Staring Forms review: An elegant consideration of the spaces around us

TS Eliot’s Waste Land manuscript becomes a starting point for Miranda Blennerhassett, Aleana Egan, Andreas Kindler von Knoblock and Tanad Williams

Staring Forms

Miranda Blennerhassett, Aleana Egan, Andreas Kindler von Knoblock and Tanad Williams
Temple Bar Gallery, Dublin 2
For an exhibition that "takes as its starting points the structures, ornamentation and navigation of internal domestic and public spaces", the incarnation of Staring Forms plays its cards pretty close to its chest. Four artists are involved and while the accompanying explanatory leaflet says that the works built around those starting points were developed against the background of discussions on four texts, one chosen by each artist, it's not a collaborative project per se, and four individual voices are apparent in the show.

There is also another starting point – perhaps the real starting point, in a way – and it is another text, one proposed by the gallery director, Clíodhna Shaffrey. It is the draft manuscript of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, an extraordinary document that vividly, visually conveys the fragmented, multifaceted nature of the poem which is dense with references, borrowings, quotes and vertiginous switches of points of view.

The typewritten verses are densely annotated in pencil by Ezra Pound and Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot, to the extent that the manuscript is a kind of complicated, multilayered text drawing – not the kind of document to come about in the digital age. Discussion narrowed in on how Eliot animates what would conventionally be inanimate, the setting or backdrop:

And other withered stumps of time
Were told upon the walls; staring forms
Leaned out, leaning, hushing the room enclosed.


So the text as object to be annotated, amended, open to revision, and the text as descriptive of an inanimate space becoming conscious, are both guides as to how the artists might approach the gallery. It sounds very promising, but what’s delivered doesn’t quite realise the potential of those intriguing ideas, good as it is.

Something of the potential of the Waste Land manuscript as paradigm is persuasively realised in an imposing but very subtle work that is possibly the show's definitive achievement: Andreas Kindler von Knobloch's Acting Bodies

There were further elaborations and ingredients: the texts proposed, shared and discussed by the artists, including psychoanalyst Marion Milner’s On Not Being Able to Paint, an Edgar Allen Poe story, theorist Peter Frase’s speculations on potential futures for humans given automation, and Valerie Jaudon and Joyce Kozloff’s 1970s critique of masculine posturing in the modernist prioritising of fine art over craft and the disparagement of pattern and decoration.

All of which amount to a rich and diverse range of material and a good reading list. But it is as if the more that was fed into the mix, the more the risk of constraint or dissipation increased. Something of the potential of the Eliot text as paradigm is persuasively realised in at least one instance, an imposing but very subtle work that is possibly the show’s definitive achievement: Andreas Kindler von Knobloch’s Acting Bodies.

Temple Bar Gallery’s physical character is noticeably susceptible to architectonic interventions, as many artists have fruitfully noticed. It is an off-square space, with pillars, openings, a shop-front aspect and other departures from white cube purity (a few specifically accentuated for this show).

Von Knobloch and another participating artist, Tanad Williams, have a history of collaborative working that is in tune with the show’s proposed engagement with our experience of public and domestic spaces. Acting Bodies stems from one of their projects, realised during a Japanese residency last year when they “constructed a traditional bath-house to be used by future visitors to the otherwise isolated community”. It’s a description that begs some questions (So isolated there was no bath-house in situ? Aren’t the Japanese rather good at making bath-houses without the guidance of well-intentioned visiting artists?) but, in any case, von Knobloch clearly absorbed useful ideas in Japan.

Acting Bodies is based on traditional Japanese sliding panel doors, a promising intervention in the slightly complicated spaces and proportions of this gallery. The plain, minimal screens are apparently coated in light-sensitive cyanotype solution known for its use in architectural blueprints. More, though, they provide an interactive way for visitors to reshape visibility within the gallery at will. It sounds simple and it is, but it’s also elegant and illuminating in the way it invites us to really see and consider the spaces and our position within them.

Even without following up on the cultural, geological and ecological connotations of each material, you can appreciate the concentrated, resonant nature of Tanad William's objects, which is some achievement

Visually the dominant piece is Miranda Blennerhassett’s installation Log Cabin, which is not a log cabin but an allusion to the 19th century quilting pattern so-called in the US. The pattern featured a central red square, indicative of the hearth at the centre of the home, from which light and colour radiated. Blennerhassett creates a very definite diagonal grid of panels of upholstery fabric mounted on a painted red ground. It is laden with references but bears them lightly – and it sits very well with the plain sliding screens, sharing a certain Japanese quality.

Williams’s constructed sculptures are compressed arrangements of materials chosen for their associations with building construction, décor, and much else. They place themselves between utility and decoration, minimalist sculptures speaking a domestic language. Even without following up on the cultural, geological and ecological connotations of each constituent material, you can appreciate the concentrated, resonant nature of the objects, which is some achievement.

Aleana Egan’s work is often of a fragmentary nature, partial and allusive, with conventional sculptural notions of toughness and durability, for example, undermined by tentative and yielding forms and materials. So far, so compatible with Eliot, one might think, and her large sculptural collage piece, free ideas about the sea with its narrative hints left to hang in the air, clinches the deal, given the central and distinctive role of the sea in The Waste Land. The exhibition incidentally, is also a valuable, calming antidote to the madness of Temple Bar in summertime.

Runs until June 28th