Published  19/06/2014

Isabel Nolan: interview

Isabel Nolan: interview

Isabel Nolan: The Weakened Eye of Day
Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin
7 June – 21 September 2014


Isabel Nolan’s exhibition at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, The Weakened Eye of Day, marks the latest chapter from an artist continually exploring and evading categorisation.

Her work examines our fascination with the inscrutable and the totemic, the profound but often concealed influences of space and time, and the mythologies we instil and extract from print, colour and light. The role of perspective is crucial to how much or how little we discern from the universe and its mysteries. Nolan’s view is both diverse and singular. It is also, as her work attests, continually compelling.

Darran Anderson: The Weakened Eye of Day takes its title from Thomas Hardy’s quietly devastating poem The Darkling Thrush (1899). There is a symbiotic relationship between human emotions and the environment in your work, from explicitly site-based series to the more implicit gallery exhibitions. Your art is always framed quite precisely, even by omission, by what surrounds it. How important is space and context to your work? Does art change that which surrounds it?

Isabel Nolan: Adrienne Rich wrote that female students speaking in public are prone to “throw their words away” unwittingly advertising that they think they “do not deserve to take up time and space”. When I read this, I figured that this is the opposite of what artworks do – but not only do they act as if they deserve to take up space and time and attention, they actually produce it, be it physical or mental space. Around the same time, I came across the Rich quote, I listened to a play by David Pownall, Hard Frosts in Florence. In it, Michelangelo says: “All God has ever done is to create space between things. The things were always the property of death and the Devil.” I’m not entirely sure what he means, but it seems to speak to the idea that space is paramount. If artworks don’t attend to or understand their relationship with the spaces immediately outside of them, or in a broader sense the world around them, they can be utterly deadening. If I’m having a good time at an exhibition, I’ll spend almost as long moving between works, taking something in or maybe looking at the way works meet or don’t meet each other, as I will spend with discrete works. The best video or film works need multiple viewings so you can afford to mentally drift off and miss bits that you’ll catch again. I like shows that make me feel as if I’m in slow motion.

DA: Your work explores the areas between artforms. Aside from Hardy, you titled your 2009 exhibition [at the Kerlin Gallery, Dublin] On a Perilous Margin on a passage from George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and there are references to Hamlet, cosmology and Hippocratic theory, among other themes, throughout your work. How open are you to influences beyond art history as well as within it, and is there much to be gained from the translation, flawed or otherwise, between artforms?

IN: I am a very good reader/viewer, in the sense that I am easily seduced by ideas that are well written or persuasively made. But I’m easily distracted, too, so my brain slides off in other directions before I ever get a real handle on a subject. However, having been here for a while now, I have my commitments and I look for certain things and identify with the bits of material that speak to my carefully wrought, if nebulous, concerns. I’m interested in how aesthetic judgments operate in diverse fields and I’m interested in all kinds of work that takes as a starting point the understanding that, just because the universe is real, doesn’t mean it is not weird or puzzling to be here.

I’ll always have my own work in the corner of my eye, but somehow reading seems to sharpen my peripheral vision. Research enables me to find a way to make a thing that I think will be worth making, precisely because I’m attending to someone else’s way of thinking about the world. I’m not a translator – I have no sense of responsibility or desire to represent other people’s ideas well, only in determining what is and isn’t correct/interesting about the thing I want to make, do or write.

DA: The history of modern art is partially a history of the study of light. What interests you about it as a subject?

IN: I’m not interested in the history of painting in terms of optical effects or visual purity, but rather in the strand of art that draws, deliberately or not, on a hostility to, or suspicion of, visuality as the primary or “noblest” of the senses. The elucidation of multiple fundamental concepts in terms of light – divinity, inspiration, reason, goodness, truth, and so on, is fascinating. The sun became the objective correlative for all of these qualities in our understanding of the universe. An unfortunate consequence of this (to characterise western consciousness incredibly crudely) is that a dualism emerged and darkness is/was generally understood as opposite, rather than merely different from light. Even the relatively recent realisation that the sun has a lifespan is already shaping the way people theorise about understanding what it means to be a human. I find it kind of strange that mortal animals should be so affected by the future death of the sun.

DA: I’m interested in both the eclecticism of your forms (across painting, sculpture and animation) as well as the naming of your pieces. Do the ideas, and titles, for your works come first before their formation, during or after? Is it a case of sudden inspiration, or a gradual evolution and revealing of meaning?

