How did he do that? All nine pieces in ‘Supreme Fiction’ – Ian Burns’ show of works from 2005 to 2011 at the Butler Gallery, Kilkenny pose that question. Each is an assemblage of wires, video screens and ‘stuff’—a mirror ball, a dustpan, a chair, and a light bulb—brought together to create visual, aural and kinetic experiences where the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts.
In six of the works, video is at the core. But these are not video pieces in the traditional sense. The screen is integrated into the sculpture and the works question your perception of what you think you see. There is, as Burns put it during his talk at the gallery, a tension between what his video imagery and sculptural elements suggest and their actual make-up from found objects and various assorted ‘stuff’. Burns thus draws the viewer into an active, rather than passive relationship with his works. The key question isn’t just merely, “how?” – when you realise that what you thought was a polar icecap, is in fact a scratch on the wall. Instead you begin to wonder about our unquestioning acceptance of what we see on screen. The fact that Burns challenges us to do so in a way, which is neither patronizing nor disdainful of the viewer, is a testament to his openness to the viewer, as well as his technical skills.
And skill is a keyword for this exhibition. For Burns, one of the intriguing issues in contemporary art is the relationship of art making and skills. As the artist explained in the gallery talk, in the studio he “creates his own dilemmas”, plays around with and “gives in to” his materials. For example a wooden ruler, which he found on a window ledge at his studio at IMMA, was –re-purposed as a flagpole in The alternative you have when you are not having an alternative; in Spirit, hurleys and spirit levels serve as struts and supports.
But the role of re-deploying ‘stuff’ in his work goes beyond that of merely challenging ideas of perception or making skills. Specifically, Burns’ work embeds and references various ideas and meanings. For example, the crystal plate in Glacier is part of the internal narrative of the piece – referencing items carried on fatal Arctic expeditions. The number of editions – 15 – Burns made of Making an Image is not arbitrary. The work, which references Olafar Eliasson’s Waterfall Project for New York, references the value of the commission – $15 million (www.nycwaterfalls.org). A recent work, In Increments, created specially this Butler Gallery exhibition, is according to Burns, something of an exception – in that it isn’t concerned with delivering ‘meaning’ in terms of references, but rather engages the viewer through the artfulness of the construction. The work comprises a series of light bulbs that project through magnifying glasses and incorporating a timing system, that project a number of random words onto the wall. The mechanism produces clicking sounds as the switches for the bulbs go on and off. The construction and aesthetic of this work makes it a viscerally appealing piece.
For this viewer, it was one of the more satisfying pieces. Another was Colony Cam. One of Burns’ earliest works – this assemblage contains fewer physical objects than are found in the others. Here the focus is the image on the screen, which you gradually discover to be neither the real-time representation of a coloniser’s flag, nor the creation of one by the artist. Rather it is an illusion produced using a piece of paper on a pin. What In Increments and Colony Cam have in common is a kind of autonomy, a separation from the artist and his intent, which allows the viewer greater freedom in responding to the work.
It may seem impertinent to suggest that an artist of Burns’ calibre, with an already established international reputation, is not quite there yet. But Burns is a relatively ‘young’ artist, having graduated from art college less than 10 years ago, and it is not unreasonable to suggest that he is still exploring his materials and honing his technique. In all his pieces, there is a sense of intelligence and engagement with materials, the viewer and the world. And there is also a certain playfulness, never flippant. But in my view, some of his works seem to be too tightly controlled. For example – the four- wheeled drive turning the globe in Makin’ Tracks is a bit of a one-liner – consumerism making the world go round. In my opinion, Burns approach could be looser, allowing some instinct to take over from intellect.
Overall though, Given Burns’ engagement with issues of process and his exploration of issues around viewership, I believe that the evolution of his work is well worth following—an evolution that will, I suspect, shift viewers’ engagement with his work from questioning “how?” on to an admiring “wow!”
Mary Catherine Nolan