The weakened eye of day
July 29 – October 2, 2016
The Contemporary Art Gallery presents a major new body of work by Irish artist Isabel Nolan, conceived as a single project across successive evolving presentations at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, Mercer Union, Toronto and CAG.
Nolan’s work encompasses text, sculpture, drawing and textiles, and often begins with the close scrutiny of individual literary or artistic works, or evolves out of consciously erratic and diverging enquiries into the aesthetics of varied fields. Ranging from cosmology, to theories and systems of medicine detailing the makeup and workings of the human body or to illuminated manuscripts, all provide potential stimuli for investigation. The exhibition takes its title from the English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy’s The Darkling Thrush (1899), in which the sun, described as “the weakening eye of day”, is a dismal star drained of its force by a gloomy pre-centennial winter afternoon. As the sun’s gaze weakens, so flags the spirit of the poet who, until interrupted by birdsong, sees only the inevitability of death in the cold world around him. The show thereby examines how light manifests as a symbol in our thoughts, obsessions and pursuits, and oscillates around a series of ideas as a material account of the known and unknown strangeness of the world, from the formation of the planet’s crust to the death of the sun and the enduring preoccupation with light as a metaphor for truth, hope and optimism.
Writing is an important tool for Nolan, and at the beginning of the show, a single sculptural form appears perhaps as the protagonist of an improbable story. Rock founded place (2014) is a large-scale scrolled text written by Nolan that imagines the viewpoint of the oldest rock in the world, whose exposure to deep time and the precariousness of existence is profoundly different to our own. In this world, time, knowledge and forms of life are recognizable yet play utterly different histories and roles than in our own civilization.
Throughout the exhibition, individual pieces unfold to both seduce and disarm. Nolan uses this as a device to cause us reflection upon our relationship to light as a means by which the world is framed. She provides opportunities to reveal the contingency not only of our own world, but also of our myriad ways of knowing and being in it. Underpinning this is a desire to examine and capture in material form the occasions of intensity that can define our encounters with the objects around us; inexplicable and unsettling moments that leave us with a heightened awareness of what is means to be alive. For the artist this exploration happens through making things; whether these things are sculptures, textiles, photographs or texts. Monumental or intimate in scale, they are presented to us as tentative and precarious markers of the experience of our place beneath the sun.
Across all spaces at CAG, discrete works trace a progression reflective of different human attempts to understand our place in the universe. From Rock founded place we might move to consider a small-scale abstract painting such as Dreams of no thing, no time (2014), the enigmatically diagrammatic steel construction Somewhere between Andromeda and Vulpecula: Sky Atlas (2014) or Fourfold sorrows (Jesus you look so sad) (2015), an impressive woven carpet connecting wall to floor. Contemplating these and other pieces such as the collection of brightly coloured ceramic vessels, Nothing new under the sun (2014), all combine to reflect Nolan’s interest in the way colour and light are used to express religious or spiritual sensibilities. Elsewhere, the intimate drawings Based on my recent observations (1–7) (2014) and the large-scale photograph The view from nowhen (2014) are informed by modern cosmology, wherein scientific theories and technologies articulate our contemporary relationship to the universe. And as we meander through the space of the gallery, we are finally confronted by what at first appears a somewhat surreal image, this mural of two donkeys photographed in Bully’s Acre, a former public cemetery located near the Royal Hospital Kilmainham in Dublin. Referred to in myth and folklore from around the world as well as embodying different symbolic references in classical and ancient cultures and across different faiths, these donkeys provide a provocation that cannot be met: a stubborn and inscrutable view from a world that can never be fully known.
As with all of Nolan’s oeuvre, the works in The weakened eye of day reveal, through their very subjective and intimate nature, the arbitrariness and inherent absurdity of attempting to tackle the enormity of these subjects through the process of object making. Yet the objects are made and for Nolan they also find, with varying degrees of (un)certainty, their place under the sun.
Originated by the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, this new selection of work for the exhibition is presented in collaboration with Mercer Union, Toronto and Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver. The exhibition is supported by the Culture Ireland programme for 2016 celebrating Ireland’s Centenary. We also acknowledge the generous assistance of Kerlin Gallery, Dublin.