Illuminating our complex relationships with things

The things we are drawn to acquire reflect and express our personalities and more: our ideas about ourselves, our aspirations and perhaps our limitations and delusions

Mausoleums of Precious Belongings (Self Storage): Fiona Hackett

Municipal Gallery, DLR-Lexicon, Dún Laoghaire

*****

Two shows at DLR-Lexicon neatly dovetail. Fiona Hackett's Mausoleum of Precious Belongings (Self-Storage) offers a glimpse into the contemporary phenomenon of storage units. Catherine Delaney's Then Again gathers unwanted clothing in a vast, unruly heap. Each illuminates our complex relationships with things. Things useful, ephemeral, treasured, desired, loved, valued commercialy or sentimentally, talismanic, mysterious, odd.

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When did our world become quite so full of stuff? Given the appeal of austere, minimalist aesthetics and the success of Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, the need to declutter is commonly felt. It is easy to disparage consumer, materialist culture. But acquisition and waste are both logical byproducts of basic human capacities for shaping and making, for decoration and manipulation: part of being human. Our linked capacities for manufacture and trade have long shaped our world, it's just that both have developed exponentially in recent history and we are still unsure of where that is leading us. The things we are drawn to acquire reflect and express our personalities and more: our ideas about ourselves, our aspirations and perhaps our limitations and delusions.

As for self-storage, the clue is surely in what it is called. It blossomed, Hackett notes, in the US in the 1970s. People acccumulated possessions as never before, but their lives were still punctuated by moments of decisive change, such as moving home, marrying, having children, divorcing, quitting a business and family bereavements. Self-storage caters for whatever one does not want to discard although it does not physically fit into the current state of one’s life.

That is pretty much what is going on in the storage facilities Hackett explores. In the personal testimonies and portraits are references to plans temporarily shelved, mishaps and minor disasters, dreams parked in limbo, the need to stash stuff temporarily for logistical reasons, or to deal more decisively with the sheer volume of possessions. In each case the bare facts broaden into a complex story. These stories are archived behind bland, uniform facades. The structures are uniform and utilitarian, as near as possible to blankness, with just faint signs of wear and tear.

People visit to see and sort their stuff. Self-storage crystallises our relationship to things on practical and emotional levels. What you are likely to find there, Hackett points out, is in all probability not objectively valuable. It may be personally precious to someone and more or less worthless to everyone else. However bland and anonymous, discarded clothing evokes the absent person who once wore it, and that absence is always slightly fraught and uneasy.

In her formidable repertoire of photographic projects made over the past 10 years or so, Hackett, who had previously trained as a psychologist, has been consistently drawn to environments that are contrived, or odd, or uneasy, in ways revealing of human life and relations: artificially maintained lawns, embassies, the shifting ground of southern California along the fault line, the law courts, a hotel that was also a film set, the sleeping city at night. It amounts to a rich, expansive body of work.

Consistency of vision and ideas

Galway Arts Centre has produced a publication, in an edition limited to 500 copies, following on from Joanna Kidney's outstanding exhibition there last December and January, we are hurtling into the future. As with the show, the publication draws on and documents a lengthy working process involving many other people. Not just the Mermaid Arts Centre, Wicklow County Arts Office and the Ballinglen Arts Foundation, though all were constructively involved, but also some 180 individuals who collaborated in the making of Kidney's immersive installation, A Metamurmuration, and dancer Laidain Herriott, with whom she made a video work, Skimming Stones.

Kidney also showed a substantial series of encaustic paintings. In all, it sounds like a varied enterprise but beyond the surface variety it is unified by the consistency of her vision and her ideas. In particular, two apparently opposed but actually linked ideas seem to underlie her work: the one and the many. That is how, on the one hand, we experience the world from the point of view of a distinct, individual consciousness, while on the other each individual is actually a complex amalgam of myriad processes and systems – and a minute constituent of an immense, dynamic universe. Duality and opposites turn up throughout her work: movement and stillness, chance and design, particle and duration and stasis, repetition and change.

Her paintings are process-based rather than representational. They emerge through rhythmic mark-making with gradual shifts and inflections, like blocks of music. Line is prominent, and as Maeve Mulrennan notes, her way of painting is close to drawing. It is also close to dance in that it is so closely based on repeated movement and variation. "The often unconscious repetition of line is, for the painter, as much about muscle memory as it is for the dancer."

In Skimming Stones, Herriott responds to and interacts with a number of Kidney's sculptural pieces, which could be described as three-dimensional drawings. Visitors to Metamurmuration were put in exactly that position: to make your way through the space was to negotiate a forest of tiny suspended felt forms. Finnbar Howell contributes a poem that encompasses the several areas of endeavour eloquently, and the small volume is a thoughtful, useful summary of Kidney's work to date.

We are hurtling into the future, Joanna Kidney, Maeve Mulrennan, Finnbar Howell (Galway Arts Centre) is available at the Galway Arts Centre or via galwayartscentre.ie and joannakidney.com