Essays
Published in 3 different nights, recurring, IMMA, Dublin, ISBN: 978-1-909792-15-9

Taking time and making space

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith

In the years since the turn of the millennium, the time-span covered by this exhibition at IMMA, Grace Weir has collaborated with accredited experts across an impressive range of academic fields, including philosophy, mathematics, physics, psychology and astronomy. The result has been a succession of disparate films and installations in which the artist seems ever happy to perform the role of enthusiastic amateur, as well-informed as she is fruitfully inquisitive. This constitutes just one strand in an expansive art practice whose latest area of investigation is the medium of painting, as we shall see. To describe Weir’s work as driven by idle curiosity would be misleading, for the truly curious are rarely idle. That said, the work is certainly driven, as indeed is the artist. Contrary to the Romantic stereotype of art as the unpredictable result of inspired purposelessness, Weir’s mode of making art is, among other things, a way of keeping busy and staying focussed. While she has made many individual works in which she herself does not physically appear, the impression given by this substantial orchestration of her oeuvre is one of constant activity and endless research, in which enquiry is its own reward and revelation something of a bonus. Moving through the show’s various rooms and among its accumulating works, the viewer repeatedly comes upon the artist bustling away here and there: setting up an elaborate experiment on one screen, interviewing an eminent scientist on another, embarking on some enigmatic but clearly purposeful set of actions on yet another again.

Weir is a visual artist, a producer of images, for whom time is of the essence, quite literally. (A favoured quote from Gilles Deleuze’s classic Cinema 2: the time-image: ‘The image no longer has space and movement as its primary characteristics, but topology and time.’
1) Given that her signature medium has long been the moving image, her decision to punctuate this selection of works with a number of strategically located suites of still images is notable. In each instance, however, these works have been deliberately conceived to confound the very definition of a ‘still image’. The exhibition opens with the first of these, a series of small photographic works in ink-on-paper, 3 different blacks (2015). The subtle distinctions between the square block of colour at the centre of each unique picture will be gradually exacerbated, as all three were executed in non-fast inks that will fade over time at different rates. Conversely, time has already left its mark on the set of paired photograms and prints comprising History of Light (Betelgeuse) c.1374-2015, which is displayed at the far end of the visitor’s journey through the show. Each unique photogram, and by indexical extension its accompanying print, was specifically generated by starlight captured from the dying Betelgeuse, which is visible to us now only after making its own protracted journey to this planet over the course of the past six hundred and forty years or so. Physically spanning the exhibition’s half-way mark, more or less, is a third series of works on paper, Future Perfect (2015), whose title pointedly gestures both forward and backward in time. It is the first set of painted images Weir has ever produced. Once again small in format, but this time large in number - there are 25 images in total, hung in a long line at imperceptibly varied intervals - these pictures have also been created with volatile inks. Their placement confirms the centrality to Weir’s vision in general, and this encapsulation of it in particular, of the concepts of mutability and impermanence as refracted through the mechanisms of repetition and difference.

As already noted, Future Perfect’s deployment of overlapping planes of painted colour adds a new aspect to Weir’s habitual concern with complex interactions between the dimensions of time and space, which is to say a concern with the practice and history of painting. This is anticipated to some extent by the show’s opening work, 3 different blacks, which is displayed in a room that functions as an antechamber to that in which the longest of her three new films, Black Square (2015), is screened. This two-screen documentary explores the work of a team of German astrophysicists led by Reinhard Genzel, who was the first to track the motion of the stars at the core of the Milky Way, thereby providing compelling evidence for the existence of Black Holes. The film ends by focussing, as Weir intended it would from the outset, on a black pixel on a computer screen. In theory, this tiny patch of undifferentiated colour contains an image of our galaxy’s heart of darkness while, in practice, it shows us nothing at all. Here science is made to echo art, in that the combination of these two works inevitably calls to mind one of the signal images of early Modernism, at once revolutionary and foundational, which was painted exactly one hundred years ago.

