Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1991 – Untitled: Philippe Vacher, by James Coleman

The influential Irish postwar multimedia artist played with our sense of time and reality

Untitled: Philippe VACHER was   filmed in an actual operating theatre, and  shows the French actor falling forward onto a surgical cart littered with medicine bottles and medical devices. Photograph © James Coleman

Untitled: Philippe VACHER was filmed in an actual operating theatre, and shows the French actor falling forward onto a surgical cart littered with medicine bottles and medical devices. Photograph © James Coleman

 

In Ulysses, James Joyce’s character Stephen Dedalus famously contemplates the “ineluctable modality of the visible”: the idea that we never see things as they really are in themselves but instead see just the forms they present. The phrase might have been written as a summary of the concerns of James Coleman, whose work is deeply engaged with the way in which visual perception is inescapably shaped by images – those that we carry in our memories and those in which our mass-media culture is saturated.

Coleman is one of the leading international pioneers in the visual arts of the use of multiple media, including film, audio recording, video, photography and painting, as well as performance pieces for the stage. But his work also seems to hark back to older Irish modes, whether the philosophical speculations of Bishop Berkeley or the notions of the uncanny in the Gothic tradition. The premodern and the postmodern come together in surprising harmony.

Coleman, who was born in Ballaghadereen, Co Roscommon, in 1941, is arguably the most influential Irish postwar artist, a status recognised in major solo retrospectives at the Reina Sofía, in Madrid (2012), the Irish Museum of Modern Art (2009), the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels (1999), the Pompidou Centre, in Paris (1996), and the Dia Centre for the Arts, in New York (1994-5). He studied in Paris, London, Dublin and Milan, where he worked for nearly two decades and where he held his first exhibition in 1970.

Since the late 1960s his work has been recognised as important in breaking the boundaries between art forms (incorporating theatre, cinema and music as well as painting and sculpture), between “high” and “low” culture (B-movies, Gothic horror and pulp fiction are all points of reference) and between multiple notions of reality.

Coleman, indeed, is as much a literary and dramatic artist as a visual one. He is engaged in an “archaeology of narrative”, digging through the layers of poetry, theatre, film, television, fiction, photonovels, photography and painting and holding shards of buried language and visual representations up to the light. Among his more notable collaborations in Ireland was Ignotium Per Ignotius, in 1984, with the actor Olwen Fouéré and the composer Roger Doyle’s company Operating Theatre.

Untitled: Philippe Vacher, commissioned by and exhibited at the Musée d’Art Contemporain in Lyons, was filmed in an actual operating theatre. It shows the French actor Philippe Vacher, often seen in hospital-based soap operas, falling forward on to a surgical cart littered with medicine bottles and medical devices, righting himself, and turning towards the camera. Through Coleman’s painstaking manipulation of the film this single action, which would take seconds in normal time, unfolds over 17 minutes, putting time itself out of joint. The viewer’s hold on perception becomes even more slippery about five minutes into the piece, as the colour gradually leaches from the film.

The effect, as George Baker has put it, is that “we seem to stare at an image travelling backward toward its own negative, reversing the process of filmic ‘development’ before our eyes”. The film also seems to move backwards in history – from the era of saturated colour to that of mononchrome silent movies – even while it is moving forward in time. These two movements, backwards and forward, seem to cancel each other out, so that the image hovers in a ghostly temporal vacuum. Vacher’s movement on screen is also forward and back – an action that is arrested before it can be completed.

Like so much of Coleman’s work, this is disconcerting but also exhilarating. Reality becomes infinitely rich, and the tyranny of time is overcome.

You can read more about this week’s artwork in the Royal Irish Academy’s Art and Architecture of Ireland; ria.ie

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