I spent a couple of months in Vienna … I was simultaneously having the time of my life, visiting all these museums, and then getting absolutely sickened by all the gold and the marble and the decadence of it … I was really aware of that potent sense that this is a culture that’s trying to civilise me … and I really wanted to resist that. I started to feel like this crazed peasant, but in a good way – there was a lot of walking around in hoods and sunglasses, listening to electronic music.
What do Tony Soprano and a museum have in common? Quite a bit, according to artist Isabel Nolan’s way of thinking the world. Her latest solo exhibition, Calling on Gravity, at Gallery 1 in the Douglas Hyde Gallery, deals with the problematic seductiveness of authority, whether that authority is expressed in the architectural lines of an eighteenth-century museum or a fictional mobster.
The exhibition, which includes suspended and floor-based sculptures, portrait paintings, photographs and a rug, is light, airy, beautiful and strange all at once. Grid-like circular steel structures draped in vibrantly hand-painted swathes of cloth lie on their sides, or hang from the ceiling scattered with bone-shaped sculptures; a dizzying multiplicity of photographs and portraits stud the walls; a pile of oddly shaped and tactile hand-hold-able sculptures huddle in a remote corner. There is a light choreographing of the viewer at play in the arrangement of pieces: you enter on the first floor and descend the stairs to the ground floor; paintings and photos are hung just slightly higher than usual; sculptures both hug the floor and are suspended overhead. It’s a consistent and subtle tugging of the attention from high to low, from the grand and expansive to the small and detailed.
There’s this axis [in the exhibition] of being compelled by grandeur and then also being very interested in attending to the smaller and less noble parts of the world.
These “minutiae” or “overlooked bits of the world that you’re tripping over on your way to visit a cathedral”, as Nolan refers to them, make an appearance throughout Calling on Gravity. It’s a push back against the allure of the power and authority that’s expressed in grand structures.
There’s something about trying to negotiate my relationship with the different bits of reality that I find very compelling and interesting, but also very problematic. Why, for instance, when I go to visit other cities, do I always go and visit the cathedrals? I’m someone who had a very standard Catholic schooling, but I’m an atheist, yet I’m still incredibly compelled by these spaces and want to visit them while simultaneously finding the way they bear themselves in the world intellectually repulsive and peculiar … [I’m] trying to take ownership, in a gently perverse way, of cultural forms or aspects of the past that I’m interested in, but don’t have any right to or expertise in.
Feet are a motif, with photos of quotidian feet on a modern concrete pavement alongside images of stone feet at the base of a tomb sculpture. As well as emphasising the mundane or ‘inconsequential’ against the grand or authoritative, this focus on feet is another exercise in drawing the focus from high to low. Visiting Nolan’s studio in Temple Bar Gallery & Studios for this interview, I see the walls are papered with a sort of timeline that formed part of the research for the piece, rows of A4 printed sheets with pencilled notes stretching almost from floor to ceiling, tracing connections through history between feet and museums and thinkers like twentieth century philosopher Simone Weil and sixteenth century thinker Giordano Bruno (portraits of whom appear in the exhibition).
We usually conceive of ‘up-ness’ as good and ‘down-ness’ as negative so that was the point of attending to feet and the timeline is looking at the way feet are metaphorically associated with humbleness or with death or with being animalistic or somehow kind of inhuman. If you think of ballet or Gothic architecture, there’s this thematic you can identify within them where we’re constantly trying to escape gravity, so I think somehow in our heads death is connected to down-ness.
At one end of the timeline, what looks like maybe the start, is a page devoted to the Löwenmensch (lion-man), what is considered the earliest known sculpture, from approximately 40,000 BC.
I am interested in early animal sculptures, and what is common with many early animal sculptures is that the animal is upright, it’s given this vertical status … I think it’s trying to make animals work like humans.
Directly above the Löwenmensch page is a page about Australopithecus afarensis, a very early example of bipedalism in hominids.
There’s a sort of mythology operating in the work. I was interested in pretending this was the moment that humans attained a sort of verticality and that’s the moment in which up-ness becomes good and down-ness becomes somehow negative … I’m fascinated by the way we sort of despise feet, I know not everyone does, it’s a huge generalisation, but they’re comical, they’re dirty …
Nolan talks about three ‘axes’ in the show: grandeur/minutiae; up/down; alienation/intimacy. There’s an interest in how power is expressed, but also how we receive that expression of power unconsciously much of the time.
[The cathedral is] not a neutral space, it’s an incredibly imposing, authoritative space, and when you go in you’re supposed to think godly, holy thoughts and you’re supposed to feel overawed or fearful … I’m interested in identifying the intent in the architecture, because a lot of the time it disappears from view.
Part of this is uncovering the systems that help that power be expressed, whether religious, political or otherwise. Like, within the mafia.
Tony is this absolutely morally objectionable, horrible, violent, unpleasant, reprehensible human who you’re still rooting for, you want him to prevail, and not only that he’s incredibly attractive and he’s this phenomenal man … so within the show, in one’s feminist consciousness, you’re going ‘why do I find this man sexy?’ It’s really problematic and not at all unusual. At the opening [of the exhibition], people were coming over saying ‘I love Tony Soprano – he’s so amazing’. So I started to feel a little bit like Tony was a museum. There’s something about these spaces that are very patriarchal, very problematic, fucking violent and bloody, but still absolutely fascinating.
There are moments of redemption too, from this persistent ‘gentle perversion’ of authority and power at play in the exhibition. The above-mentioned portraits of Giordano Bruno and Simone Weil are included, it seems, not with the intent of distorting power structures but perhaps in tribute to their vision.
They both had these very beautiful impulses to try and reorder reality in a way that was very non-hierarchical, which was incredibly unusual in the late 1500s when Bruno was knocking around. They saw that everything in the universe is made from the same stuff, so that an animal and a human and a star are different expressions of the same sort of material.
Words: Rachel Donnelly
Isabel Nolan, ‘Curling Up With Reality (The feet of King Francis 1st, 1547), 2016, photograph, 48 x 69 cm framed. Courtesy of the artist and Kerlin Gallery, Dublin.
Isabel Nolan, ‘Curling Up With Reality (Cave Lion, Naturhistorisches Museum, Wien)’, 2012 – 2017, photograph, 48 x 69 cm framed.
Courtesy of the artist and Kerlin Gallery, Dublin.
Isabel Nolan, ‘Curling Up With Reality (Paw, 18th June 2015)’, 2012 – 2017
Photograph, 27 x 40 cm framed.
Courtesy of the artist and Kerlin Gallery, Dublin.