Butler Gallery, Kilkenny
August 6th - October 9th 2011
Review by Darren Caffrey
The artist Ian Burns’ work, currently showing in Kilkenny’s Butler Gallery is a compendium of product and perception. A plastic shower basin is presented to us as an upright form allowing the plug hole to become a kind of spy hole. It is this type of revelation through the use of commonly recognisable objects which typifies the selection of works on show. Each piece a tableau of some kind or other, where looking is about thinking with the eyes. There is nowhere an illusion which outstrips the routes and causes of what makes the work, and for this alone there is good reason to revel in the making itself. The object of each piece often displays a stream of wires which run like arteries from the heart of a circuit breaker to some electronic pump, wherein the art is released through a current which resonates less often than it peaks. Much of these works look like nothing else, so it may indeed follow that they must be art.
As you enter the gallery, the first work you come to is as enticing as you would wish. The big screen television hanging imposingly, displays what seems to be a flag blowing in soft focus as a reaction to some unknown force. Prior to entering the space, the mechanical whir of a fan-blade can be heard whipping the air from motorised cycle into a free flowing redistribution, as drawn from the air within the gallery. This simple fan stands upon a wall-mounted shelf and points generally in the direction of a small paper flag, itself cut so as to catch the breeze which blows past. It is in finding out this small detail that you discover your own part to play, as suddenly the nose which has lead you in has been captured and blown up to be presented larger than life on the big screen. This play is both subtle and direct, a sense of humour which speaks well for the artist’s own conceptions of himself and viewer, as surely this element of surprise was a discovery arrived at through some form of self examination whereby the investigation got so close to the bone that it became in effect a portrait.
It is generous to have included others in this realisation and although the title ‘Colony Cam’ appears as a restraint for the viewer, thankfully the work announces itself with enough clarity that any misdirection becomes a secondary effect, observable only after the surprise. In any case, other works do not exhibit the same capacity of imagination, instead inclining to rely on cleverness of application before exploring dysfunction, something which is especially curious given the appearances that make up the works on show.
While looking at the work, there is a tendency to marvel at the variety of objects which have been rounded up. It is true also that thanks to this level of involved observation, the overall effect is underwhelming, thanks largely to the sense of replication. There is, in spite of any obvious attempt to construct one, very little meaning which echoes throughout the works. This is not in itself a bad thing, the meaning of the object is that it is or was once categorised according to its function. For an object, that is enough. For an artist, the trick must amount to more than the sum however, and often here the trick is sadly just that.
The work in Gallery 3 of this modest sized space, titled ‘In Increments’, seeks to refocus light through a series of magnifying glasses. This effect is played with elsewhere in the show, but here as light passes through the convex glass, it is distorted. It is in essence manipulated to reassemble with such degree of control that letters appear on the wall above as if via some form of modern witchcraft. The sound which this piece generates is hypnotic in its simplicity, and Burns having began his studies as an Engineer employs a sense of perfect symmetry which naturally produces a result equally satisfying. Technically adept and psychologically evasive, at times his works offer a kind of attention to detail that requires further investigation, but when the lead is followed often the picture is merely two dimensional, rarely hitting the mark set out by its presence.
It would be fair to say that a sense of distance is at the centre of what makes this work function beyond the mechanical or the automatic. The first of Marcel Duchamp’s ‘ready mades’, which employs a spinning wheel motif through the use of a stool and a bicycle wheel complete with wheel fork, is successful in its reinterpretation of the objects chosen because it manages to bi-pass our prescriptive understanding without creating distance. This serves to open up the potential of its component parts, creating a manner of seeing which persists to this day. Instead of providing us with conceptions of sitting or cycling, they remould experience as vital to our perceptions. Such that the intended dysfunction from their original use is tapped up, and the energy restored by the creative image which they now hold.
It is of course our relationship to the object which is most distinct in Burns’ work. Yet as valid as it is to create accordingly, technology is not an object, rather it is an image. This clear difference means that there is no objective form which may correlate to the concept that in turn helps to determine our conceptions. As a result of this gap, it is not so easy to re-appropriate. Therefore, the room to employ multi-function, multi-media objects as equivalent to an umbrella or a toy car is in turn less. It is also more difficult, particularly if the variety and interchange creates the sense that there is no strict beginning, all of which means that these works must be judged ultimately as sculpture and this is perhaps where they fail the most. It must be said that other works of Burns which I have seen do bond better as a form and contain within them a projected vision which elicits depth over technicality but few of these were included in this show.
Amongst the works which are shown, it is the small, seemingly innocuous details that add real psychic depth to the tat which otherwise populates the gallery. In the work ‘He’s Bad’ a mirrored disco ball has been deformed and hangs spinning from a mechanism fixed to a standing tree branch. Intriguingly there is a metal shower-head coil extending out from this branch. Two wires splay up over the electro inspired light-show that blinks below. There is no apparent connection, simply an open ended, perhaps even live exposure, a point waiting to be touched. It would be nice if this was explored further, but wind blows plastic and wheels turn one another perpetually, the question however must be asked where is the place for me?
Very real attempts have been made to co-opt the sculptural form with the functional product, but in the end the employed aesthetic of mass consumption is only a language about the homogenisation of here and now; colour and tension are therein reduced to a matter of choice rather than consequence. Television screens are used again and again to identify the point of recreated magic, and the trick of showing the outside world as constituent of art itself is perhaps simply axiomatic, not good or bad, rather like looking at an abstract painting and using a felt tip pen to mark out the various points recognisable against those which for you are merely extraneous detail. It’s not wrong, nor is it necessary, serving just to focus on one view, as such reinforcing the position of one dimensional activity. This type of activity exists only in man’s creations when the issues of tension and other natural phenomena responsive to cause and effect are somehow settled. The most obvious example of this is the ancient monoliths which preside over hills and valleys the world over, standing erect and watching the world as if through the eyes of art.
It cannot however be said that simply the resolution of tensions is the making of sculptural forms, rather it is a compromise which necessarily works best when the form is empowered by the exchange and not weakened by apparent inversion and/or ritual complexity. In fact, it is in creating the appropriate environmental conditions in order to support the visual which is shown on screen, that these works ultimately defect from sculptural identity and reach a point where the object is a series of collections rather than a set of relationships or some other sympathetic response.