The latest group show in IMMA, A Vague Anxiety, is an immediate portrait of our time. Curator Seán Kissane offers further insight.
“It just feels like every day we’re on the brink of something”
In his essay that accompanies A Vague Anxiety, curator Seán Kissane notes that it once took days, maybe even weeks, to receive news. Now we’re privy to the world’s ills in mere minutes. “You feel like it’s your responsibility to know what’s going on in the world. But at the same time, you poison your head a little bit, because it doesn’t really matter what you’re reading. So you get this hum, this hum of anxiety.”
Through a diverse selection of work spanning photography, sculpture, oil paintings and video work, A Vague Anxiety charts the issues that plague our society as we hurdle through the 21st century. It marks a return to group shows for Kissane after a series of historical retrospectives on single artists. Despite the heavy subject matter, the exhibition has been a welcome change of pace.
“This has been much more fun. It’s much more discursive. When the slot became available in IMMA, I really just went with instinctive reactions. The first one being this sense of how have things changed? What does life feel like right now? And it feels like impending doom. It just feels like every day we’re on the brink of something.
“And yet when you stand back from that, oddly enough the world is the most peaceful it’s ever been. So how do you try and unpick what’s happening to us? Really it’s this bomb that we carry around with us in our pockets, a smartphone.”
For Kissane, the question was how to capture the moment in a mere six rooms. The solution was to split them into sections. Each room is dedicated to one of the pressing matters of our time; climate change, the rise of the far right, the housing crisis, the digitization of intimacy, the weight of history, and finally the loss of innocence.
It’s a lot for any exhibition to cover, To do so, Kissane enlisted a wide array of Irish and International artists. It’s not just the artists’ chosen materials that make them so idiosyncratic, but also their approach to the work. Helio León’s documentarian photographs of Istanbul slums stands in stark contrast to the serene oil paintings of Cristina Bunello. Similarly, the haunting loneliness of Brian Teeling’s photo-series ‘Wet Dream’ is oceans apart from plattenbaustudios’ humourous and humanist architectural drawings. It’s an eclectic, often surprising mix.
“Nothing should go together,” says Kissane. “In many ways the exhibition deliberately sets out to be very conservative. In other ways, it’s supposed to be a little less familiar.
“One of the ideas as well is that each room is a visual essay,” he continues. “There’s no explanation, you’re just supposed to address the work face on. If you want to find more information, you can carry it around with you in the exhibition guide. But it’s definitely asking if you can go into the space and engage with what the artists are telling you.”
The exhibition contains a myriad of dialogues. Saidhbhín Gibson’s Shrink is a photograph of a large boulder wrapped in a black refuse bag, encapsulating the way in which our refuse is suffocating the planet. Meanwhile, Brian Teeling’s photoseries Wet Dream projects photos that capture the trivial details of a hook-up; the night stand, the bed, the lamp with a hellish red lampshade. There are hardly any images of people bar the fleeting glimpse of a man’s nude body. On and on it repeats, the lack of humanity in these chronicles becoming deeply unsettling.
In another room, Kinderkurheim displays a collection of letters written in German in a glass case. From a speaker, young boys and girls read them out loud. The letters were sent by classmates to Susanne Wawra after she was sent to a state-run children’s cure home in East Germany due to her emotional behaviour. The uniformity of the letters conveys the terrifying degree to which East Germany curbed self-expression from a young age. Years later, Wawra tracked down her classmates. It’s their children who read the letters through the speaker.
Meanwhile, 20 Square Meters is an architectural plan of the Ranelagh bedsit that plattenbaustudio members Jonathan Janssens and Jennifer O’Donnell lived in. The scale drawing of the bedsit covers the floor of Room 3, which is about shelter. That it can fit wholly within the confines of one room in the gallery reinforces how difficult it is to find living space in Dublin.
Tying everything together are Cristina Bunello’s portraits of young girls on the cusp of adolescences. Kissane considers her work the tonal key that unlocks every room. “In room three, I project a child refugee in the cold [onto her portrait]. And then in four, which is about the digitization of intimacy, the painting is on the ground. It’s called Echo, from the Greek Ovid’s description of Echo falling in love with Narcissus, so when we look at this painting, the implication is that we’re looking back at ourselves.”
A Vague Anxiety is a dense collection of work that provides no easy answers, or blanket statements. Rather, it is an immediate portrait of our time.
”It would be so arrogant to suggest that the world’s problems will be solved in six rooms. This is about capturing them, filtering them. The exhibition is literally just going ‘this is what it looks like.”
A Vague Anxiety runs in IMMA until August 18
Seán will give a curators talk about the exhibition on Friday, June 7 at 1,15pm. No booking required.
Words: Jack O’Higgins