Obsession pursued with delicacy

 

VISUAL ARTS: Miroslaw Balka, whose exhibition, dig dug dug, is at the Douglas Hyde Gallery, has rapidly acquired the reputation of being the most significant Polish artist of his generation. Now in his mid-40s, his work is dominated to the point of obsession by themes of memory, loss, absence and emptiness.

These preoccupations are by no means unique in the panorama of contemporary art, but what lends them a particular resonance in his case is the oddly personal nature of many of his materials and procedures.

Over the years he has used his childhood home, his grandparents' house, as an archive and storehouse of memories and objects in his work. Even the dimensions of the rooms and spaces in the house have a heightened significance for Balka, symbolising the lost, distant past in much the same way that the dimensions of his own body, another recurrent set of co-ordinates, stand in for the presence of the artist himself.

His father and grandfather carved and cut tombstones, and in a way he too makes memorials, like the cabinet of personal reliquaries set up in the Hyde, or the coffin-like cupboard with its tombstone doors.

Often he uses the qualities and associations of particular substances, including soap, ashes and salt, to create pungent spatial installations. This show relies on smaller, more subtle effects, drawing you in close to hear the tiny ripple of rusty running water in a floor-based sculpture, or the distant sound of a radio filtered through a pipe. A soft, blurred video projected onto the floor looks like an injured insect or bird against the surface of a road, desperately and ineffectually flapping its wings.

This is the way Balka functions, as a poet of materials and objects, something that, geographically and historically, he is ideally positioned to do. Artists in eastern Europe seem to share the Beuys-ian ability to harness the powerful associations wrapped up in ordinary things like felt and fat, which is not to say that they adapt Joseph Beuys's personal symbolism.

The note accompanying the exhibition suggests that Balka manages to do pretty much what writer Adam Phillips says that art should do: make the past bearably present, so that we can see the future through it. But, saturated as his work is in the past, relishing its state of dreamy melancholia, the future seems a long, long way away.

Kathy Prendergast, the 10th artist to show work on the theme of The Paradise in the Hyde's diminutive Gallery 2, presents us with a computer-generated image of a map, backed up by a small compass, its bearing fixed. Between Love and Paradise is "an image of a map" not so much because it is an invention, repetitively dotted with place names relating to love and loss, but because it doesn't feel like a map. It has a synthetic air about it. It comes across as being physically and visually too bland, so that the import of the emotionally charged names is weakened. But it is a good idea and it certainly works.

Fergus Feehily's work at the Green on Red is gently understated but also pretty sure and confident of what it is about - in the sense of procedure rather than content. Working with gouache, oil and other media, he makes a series of diverse, small-scale paintings that have in common a muted, retro palette and a flirtation with notions of pattern and organisation.

That is to say, time and again he offers tokens of potential grids or systems, like maps, diagrams, networks, or circuit boards, bringing up the idea of order and coherence only to stop short of any explicit statement of order or coherence. The offhand, workaday and ordinary undermines pretensions to higher purpose, such as, for example, the use of cup rings as a unit in repeat patterns that suggest indolence as much as order.

Yet, cumulatively, an engaging sense of an ongoing argument or debate does emerge, as it does in the work of, for example, Helen O'Leary. With its quirky, unexpected colour combinations, its distinctly undogmatic openness and its laidback air, Feehily's work possesses an affinity with the repetitive patterns and aural collages of some ambient electronic music. It makes for an engaging, quietly provocative show.

The gossamer, lacy images in Remco de Fouw's Amnesiac Dreams at the Kevin Kavanagh Gallery were created by means of a photographic process "without camera or lens," employing a fascinating, improvised Heath Robinson-like apparatus helpfully displayed in the gallery alongside the work. Mind you, the fact that the equipment is there doesn't reveal exactly how the images were made, but it is clear that the beautiful, ghostly, fluid patterns relate to flowing water imprinted on photographic paper by means of controlled light, perhaps from a torch.

The images were, we are told, gathered from "remote rivers at night" and in this and other ways the work parallels the activity of fishing.

De Fouw, in his boots and with his specially adapted fishing-rod, is trying to catch something we cannot see in the water, which turns out to be the water itself as a dynamic element. Tonally subtle, fluid and complex in their patterns, these light-and-water drawings have an ethereal, mysterious quality.

The only wrong note is the unduly obtrusive line of text beneath each image, which tends to jar with the delicacy of the drawings.