VAN November/December 2010: Immersion In Space

Ella Burke, Recipient of the IADT/IMOCA  Graduate Award Discusses Her Year Long Residency at The Irish Museum Of Contemporary Art.

“Traditionally, sculpture has been the territory where permanence is celebrated… a founding image of this short century is that of a sculpture being dragged down from its plinth”. (1)

“That which is real exists, that is all we can say (but existence isn’t everything – it is, even, the least of things)” (2)

I graduated from my BA course in sculpture at IADT in 2009; and I was fortunate enough to be awarded the IMOCA (Irish Museum of Contemporary Art) Graduate Residency Award. The award gave me the opportunity to spend a year immersing myself in a space that allowed me to refine my practice in relation to scale and situation. The award consisted of a studio space and a solo exhibition spot at the venue – I presented my show in June this year.

This unique space is located off Baggot Street, in a warehouse that previously housed the Office of Public Work’s Building Maintenance Service. The immensity of the space available to me was to have a profound effect on the development of my work. My work is primarily sculpture, where I create temporal and transient things with short life spans, that carry on through the mediums of photography and video. I have a penchant for creating sculptures that try to fill the space they inhabit, and so it was liberating to work in a spacious environment where I had to struggle to make something look big.

K Bear Koss, the director of IMOCA was very generous and allowed me to experiment with the space throughout the year. One of the more ambitious pieces I created during my time there was I Am Not Content. The title was taken from a quote by Lawrence Weiner in one of his Tate Interviews in which he repeats this phrase over and over in an effort to emphasize that his work is not about himself, rather human interaction and existence.

In the large yard at the back of the studios there is a rather romantic looking petrol station that captured my imagination. It was used as a place for the OPW vehicles to refuel, and consisted of one petrol pump, under a mushroom shaped roof.  Made from cast-concrete, the station stands 15 foot tall and has an unusual form than looks akin to a cake stand. To me it looked rigid and formal, yet tired – yearning for interaction after years of abandonment, like a man-made stage waiting for the play. Things made from concrete usually indicate the enduring presence of whoever conceived of and built it, and yet here was this melancholy pump, with moss growing on the concrete, and no petrol to entice vehicles. It was the stillness of this large object that intrigued me, and I wanted to draw upon this silence by animating its space in some way. When you draw a circle around an image or an idea it’s because you want to highlight its importance. In this way I wanted to make visible the thought space around the pump.

My practice is concerned with notions of idealism and ideology – and so it was a joy to have this aesthetically pleasing, and yet defunct petrol pump as part of the building. Petrol, or the lack of it, made this dormant object a symbol for our current social and political climate – the capitalist dream cemented in a monument to an economic production of the past.

I placed an inflatable plastic sphere around the petrol pump as an ‘anti-monument’. I was rejecting traditional sculptural materials and the connotations of their use. Capitalism, communism, socialism, each political ideology uses art to create a hegemony – and so I wanted to build something that would surpass these associations by using a transient, temporal form. The sphere was 30 foot high, and completely encapsulated the petrol pump, segregating the monument from the rest of the world. It was a composition of opposites, designed to clash, and it is still unknown if the plastic or the concrete was responsible for the destruction of the work. The static concrete –  stubborn and unmoving – versus the dancing ethereal plastic. This was quite a violent juxtaposition and I found this pairing of opposites appealing as a fresh way to approach the topic of idealism. The piece lasted about six hours before the plastic tore, and the immovable petrol pump was reunited with the space at IMOCA.

The ‘live’ experience of the work was quite over-whelming as the sphere battled for existence against the pump. Huge reams of plastic swayed to and fro as it relinquished its control to the wind. Its scale was so large and yet it was powerless in controlling its fate. It survives now as the video I Am Not Content, and it is here that we can see its quixotic hopelessness, and enduring endeavour, idealistic because it is existing against all the odds, and hopeless because it is impossible for it to continue. This piece also speaks of human existence,  as we see something, which was once physically real, embrace death and continue to affect the present through a representation. This poses the question, does it matter if an object no longer exists for it to be regarded as a sculpture?

