Grace Weir in ‘Time Out of Mind: Works from the IMMA Collection’
Irish Museum of Modern Art at the National Concert Hall, Dublin, 31 May – 2 September 2012
The Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) is stationed for the time being at the National Concert Hall (NCH) in Dublin, and in the New Galleries in the grounds of IMMA’s main building, the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham (RHK). The main building is scheduled to reopen to the public after extensive refurbishment in December 2012. The North Wing of NCH was once part of the National University’s Medical School, and this exhibition of diverse works from the IMMA collection is housed in a corridor of rooms still labelled, nostalgeerily, from that time.
Senior curator and Head of Collections, Christina Kennedy lays down some context in the stimulating newsprint guide to the exhibition. By virtue of being a collation of works which represents an ‘open composition’, ‘Time Out of Mind’ she says ‘encourages multiple readings and experiences’. It does. In fact, it seems to operate so effectively on this score that the show is as Kennedy claims, ‘a new archipelago for experience and thought’! In addition, ‘there is an emphasis on exploring the links between art and science given the history of the building and in particular the fact that in 2012 Dublin is European City of Science’. And it is this more focused theme which helped catalyse something for me in the face of an incredibly powerful video-installation diptych by artist, Grace Weir.
In the old Medical School’s lecture theatre, Kennedy has set up two of Weir’s video pieces. The first, ‘Dust Defying Gravity’ (2003) is projected onto the front screen of the room, the second, ‘Paper Exercises’ (2003), is positioned at the back of the students’ benches, beamed by a mini-projector onto the inside cover of a 1946, Princeton University Press edition of Albert Einstein’s ‘Theory of Relativity’. Both are short films; approximately 4 and 10 minutes respectively. They are looped and inevitably (perhaps) and importantly (certainly) the films run simultaneously and asynchronously.
‘Dust Defying Gravity’ comprises a single shot as the camera moves through Dunsink Observatory, picturing the instruments of astronomy of times gone by. Dunsink was established at the end of the 18th century as an institution of Trinity College, Dublin and is now affiliated to the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies. Significantly for Weir’s display, Dunsink is renowned for its setting of time, and references to ‘Dunsink time’ in the work of James Joyce, for example, are testament to the observatory’s function and status.
Francis McKee has written before now and perceptively on these two films. As part of a publication for Weir’s 2003 solo exhibition at Manchester’s Cornerhouse, McKee’s essay, Experimental Conversations, covers a central point that the filmmaker’s camera is itself an instrument that aids human vision by virtue of its particular technical aptitude, as it were. Thus, when in ‘Dust Defying Gravity’ we see particles of dust float courtesy of that technical aptitude, beyond the initial sensation of delico-poetic glee we feel a sense of inadequacy, then, perhaps, hubris. Inadequacy, because such fine detail is commonly lost to our biological seeing: hubris, because there will be no end to the aids we design and deploy to see into the reaches of the cosmos beyond mere human vision. This latter characteristic might be a compulsion towards bionicism which is quintessentially human, a characteristic to be readily detected in the foundations of institutions like Dunsink Observatory no doubt.
Cognisant of the artist’s single shot tactic in ‘Dust Defying Gravity’, McKee elaborates on the seeing capacity of the camera by underlining that that seeing is durational. And this is one of Weir’s abiding interests too: the world of the film after Deleuze and Guattari – and (let’s not forget) after filmmaking practice – is a world of constant forming. We are, are we not, merely rolling in a constant shot, and not simply a single one, perhaps, indeed, a rhizomatic one; one which defies the triplicitous fixity metonymised in the conventional still image (ask Joyce for confirmation). So, there is much at work in these works which relates to film theory and the capacity and particularity of the camera as a device for art making, and there is something in all of that which Weir presents as a creative treatise not just on filmic seeing and understanding but on our human cognition writ large. On reflection, it is this second aspect which is amplified by the NCH IMMA temp-setting.
The NCH context presents a fortuitous layer of significance beyond what could emerge from Cornerhouse or any equivalent art space. Related to the observations McKee has to make about the seeing of the camera, but in advance of those, the NCH premises allow the components of Weir’s work to resonate with a lived pedagogical context. And it is this Medical School-given educational frame that might link in turn to Kennedy’s intimated art and science theme, for the orchestration of these two films in this space seems to be saying something towards a science for art, if you will. A science of art, following Weir’s persuasive practice, in the sense of art as a system or instrument of sorts, a shareable frame of reference with recognisable conventions that can aid us to see things in the world which might otherwise be missed. Participation in this framework or network of meaning-making conventions can prod us to remember that art has the potential to teach us about that world in some way, rather than merely reflect it to us in warm or warm and blind affirmation. Art is a forum for the presentation of creative hypotheses, their refutation and their continuation. Weir does not claim interchangeableness for art and science, but she does in her practice claim telling similarity.
The ergonomics of the NCH room play their part. You face the main screen of the lecture theatre to watch ‘Dust Defying Gravity’. This is a normative arrangement; attention is dutifully fixed forward, the gambit is that of the didactic lecture from the front. Two minutes in, however, I’m aware of background noise, of voices in conversation: ‘Paper Exercises’ introduces itself firstly, then, as a small-scale distraction. Looking in on the conversation in ‘Paper Exercises’ between Weir herself and astrophysicist Ian Elliot, you witness a dialogue on relativity, conducted and elucidated with reference to an explanatory diagram, co-designed by Weir and Elliot before our very eyes.
As the ticks and tocks of the clocks in the Dunsink observatory are audible in the corner of our ear from the other projection, Weir and Elliot set out their thinking through drawing and explain in the process the problem of absolute time. You see, as both the artist and the scientist conclude at the end of the film, events are only simultaneous within the same frame of reference. When time and speed and space are involved, when the world of lived relations is involved, let’s say to offer an analogy, consistence is only possible within an agreed framework of conventions. ‘Is there such a thing as absolute time?’ No, not really.
And with this power-packed little collaborative ‘distraction’ Weir brilliantly distils the essence of art in the educational context. Art is the irrepressible presentation of temporary frames of reference for discourses of varied duration, all at the service of creative cooperation within the persistent absence of absolutes, but for that one that is the ineluctable coextensiveness of positive human endeavour and art itself, with all of its technical aptitude. This an aptitude which allows one to move from screen to screen, from one frame of reference to another, and thus break from normative ergonomics of human cognition and knowledge formation. Weir’s work excels on the art-science front and the ‘Time Out of Mind’ installation offers the chance to bear witness to the science of learning in action through engagement with art. Would it to be too much to suggest that Weir’s work tutors us to understand that even if the human institution of art doesn’t seek to set time, it certainly keeps time, and in its keeping of time, it is really the Dunsink of Dunsinks.