Kasimir Malevich once described his Black Square (2015) as an evocation of ‘the experience of pure non-objectivity in the white emptiness of a liberated nothing’. For Malevich the ‘new picture’ proposed by Suprematism was made possible by the explosive effects of Cubism, which immediately preceded it in the rapidly evolving history of the early twentieth-century avant-garde:

If for thousands of years past the artist has tried to approach the depiction of an object as closely as possible, to present its essence and meaning, then in our era of Cubism the artist has destroyed objects together with their meaning, essence and purpose. The new picture has sprung from their fragments. Objects have vanished like smoke, for the sake of the new culture of art.2

It is by no means accidental that Weir’s exhibition is bookended by Black Square and another new film, A Reflection on Light (2015), whose point of departure is a painting by Ireland’s most celebrated evangelist of Modernism. The Cubist painter Mainie Jellett (1897-1944) was the first artist ever to exhibit an abstract painting in Dublin, in 1923, the year after the founding of the Irish Free State.

In an arrangement that reprises that of its inaugural rooms, the exhibition draws to a close with a penultimate room containing Let There Be Light (1942). This is a modest watercolour study for the large painting by Jellett that is the lodestone of the aforementioned, wonderfully meandering film, which is projected on a grand scale in the room beyond. A Reflection on Light begins in Jellett’s former home on one of Dublin’s elegant Georgian squares, still occupied by her members of her family to this day. It proceeds to the New Galleries at IMMA, featuring footage of the takedown of the 2013 exhibition Analysing Cubism, in which Jellett’s canvas was prominently displayed, and ends in two venues at the School of Phsyics of Trinity College Dublin, where Weir recently spent time as artist-in-residence. The first is a lecture theatre named after Erwin Schrödinger, the Nobel Prize-winning Austrian physicist who, in 1938, was invited to Ireland by the then Taoiseach, Eamon de Valera, to help establish the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, and who later became a naturalised Irish citizen. The second is the George FitzGerald Library, the current resting place of Jellett’s painting, named for a physicist whose pioneering contributions to electromagnetic theory later paved the way for Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity. George Fitzgerald was also married to Harriette Mary Jellett, Mainie’s maternal aunt and daughter of John Hewitt Jellett, himself a noted physicist and a former Provost of Trinity College.

‘Time splinters at each moment into the past and the present, making a dark curve in space.’ This phrase occurs midway through the film, which is narrated by Weir herself. The film is composed of a succession of fragmentary but interlocking reflections on the representation of space over time and the translation of objects into images, especially as manifested in the fractured planes of Analytic Cubsim. Yet it also touches on much else besides, from William Rowan Hamilton’s rumination on ‘how the One of Time, of Space the Three, Might in the Chain of Symbols girdled be’, through the contentious admission of women to Trinity College in the early 1870s, to Crick and Watson’s groundbreaking discovery of the double stranded arcs characteristic of human DNA. Accommodating one long sequence shot in slow motion, as well as several shorter sequences shot in so-called 2.5D, A Reflection on Light is a quietly captivating essay film, which circles persistently around that ‘spectrum of recurrences’ with which Weir has been fascinated since her very earliest works. A little over twenty minutes long, this assiduously wayward film, not unlike the exhibition it concludes, coheres remarkably in spite of - or perhaps even due to - the centrifugal force exerted by its manifold micro-narratives. Then again it is worth recalling that, as Mainie Jellett once wrote, and Weir’s off-screen voice repeats, ‘a picture is a mobile, living thing, with an organization controlled by a definite rhythm or movement and, like any natural organism, complete in itself.’
3

1—G Deleuze, Cinema II: The time-image (United Kingdom: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013) p. 130.
2—T Anderson (ed.) Kasimir Malevich: Essays on Art==1915–1933, vol.1, Copenhagen, 1969, p.36.
3—Grace Weir quoting Mainie Jellett in Grace Weir, A reflection on light, 2015, HD Video, 20 minutes.