegg is a critic living in London. He is Gallery Manager at Parasol Unit Foundation for Contemporary Art.

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