‘At times like these men were wishing they were all kinds of insects’
The MAC, Belfast
3 July – 17 August 2014
‘At times like these men were wishing they were all kinds of insects’, Graham Gingles’s installation at the MAC, comprises a maze-like structure of architectural elements – doors, window frames, bannisters, architraves – painted a ghostly white, that a vaults above the viewer. The edifice is softly lit, with the scent of white lilies filling the small gallery. The work leads viewers into a visual maze: ladders lead up, drawers open out and windows both hide and frame elements the work. Drawers and cupboards hold various objects: a wooden train, a collection of transparent crosses, toy battleships and a group of toy soldiers.
The only colour comes from antique wardrobe doors that screen and obscure, and from a small stained glass window high up, which visually balances the two wooden crosses. Dead lilies are crushed carefully between windowpanes, with mould surrounding their silhouettes. The title of the piece is referenced in the dead insects that march along a broken window. Small white butterflies lead the assault, with bumblebees, flies and wasps in the vanguard. There are two other large objects in the room: a telegraph pole with its wires disconnected and a large vase of living lilies, reminiscent of flowers left by a grave.
The work was co-commissioned by the MAC and 14 –18 NOW, as part of a cultural commemoration of the First World War. A starting point for the work was an embossed brass box – given to the artist by the curator of the MAC, Hugh Mulholland – of the kind that would have contained gifts for WWI soldiers in the trenches, ranging from cigarettes to chocolates. These boxes were given to every service man and woman by Princess Mary during WWI and were “symbols of compassion in times of danger and hardship” (1). The title of the piece is taken from a book written by a WWI soldier, Robert McGookin, who hailed from Gingles’s hometown of Larne in Northern Ireland. McGookin fought in the trenches and described the horror: “At times like these men were wishing themselves to be all sorts of insects, and when there was shelling, it was common to hear a man say, I wish I was a worm now” (2).
Gingles is well known for his box-like constructions, with their inner compartments acting as memory banks. “His boxes are like theatre sets that play in light and shade with conundrums and secrets – revealing here, and obscuring there.” (3) The work at The MAC work is a departure in scale; the audience can now walk into Gingles’s world of fragmented memories and be part of an intricate and complex paradox. Layers of suggested recollections and half forgotten dreams obscure easy interpretation of the piece. In reference to this piece Jamshid Mirfenderesky asked: “Is it because to transcend these meticulously made objects and images requires a huge imaginative leap? Is it because they maintain a paradoxical position between inside and outside, presence and absence, visibility and the invisible?” (4) It is because the work is so difficult to interpret that it is so compelling. Gingles’s appropriation of apparently random objects causes the pictorial equivalence of free association; the art therefore defies logical analysis. Yet Gingles says of his work and the audience reaction to it: “I hope they … find something”. (5)
I found memories of my own grandfather, who had fought in WWI, and of his home. The house had a large Victorian dining room that held a painting of four grinning cherubs and a stuffed monkey forever staring out from a glass cabinet. My sister and I would sit under the grand mahogany table and look fearfully out at the watching eyes. We all bring our own social, economic and cultural world to play when we study art. To interpret Gingles’s work look into the layers of imagery and the secret hidden truths that confound and submerge logic. Delve deeper into a level of reality of your own. Smell the white lilies and bring your own thoughts to inhabit a space that is both confusing yet strangely familiar.
Kathryn Nelson is a visual artist based in Co Tyrone. She is currently artist in residence with Artscare working in the Northern Health and Social Services Trust.
1. 1418-NOW WW1 Centenary Art Commissions, Catalogue, p18
2. Jamshid Mirfenderesky, ‘The Presence of Absence is Everywhere to be Seen: Graham Gingles’s Boxes’, The MAC Exhibition Guide, 2014
3. Liam Kelly, Thinking Long, Contemporary Art in the North of Ireland, Gandon Editions, Cork, 1996, 127
4. Jamshid Mirfenderesky, ‘The Presence of Absence is Everywhere to be Seen: Graham Gingles’s Boxes’, The MAC Exhibition Guide, 2014
5. ‘At times like these men were wishing they were all kinds of insects’ accompanying Video, the MAC, Belfast