Breaking the boundaries of self

VISUAL ARTS: AT THE Irish Museum of Modern Art (Imma), Self as Selves draws on pieces in the permanent collection and features…

VISUAL ARTS:AT THE Irish Museum of Modern Art (Imma), Self as Selvesdraws on pieces in the permanent collection and features a couple of specifically made pieces that explore the self as "a series of transitory states, always provisional, never fixed".

Culturally, it's an idea that has a formidable pedigree, perhaps surprisingly, in pop music - from David Bowie's pioneering reinvention of himself as the androgynous Ziggy Stardust to Madonna Louise Ciccone's theatrical enactment of self as pure performance. Bowie was picking up on fashionable French psychoanalytical and sociological theories about the self as construct.

The trigger for the exhibition was the demise of Patrick Ireland, who was laid to rest in the grounds of Imma earlier this year. Ireland was an alter ego of artist Brian O'Doherty, a persona assumed in protest at events in Northern Ireland in 1972 (documented in this exhibition) and retained until, post-peace process, he was decommissioned and O'Doherty reclaimed his prior name. But one must say "an" alter ego because, in terms of aliases, O'Doherty is a serial offender who has amassed several alternative identities (of both genders) in his various guises as artist, critic, theorist, novelist and administrator. Patrick Ireland wasn't a one-off aberration but an aspect of a deeper compulsion on the part of his creator.

Marina Abramovic is one of the world's leading performance artists and would seem to have an emphatic sense of self-identity, judging by most of her mentally and physically demanding work. But Role Exchange (Diptych)documents an identity swap that comes across as a much darker version of the kind more recently popularised in reality television programmes.

One evening she swapped places for four hours with a woman who had worked as a prostitute in Amsterdam's red light district. While she sat in a shop window waiting for clients, the woman became the artist Abramovic at an opening in a gallery. Each, Abramovic wrote, took full responsibility for the identity of the other. But, disturbingly, we are left to wonder what that might have entailed in both cases.

Role Exchangeis typical of Abramovic in the way it puts the personal physical presence at the heart of the work, so the notional self is subject to interrogation.

Sculptor Antony Gormley is famous for identifying the body, his own body, as the site of the work rather than something to be depicted. Experience rather than representation is the aim. He has made numerous versions of himself in many different materials. While all of them are charged with conveying something of the fact and awareness of embodiment to the viewer, of drawing the viewer into a reflective, introspective state, at the same time the very act of manufacturing multiple images of yourself on an industrial scale implies a certain narcissism or egoism.

The rationale of Gormley's work distances it from such motives, but the fact of it is more ambivalent. Sick, the kneeling, suspended figure included in this show, is a kind of sarcophagus, a body-shaped lead container. It's a powerful sculpture. Appearing to float magically in defiance of gravity, the figure is an ambiguous presence, suggesting both penitence and poison. Could it be that Gormley doesn't so much create multiple selves as multiples of a self, exploring an urge not to renegotiate selfhood but to establish and perpetuate it as a brand?

One of the interesting juxtapositions thrown up by Self as Selvesis the proximity of Gormley's lead figure to Julio Le Parc's entirely abstract sculpture. At first glance, Le Parc's piece, Continuel-Mobil Argent, could be regarded as purely formalist in its concerns, with its grid of polished metal squares suspended on nylon lines. But once you approach this construction, it ceases to be a remote abstract, because it interacts with your presence in an intriguing way. The movement of air sets the metal squares in motion, fragmenting the notion of a fixed, integral composition, opening up multiple moving reflections and making you aware of your own physical and perceptual presence in a way equivalent to, and certainly as profound as, Gormley's Sick.

Maud Cotter's sculpture, One Way of Containing Air, is an oblong column composed of the honeycomb structure of what looks like corrugated cardboard. Hollowed out, it is a delicate structure that seems to be composed mostly of empty space. Yet it conveys something of the uncertainty and fragility of a self: slightly larger than life, or larger than an adult human, it is imposing but also almost transparent and insubstantial - at once real and ghostly.

Also ghostly in its way is Paul Winstanley's painting, Veil. It is a realistic representation of part of an interior in which a curtain screens a full-length window. It doesn't appear to offer much scope for self or selves. It's an empty space, though it does allude to something unseen, something beyond, and that immediately puts us into the picture in a way that an image of something or someone definitely does not. What Winstanley does, very effectively, is appeal to collective experience in evoking places that are half-familiar, generically modern, but unspecified.

Most of the works on view invite a comparably oblique but intriguing engagement with the overall theme. The show also features two custom-made interventions, one by Fergus Byrne and the other a collaboration between Fiona Hallinan and musician Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh.

Byrne wrote a text, Magpie, which, as the title suggests, posits a magpie view of the self as opportunistic improvisation. Ambitiously, Hallinan and Ó Raghallaigh have devised a participatory piece, The You That Is In Itwhich is characterised as an "audio detour". It leads us outside the gallery, to an exploration of some of the several selves of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham itself.

As with the exhibition overall, it's subtle, but rewarding.

Self as Selves: Exploring the Nature of the Self, is at Imma, Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Dublin, until Mar 29