IN: As accurate as it might well be, I’ve come to resist the adjective eclectic because, irrespective of the medium, the work all shares a sensibility, thematic interests and material meticulousness that makes it cohere. In terms of production, it is a mix of both imagining an after beforehand, and figuring it out as I go along. Likewise, sometimes I know what a work is doing when it is made, but often enough I’m really not sure until it is in the world for a bit and I can see it beside other things.

Titles rarely come in advance (though I store quotes/phrases) and sometimes it is easy to fit a work and title together. Occasionally, titles are strategically chosen, fitting a subject/adjective/adverb to a work to steer attention. Under a bounded sky and a solitary sun – an illuminated rug arranged to accommodate a medieval mind [2013] firmly locates the piece in a pre-Copernican world.

DA: Do happy accidents occur in your work? How important is the idea of paradox and contradiction? Are these encouraged when you collaborate on exhibitions with other artists?

IN: Yes, very happy accidents occur and something might get revealed, but unfortunate ones happen too and they just have to be fixed. Tension is critical to the work – probably to all art – and paradox and contradiction are inescapable in life so they probably are in art, too. With the sculpture What remains of an occasion that had not lasted [2013], the photographic element was a picture I had taken months beforehand because herons make great shapes and they are fascinatingly still. It was only when the painted steel barrier was fabricated that putting them together to irritate, extend, compliment and complicate each other made sense. Tense sense.

There are people whom I consult with regularly and can work very closely with and get great advice from, but I find certain forms of collaboration difficult – challenging is probably a better word – because, ultimately, I want to control every little thing. I like installing group shows: it’s interesting to fit disparate works to make something coherent and balanced, and generally you find out, or are made resolved of, something about your own work.

DA: If we take a work such as Imaginary Object [2008], while unique, it appears to have its own internal mythology in the manner reminiscent of an artist such as Paul Klee. Recalling the name of your 2009 piece Some things are best left unsaid, do you think it’s important for art to remain mysterious to retain its poetry or magic?  Does explanation add to the work or potentially diminish it? Can the spell be broken or accentuated by words?

IN: I think good work, which may or may not be poetic, not only withstands explanation but also can be elaborated on or drawn out in a great way. Also, no single explanation/interpretation will account for a good work. They don’t get exhausted that easily. I reckon art can be a form of conjuring, but someone revealing how something works – in the way in which the comedian Stewart Lee explains how his jokes/routines are (or are not) working – does not diminish its power.

DA: Your work explores the nature and multiplicity of perception itself, reflected in titles such as A Hole into the Future (2012), as well as shapes that suggest the orbit of electrons or planets (Turning Point (2010), for one). Many of these are suggested by the artist, but it is on these works that the viewer hangs their own narratives. Sculptures can be junk or sacred relics (or both). We invest it with a power or an aura at your beckoning. Your exhibition may refer to the weakened eye, but your work seems integrally concerned with the strength of the eye.

IN: Socially, we are very sophisticated at seeing, and distrustful in the sense of being knowing, but we are also very prone to being seduced by beautiful surfaces or visual interest. We also love to see pattern and likeness, and the work certainly both plays on and resists it. My works do rely on being visually compelling, but they also don’t yield everything that way. Even if one could separate out one’s visual experience from one’s sense of thinking/feeling etc, a work still needs to be figured into your world. With my own work, sculptures as different as Here below the benighted stars or Soft stillness and the night share the attribute of being both physically consistent in themselves, but also different from every point of view. That means variances – spaces or junctions, or a sense of movement and change – inflect a work with narrative. The eye is not disembodied, so even in theory it could only take you so far.

DA: Time is another crucial element to your work. It seems there most obviously in your animations and in the Degas viewed through the miasma of memory Something special in remembrance, 1881 (2009). Are you interested artistically in time? Has your view of your earlier work changed with the passage of time?

IN: Yes, I’m very interested in time. For a while, I think that time, as a dimension of still things, was not really being accounted for in the reception of certain types of work. Time is just another name for difference. Our experience of difference is the most straightforward way in which we register time, and artworks are a good way of intimating that nothing is eternal or universal. Everything is contingent, even the things that pretend to be autonomous or to be wholly rational.

 I can’t really remember what I thought of my earlier work when I made it, so I can’t specify how my view has changed. In broadest strokes, I’d say roughly 10 years ago the work shifted from illustrating ideas to making them.

DA: To pick up on the time theme you’ve mentioned, with a work such as The unfolding moment (2007) you have a stationary piece that paradoxically insinuates the passage of time. It reminded me of the graffiti from Paris, 1968: Demand the impossible.” Do you see art as a place where we can do that, beyond logic or reason, or is it a heightened or deeper reason or possibility we’re after?

