Voyeurism, near-pornography and images of intimacy
VISUAL ARTS:MUCH OF the strength of Miroslav Tichý's work, at the Douglas Hyde Gallery, lies in the way it occupies a curious middle ground between visibility and something that cannot really be seen, and perhaps that ambiguous space correlates to the distance between desire and its object, a distance that perpetuates desire, writes Aidan Dunne
The object or objects of desire, for Tichý, are surely the women who he stalks with his camera, snapping them surreptitiously as they go about their business on a shopping street, relax in the park or sunbathe by the side of a local swimming pool. He often zeroes in on erogenous zones, accentuating them with marks inscribed into the surface of his prints.
In a wider sense, though, the object of desire is a whole world of everyday life encapsulated in the women's workaday activities as they get from A to B or relax and joke with each other. This wider fabric is elaborated in Tichý's photographs of school children engaged in organised games or exercise, or in views of the town itself and its walled river. He also photographed images on the television screen.
Tichý's presence in and simultaneous apartness from this social space comes across vividly in his grey, blurry, stained and scratched photographs, many of which echo pictorial propriety with their rough, hand-drawn borders and frames. It is, as John Hutchinson writes in the catalogue, "difficult not to be somewhat saddened" by even his most overtly voyeuristic photographs.
Tichý was and still is apart from the world his photographs evoke. His hometown, the place we see in his work, is Kyjov in the Czech Republic, where his father was a tailor. Tichý, now in his early 80s, trained as a painter in the academy of fine Arts in Prague in 1940, quitting before he graduated, which meant he had to do military service. His rebellious streak had become apparent even before the advent of communist rule in 1948, when prevailing liberal trends in the cultural and political environment were summarily closed down. By then he'd already served time in a military prison and a mental hospital. Afterwards, he retreated to Kyjov, pursuing his art work but not exhibiting in public, and found himself increasingly at odds with the authorities.
His problems with authority, centring on a not entirely unfounded conviction that he was being persecuted, ensured that he was not able to take advantage of subsequent thaws in the political climate. He was periodically confined to a police cell or a mental hospital, apparently because of his penchant for disrupting formal political ceremonies. He had become, and looked like, an outsider, unkempt and long-haired. Yet the evidence suggests that he is not an outsider artist in the strict sense. When he began to take photographs in the late 1950s, he used a rudimentary Russian camera but increasingly improvised, knocking together workable mechanisms from anything conveniently available, such as bits of plastic pipe and elastic, developing film in a kettle and printing by moonlight.
Hence the look of his work - faint and evanescent, blurred and distant, seemingly haphazard - can be seen as deriving from aesthetic choices. Over a 30-year period he shot up to 100 frames a day, never intending them for exhibition. That came late, and accidentally. He clearly has an eye, as many enthusiasts have noted, including the artist Annelies Štrba, who selected the Douglas Hyde exhibition with real insight. As Hutchinson observes, she accentuates the "more lyrical and tender side of Tichý's work." Even so, another, disturbing side remains occasionally apparent, much closer to "the edge of pornography . . . impersonal and devoid of affection." In Gallery 2, Štrba shows some of her own work, an engaging group of manipulated photographic images inspired by the writings of the Brontë sisters and more specifically by Balthus's illustrations for Wuthering Heights. Štrba conjures up a magical, fairy tale atmosphere very effectively, and as with most fairy tales there is a dark undercurrent to what we see, a certain sense of foreboding or menace, as well as a feeling of playful possibility. Sometimes her young, elaborately dressed heroines recall the Alice of Through the Looking Glass.
Unusually, the entrance to the gallery at Draíocht bears an advisory message. Under-15s must be accompanied, and visitors are warned of explicit content, though nothing too shocking lies in store. The show is called At the Heart of Chance and in it the artist, Orla Whelan, has bravely taken on the subject of sexual intimacy. Bravely because the risks of tackling such a subject in a visual medium are obvious and not easily avoided. Pornography tends to dominate the field and, even if the artist's intentions are not pornographic, the work is likely to be open to such interpretation all the same. There has been much discussion of the way extreme and graphic violence is tolerated in mainstream Hollywood cinema, even as Tinseltown remains distinctly prudish about sex.
In a sense, Whelan's work makes an argument for the legitimacy of her subject without compromising on the necessarily transgressive edge of eroticism and desire, a difficult task to manage. Nor does she quite succeed overall, but she raises interesting questions and is successful in several individual pieces - though as it happens they are probably the least explicit ones. In a catalogue note, Patrick T Murphy points to the work of Marlene Dumas and Thomas Ruff, both of whom have dealt explicitly with pornography as, more recently and controversially, has the painter John Currin. Sexuality and the body have been at the heart of processes of objectification and commodification for at least as long as recorded history, though technology and other factors have undoubtedly enhanced and accelerated things considerably.
Whelan's images depict a naked couple embracing. We see them in their entirety and in detail, sometimes isolated, close-up details from various angles. The paint surface is relatively mean, not especially sensual at all, and in this (as well as the fact that the paintings are monochrome) the work seems to refer to photography rather than to, say, Lucian Freud's practice of embodying flesh in pigment through exhaustive observation. There's a certain chill to Whelan's paintings. A couple of the images risk being read not as pornographic but as didactic, as though excerpted from a sex instruction manual, but then, she has attempted to do something really ambitious and has at least partly succeeded.
Miroslav Tichý, plus, in Gallery 2, Annelies Štrba Photographs. Douglas Hyde Gallery, Trinity College Until Jan 22, 01-8961116. At the Heart of Chance, paintings by Orla Whelan. Gallery Two: Inhabit Works by Black Church Print Studio members. Draíocht, Blandchardstown Centre Until Jan 17, 01-8852610