There is a dynamic and potent sense of the paradox in the
artist residency of Niamh McCann in the breathtaking and remote landscape of Artlink in Fort Dunree. The artist has said:
I think of myself largely as a landscape artist – of the constructed landscape, the stuff we make, the stuff we consume.
With the rural landscape itself commonly conceived of as unfabricated or unconstructed, that idea here of the constructed landscape is particularly striking. It prompts notions not only of how the artist understands the world, but also of how the artist engages in her own practice with a process akin to a kind of construction or assemblage - a term commonly read in the history of visual arts as referring to a form of art that is made by assembling disparate physical elements (perhaps most easily understood as a 3D version of collage).In fact, in a contemporary sense, the notion of assemblage can be usefully extended to be more than a methodology for a single artwork, and be considered as a way of thinking about a whole exhibition, with each element of the exhibition functioning as one physical element assembled by the artist and acting as a combined work or selection of works with a certain affect. Curator Mary Cremin wrote this of Niamh McCann:
The notion of artist as nomads, collecting cultural artifacts and gathering them together to create an imaginative landscape is an undercurrent in her work.
In a contemporary art context, the proximity here of the terms nomad(ism) and assemblage could also act as a reference to the complex notion of assemblage theory. This theoretical model developed by philosophers Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, and Manuel De Landa is an analysis of the interaction of forces in society and culture, which looks at the whole as a combination of interrelated component parts, and how this whole, now acting as a collective, generates specific complex behaviors and qualities that were not present within any of the individual parts. These are emergent properties, the characteristics that a part gains when it becomes part of a bigger system, the characteristics parts gain when they are combined to act as a whole which is more a sum of its parts, which has functions and qualities that diverge from those of the constituent parts.
The artist has spoken of her art practice constantly engaging with the notion of a specific circular narrative, the circular relationship between the shaping of our environment and having it shape us in return - a notion which perhaps when extended to her practice can situate the context, the artwork, the viewer, the audience all working together to generate emergent properties, an affect that is bigger than the sum of its parts and that diverges from those of the constituent parts. This process of making new properties is generated very much from an art practice as a maker. Across many projects, the artist has made individually defined sculptural objects, paintings, drawings that function independently but which also function within the overall construction of an exhibition as a kind of sculptural poetry, in a dynamic relationship between the audience, the object and its mode of display specific to that context, an exploration of the position of the viewer when confronted with the act of looking at, and relating to, objects within specific contexts.
The primary context of Artlink Fort Dunree as a site is of course the historic resonance of the location and the beauty of the surrounding habitat. As a decommissioned historic military fort, the site contains what the artist could describe as the visual debris of history – that artist has written of her interest in how certain visual debris survives and continues to evolve even when separated from initiating ideology. The Fort Dunree site sees the display of redundant military equipment and infrastructure, the symbolic language of nation and military in the visual culture and design of the location. The artist has proposed to work with the histories, stories and resonances within both these historical and natural landscapes by engaging with them through a precise and defined visual language - Vexillological design, the symbolic language of flag-making. In a process of onsite studio research and practice, and invited workshops, the artist will explore the Fort Dunree archives and museum, the local folklore and indigenous landscape, to compile a potential list of symbols for use on a flag which should be both functional and beautiful:
a functioning object, to represent and state intent within the local community, a flag to join, not divide(which)would exist as standalone artwork, capable of being sited and integrated into the fabric of and function of the location.
As a final gesture, here once again is a striking example of the paradoxical in the flag engaged with at its apogee and functioning with distinctive emergent properties generated from its diverse constituent parts:
The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing.
(United States Code, Title 4, Chapter 1, Part 8j.)
Niamh McCann is an Irish artist living and working in Dublin. A graduate of Chelsea College of Art & Design, London, She has exhibited extensively in Europe, Ireland and in the USA. Recent solo exhibitions include La Perruque (Protest Song) at MAC Belfast (2016) and Just Left of Copernicus in Visual Carlow (2016).
Text by Declan Sheehan, Independent Curator and part of selection panel for the 2017 residency programme.