On people, places and spaces

Eleven years’ worth of Anne Tallantire’s understated, graceful art explores the relationship between working people and the infrastructure…

Eleven years' worth of Anne Tallantire's understated, graceful art explores the relationship between working people and the infrastructure that surrounds them, writes AIDAN DUNNE

ASCEND THE main staircase in Imma and you'll find yourself in the middle of a building site. It's not actually a building site but, as the landing is occupied by a towering maze of scaffolding and cables, it does feel like one. Follow the indicated pathway through the maze and you come upon a succession of video screens on which can be seen, mostly, images of people at work. You are in the midst of Drift, the first part of Anne Tallentire's exhibition This, and other things 1999-2010, which brings together six of the artist's projects, including four recent works showing for the first time.

When he was announcing the museum’s programme for 2010, Imma director Enrique Juncosa mentioned that he was surprised that Tallentire’s profile was not more prominent in Ireland. As an Armagh-born, internationally recognised artist, she is relatively little known here among the wider public, but she is certainly highly regarded among artists and those who work in the arts. For example, she represented Ireland at the Venice Biennale in 1999 and, as an educator – she is a professor of fine arts at Central Saint Martins in London – she has been and is a constructively influential figure.

It could be that the nature of her work has contributed to her understated public profile. Like that scaffolding, it is often designed to blend into the background, to draw you into its workings, rather than to make a loud, declamatory statement. In person, Tallentire is a bit like her work in that respect. She is quiet, thoughtful and soft-spoken. She doesn’t impose herself but she is passionately engaged with ideas and when she speaks of the things that concern her, that passion comes through clearly.


In several ways, Driftis a typically un-egotistical piece of work. Originally devised for the Void art centre in Derry, like much of what she does it is non-definitive in any particular incarnation, and evolves and changes according to where it is exhibited. This version is designated Drift: diagram xi. She enlisted architect Dominic Stevens to design the arrangement of scaffolding, and is delighted with what he has come up with. At the heart of the work is her ongoing series of 21 short video sequences. These stem from dawn walks through central London.

“What I set out to do was to capture a sense of all these people servicing the infrastructure of the city, making it possible for it to function. But they are generally active before the rest of us are around, and we tend to take them for granted. We don’t really see them, even if they’re there when we are.“

Each worker is depicted in slow motion, giving their actions a gravity and a grace. “I think they are usually graceful. What struck me was the way we tend to move differently in occupying different spaces, private and public.” And people, she adds, learn how to move gracefully when they become adept at specific tasks.

Individually, the videos offer glimpses, not stories. As Tallentire notes: "People don't look at videos for longer than they look at paintings." That's fine with her, and Driftis designed so that we can drift through it. It is a paean to the choreography of urban life represented by the human regulation of the architectural infrastructure. Tallentire sees an echo of this in her enlistment of Stevens as a collaborator. "Take art plus architecture and if it goes well you come out with something else, a third thing," she says with a smile.

Given that she is from Armagh, has lived in London since the early 1980s, and cites identity and displacement as central to her concerns, her work is remarkably free of the overt historical baggage that we might expect. Her Ulster roots might have been a limiting preoccupation, for example, given the context of the times. But she has taken a wider view from the beginning. She settled easily into living outside Ireland, but does revisit, and she says she feels quite at home in the Republic when she’s here (she has exhibited widely North and South).

Having studied in New York, she went on to the Slade in London. “Then, in typical ex-student fashion, I was offered some days’ teaching at the Slade, then some days at Saint Martins. I’ve taught in several places since, including Dublin and Belfast. I’m an external assessor at Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology at the moment. And for the past 10 or 12 years I’ve been full-time at Saint Martins.” She taught partly out of necessity. “I realised early on that I wanted to pursue a non-commercial form of practice, so I didn’t want the pressure of having to make work that is going to sell.” Not that she was averse to teaching. “I really wanted to, but I wasn’t sure I could do it well.”

London has certainly been important in shaping her vision, though not because it’s London, rather because it is such a cosmopolitan place. In fact, there is a distinctly European timbre to what she does in the way it reflects ideas characteristic of, historically, the Arte Povera and Situationist International movements, and is thoroughly compatible with Relational Aesthetics – whereby artworks hinge on direct social interactions. What emerges from her work, and from the works she made with her long-term collaborator, John Seth – as seth/tallentire – is the sense of city life as a form of displacement, and the way, living and working in cities, people set about constructing identities and meanings.

Tallentire focuses consistently on "the overlooked and mundane", that is, aspects of behaviour and environment that are often considered as peripheral, personal, idiosyncratic, irrelevant or superfluous, at least in terms of defining identity and cultural status. As with the workers in Drift, for example. People articulate their identity and ideas, her work implies, but often in ways that are discounted by the prevailing political and social structures.

At Imma, The Readersstems from a piece made for Pearse Street Library. Last summer, Tallentire canvassed everyone working at Imma to find out what they were reading. The titles of the books – "And I can tell you," she remarks, "they're a fairly serious bunch of people" – are printed on to sheets of paper and perfect bound. So too are lines abstracted from halfway through each volume, producing stacks of separated partners, titles and phrases. Visitors are invited to peel off sheets and take them with them, progressively disassembling the work and also unveiling its successive layers as they do so. Part of Tallentire's rationale is to demonstrate that everybody working in Imma, not just the artists, makes each exhibition we see there.

The largest new work on view is a big project. Nowhere elseis an interactive piece that began with the artist overlaying maps of the constellations on a map of London (she has devised and printed a version as applied to Dublin, which you can take, for free). She then travelled to the map locations corresponding to the star points in the constellations, and on each occasion took a photograph of the first thing that caught her attention. Hence there are thousands of photographs. "It's a city, so very often these were sites where some sort of intervention had taken place." Odd objects were places in the landscape, or impromptu signs, or tape, or barriers.

The viewer can click on a constellation of their choice, generate the corresponding map, then click on any of the pinpointed locations and see the photograph. As she says, “It’s not demographics, it’s not social commentary”, but it is strangely fascinating. It’s about living in the city and noticing things that are usually overlooked pieces of the environment. What is seen is often familiar – the kind of anomalous, nondescript corners and details one routinely encounters in any town or city – but also puzzling, because one is prompted to ask what specific details signify. So it’s also about charting a course that is meaningful to oneself. It’s a cosmopolitan epic of sorts, one that invites us to consider how we inhabit, negotiate and possess the cities we live in.

Which is a fair description of Tallentire’s work, generally.

This, And Other ThingsA major survey of the work of Anne Tallentire. Irish Museum of Modern Art, Royal Hospital, Kilmainham.

Until May 3