‘Silent Vibrations’ was the title of my solo show at IMOCA, which took place from 2 – 9 June. The works in the show referenced various avant-garde ideals that shared a faith in art’s ability to change mankind for the better, whilst also pertaining to nothing, and so I created an exhibition of oxymorons – as suggested in the title. I believe that art has not changed mankind for the better, it has however made us more interesting.

Grey, Installation View, IMOCA, Dublin

The piece entitled Grey, comprised of a series of large white inflatable installations that deflated and inflated alternatively. Continuing with the format of opposition, I created a piece with two forms, a light white plastic, and black smooth rubber. Referencing 1960’s inflatable artworks, my pieces were installed in the buildings’ now inoperative duct pipes, which were used to transfer the air from one inflatable to the other. Each large white shape was suppressed in some way by a shiny black rubber tyre tube, symbolic of the industrial realism that both destroyed the inflatable art dream, and rendered the duct pipes inoperable.  In a paradoxical twist, the tyre tubes that suppressed the white are also obsolete, (as car tyre’s today are tube-less) creating a cycle of past ideals being suppressed by past industries. This cycle continued for the duration of the exhibition,  until the work was dismantled and videoed for future reference.

On the other side of the gallery there was a series of copper and rubber installations. Working electrical machines circulate electricity continuously in order to work, however these pieces were built as experimental circuits that failed to relay the electricity, and instead leaked the power that would have made them work.

Monument to Social Networking Site, was a piece that was suspended from the overhead pipes, and grounded in a yellow box that was spray-painted on the floor. This faded box has “bedroom”, written inside it, and was part of a previous plan for the space as residential apartments. I found this would-be bedroom of interest as it was an aspiration never realised, much akin to the ideals held by the 1960’s inflatable artists, as well as Russian avant-garde of the 1920s. The piece began by considering everyone I knew on Facebook and linking common friends with copper wire, creating a long, twisting incoherence of strings that would confuse the direction of any electrical current that were to pass through it. By grounding the piece in the imagined bedroom I was anchoring the work in a non-space that is virtual reality, while also linking almost everybody I know to the IMOCA building in a way that would require no effort or knowledge on behalf of the people on which the work was based.

Monument to Social Networking Site, Installation View, IMOCA, Dublin

Aesthetically, the piece looked reminiscent of Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International – designed as a symbol for modernity, and yet never realised. There is a certain utopianism about monuments that are never built, akin to El Lissitzky’s ‘prouns,’ and this poses the question if in today’s society we believe in something more if it hasn’t been physicalized as that way it can never be corrupted.

None of the work from the show is in existence today – although their elements still exist, they are separated into various boxes. The inflatable piece Grey, has been re-worked for a solo show at PLACE, in Gorey, Co Wexford, in which an inflatable art being comes alive in the night and knocks over the commercial entities in the gallery.

To return to the present, I am currently on Erasmus in Tallinn Estonia, investigating notions of idealism, as part of my MFA at NCAD. I want to understand the post-communist psyche in relation to the creation an Estonian culture of contemporary art. Upon discovering an empty Erasmus report folder labelled Tallinn, and learning that no NCAD student has been placed there in the past, I decided to explore the Estonian history, and what I found was a country with a history of recurring occupation and a newly formed democracy. This past year has been spent exploring ideas of balance and contrast, scale and society, and as I look ahead to the next year, it is to be spent immersed in this new place, a place where ties with the past contrast with hopes for the future, studying political mechanisms as they strive for balance.

Ella Burke

[1]. Massimiliano Giono, Ask the Dust in Unmonumental. Ed. Laura Hoptman. Phaidon Press 2007

2. Baudrillard, Integral Reality: The Intelligence of Evil or Lucidity Pact. Berg, 2005.

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