28 November – 7 February 2015
Draiocht, Blanchardstown, Co Dublin
Artist Sinéad McDonald does not like her photo being taken.1 So what motivated McDonald to produce her first solo exhibition made up almost entirely of self-portraits? The answer is that while McDonald is the subject, artist, photographer, director and all-round protagonist in this series of works, they are fictions.
The show’s title, ‘Uchronia’, which literally means other time, draws the viewer into the realm of the ‘what if’. As the press release for the exhibition states, “these images investigate fate, free will and predestination, truth and longing, and look at how decisions, accidents and circumstances can change us utterly. What is it that makes us who we are? What if we could go back and undo things? Do we really have the power to shift our own narratives?”
McDonald is a Dublin-based artist, photographer and digital media producer and a graduate of the Art in the Digital World Masters at NCAD. She describes her research and practice as focusing on issues of authorship and narrative in portraits and images of people, and the creation of identity in online and offline spaces. McDonald’s work incor- porates new technologies: digital production, web based art and physical computing, alongside photography, video and historical lens-based processes.
‘Uchronia’ was shot using a medium-format film camera with the shutter release cable plainly visible in each frame. The analogue quality of the medium produces a richer photograph, deeper in detail. It is a slow and deliberate process where each of the 10 frames per film spool must count, a process at odds with today’s digital point and shoot technology. It seems appropriate that McDonald chose this contemplative technique for these contemplative studies.
McDonald’s titles and imagery suggest a disclosure of the artist’s deepest feelings of guilt, shame and self-loathing, intimated by works such as Self Portrait at My Son’s Grave on His Birthday. McDonald’s works are self-consciously speculative exercises. Tellingly, in each image McDonald passively looks past the lens and out of the frame. Rather than a confrontational stare, viewers are presented with a near submissive gaze.
Each shot shows the artist in a variety of (mostly) occupational environments that imagine McDonald as a farmer’s wife in Self Portrait If I Hadn’t Met My Now Ex Husband, as an information technology professional in Self Portrait If I’d Finished My First Undergraduate Degree in 1995 and as a school teacher in Self Portrait If My Parents had Called Me Irene Sinead Instead of Sinead Irene. The photographs detail what she might have looked and dressed like and the surroundings of her imagined daily grind.
Working with Finnish artist Elina Brotherus, who also mixes real and fictive biographical elements in her work, McDonald wrote her biography in just two pages. This condensed list of key events was used to form the basis of her uchronian paradigm. The speculative possibilities and realities of McDonald’s subsequent enquiries into the ‘what if’ can be understood as a kind of ‘anti-biography’.
While pose and expression are consistent throughout the works, each Sinead McDonald life is unique and contrasting. The viewer is not taken on far-fetched time-travel to historical or futuristic eras. The work is set in the now and depicts the reasonable and plausible commonplace existences that McDonald did not choose. Titles narrate how she was guided toward particular choices, while the photographs depict what might have been for McDonald as the somewhat unwilling but very real and central character. While the scenes are staged and fully kitted out prop wise, McDonald’s photographs are natural and lit using ordinary daylight. The images remain uncontrived and unedited and are not studio constructs. It appears as if McDonald is stepping into each scenario to check that it was never the right fit for her.
Obvious themes exploring fate and predestination are inherent in these works. ‘Uchronia’ questions how much control we really have, if any, over life. If random occurrences as banal as seeing a poster advertising a philosophy course in Self Portrait if I Hadn’t Walked Home via Camden Street in August 1989 can ultimately determine a major life juncture, then how arbitrary is life, and does free will exist?
McDonald’s work also challenges the wisdom of altering life’s past pain and difficulties. The Grandfather Paradox, an idea first posited by philosopher David Lewis in the 1970s, maintains that changing the past, even in the smallest way, negates the need or desire for change and presents an infinite contradiction. While this may be universally true and makes for interesting conjecture, it is somewhat distracting from McDonald’s profound and deeply personal experience.
There is an argument that visual art should be solely explicable from observation, that it should not require excessive background reading and explanation to be appreciated. Contrary to this argument, ‘Uchronia’ is a layered work that ultimately reveals more to us through pondering the narrative that McDonald sets.
Emer Marron is an arts manager and occasional art writer.
1. In an interview with the writer, November 2014