IN: Artworks, static or otherwise, are always performing being themselves in a manner that is not unique, but is certainly distinctive in terms of objects or phenomena; they struggle to consistently perform being whatever they are, whatever they were made to be, because their situation keeps changing, be it the viewer, or their physical, social or artistic context. So I don’t think that it is paradoxical – stationary things don’t exist outside of time. On the simplest level, sculptures, paintings and so on always activate a narrative, the sense of how they might have been and what they might have become. More fundamentally, their very presence in a room/site alters the experience we have of that space and the experience of time we have there.

Regarding your question … it can be both those places, but I wouldn’t commit it to either. The idea that authenticity or hidden truths somehow reside in the unconscious may be rich terrain, but it is neither verifiable nor an especially interesting or useful way to think about our experience of the world. It valorises the individual’s experience. Reason is a way to describe the operation of one part of our faculties and it’s something that is applied rather than something that can be deepened as such.

Demanding the impossible sounds exciting, but I’m not sure what it means now.

DA: There’s an anti- or extra-utilitarian aspect to sculptures such as Slow dirty solution (2013) and That’s an approach (2013). They seem to call attention to a desire we have to make things useful and the failure therein. Yet some of the greatest things in life have no purpose. Do you think purpose can be a tyranny, and is art a form of resistance?

IN: You’ve given me a great descriptor with the phrase anti- or extra-utilitarian – being thus, or as I have put it many times, useless but in a deliberate, important way, is fundamental. And yes, art can resist certain strands of the insatiable demand that everything be valuable, useful, or purposive in a narrow sense, or driven by results. In the broadest sense, yes, purpose can be a tyranny – incredible aspects of third-level education are being dismantled, university departments are disembowelled at the behest of market forces.

Speaking more particularly to art, I may find art valuable and important, but I dislike Alain de Botton’s Art is Therapy notion that artworks should be in the service of our emotional needs. Artworks have a range of properties or functions; they test, irritate and resist us. Exhibitions complicate things, and they make spaces of beauty or moments of tension, challenge or connection. Suggesting artworks have one purpose, which is to provide succour, prioritises the individual’s experience as a microcosm of our collective humanity. Collectively, we have little humanity: humanity is an idea of ourselves that we have invented. In some respects, art is very dangerous precisely because it fools us into thinking, it perpetuates the idea, that we are “civilised”. Assuming certain qualities or values are in evidence in “masterpieces” reduces art to being a testament of our better nature, our compassion and fellow feeling. It is the opposite: if we were a nicer species, we wouldn’t make art. Art is a place that can test and examine how meaning gets made – it is a mode of research without end or purpose other than figuring stuff out and making an interesting time.

DA: I’m fascinated by how you situate the perspectives of your work, roaming through space and time. You have the deep space of Gas Giant (2012), the almost extraterrestrial or primordial Here (below the benighted stars) (2013) and, as you said, the pre-Copernican Under a bounded sky and a solitary sun: an illuminated rug arranged to accommodate a medieval mind. Is it an expression of free imagination, or do you think we can gain fresh perspectives on where we are from afar?

IN: I’d say it is both. The eagle and the worm’s eye view reveal different things, and thinking about the heat death of the universe puts things in perspective, it makes the evolution of humans seem like breaking news.

DA: The death of the sun is a death of mind (2013) and Death after life (2007) are memento mori, but they also seem to suggest that there is no death, or indeed existence, unless someone is around to perceive it. How important is the audience to your work? How much do you consider their responses when creating a piece?

IN: The artist thinks about the work – for instance about its consistency with itself, or the reason it is being made, or why you decided to put it in the world, and how it performs itself. Then the audience can look after itself.

DA: How important, then, is mortality and attempts to transcend it, through posterity for example?

IN: It isn’t important. It is perhaps absurd and immoderate to make things that may stay in the world for some time, but I don’t think about their future.

DA: What’s next?

IN: The Weakened Eye of Day, the show I’ve made for the Irish Museum of Modern Art, begins with the formation of the Earth and ends with the death of the sun/end of the universe. It is talking to the evolution of light as a metaphor and it does this materially over four rooms and four small alcoves, so there are plenty of gaps to be filled into this brief history.

A version of the IMMA exhibition will be travelling to the Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver and Mercer Union, Toronto in 2015/2016. I’ll be doing a solo show for Sean Kelly Gallery, New York in September this year and a show with Kerlin Gallery, Dublin, next year.


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