No definition of art can be based solely upon an examination of artworks, just as no definition of reality can be found where we would naturally look to define a thing, at its instance of manifestation in the world. Arthur C. Danto makes this observation in relation to Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes, noting that: “since any definition of art must compass the Brillo boxes, it is plain that no such definition can be based upon an examination of artworks” (Danto 1981: vii). The paradoxical challenge of deflecting the gaze of the viewer from the artwork, through confrontation with the artwork itself, is central to the task of the artist.
An immersive exhibition, ‘JUMP’ by Sligo–based artistCléa van der Grijn, explores this challenge. Taking the form of an installation, ‘JUMP’ includes a neon piece, based on the artist’s own handwriting, a series of new paintings and an ambitious film work, developed in collaboration with Joseph P. Hunt, Michael Cummins and Ciaran Carty. This new body of work was commissioned by Mermaid Arts Centre, where it was exhibited from 1 October to 3 November 2018, with subsequent shows funded through the Arts Council’s Touring and Dissemination of Work scheme. The exhibition is currently showing in Linenhall Arts Centre, Mayo, until 5 January and will tour to three other venues later this year: Courthouse Gallery and Studios, Clare (18 January – 23 February); Solomon Gallery, Dublin (8 – 30 March); and Hamilton Gallery, Sligo (12 April – 11 May).
Across each venue, a giant custom-built viewing pod, in the shape of a traditional Japanese bento box, is installed in the same space as the paintings. This pod holds the experience of the film, while in turn both being contained by the paintings and holding them in its orbit. Lacquered poplar plywood creates a smooth exterior surface and the simple shape is both formal and fluid, stylish and practical. A countdown clock invites the viewer to enter the cavernous space and the experience is shared with a small group of people. The blackout and curved space create a total focus on the moving image and sound at the interior, while in turn, elements of the soundtrack bleed out into the gallery space, resonating with other elements of the exhibition.
The way the different elements of the installation relate is as important, if not more so, than any individual element. The pod contains the experience of the film, which is central to the work, at the centre of the work; and although separated and in a space of its own, it is held by the paintings that surround it on the walls. This creates a strong sense of moving from known to unknown; of going inside, away from materiality, away from what we can know in an overlying sense and into that pool of what is more, both to reality and to ourselves, including what is unconscious.
The paintings depict parts of the body that can typically be seen through the eyes, such as the hands and feet, as well as parts of the body that cannot, including the eyes themselves. From this perspective, we remain ‘up in the air’, unable to form a complete picture of any(thing) in particular. The pod, in contrast, provides an immersive experience, and the viewer feels close to, held by, and ultimately in the grip of the film; they cannot look away. While the overall relation of the different elements of the installation remains the same regardless of the setting – the neon beckons, the paintings engage, and the film takes by surprise and compels – the experience of the film is purposely presented in such a way that it offers exactly the same experience to the viewer wherever they may be viewing it.
If we cast back to van der Grijn’s Self Portrait, previously exhibited in 2016 in the Model, Sligo, we have a sense of what is to come. Part of an ongoing photographic project documenting the artist’s life through medical trauma, the photograph depicts the artist, unconscious during an operation on her eye, eyelids pinned back, unflinching and unable to blink, due to mechanical restraints. The fact that the physical eye is out of action in that moment only serves to highlight a deeper vision, the kind of vision that, once realised, is no longer a matter of choice; we cannot tear our eyes away, even if we close them, become blind or unconscious.
As van der Grijn has pointed out, the eyes are the first part of the body to decline upon death. This is clearly an important concept in the film, which uses van der Grijn’s own eyes as props, serving on many levels to bring about a shift in perspective. More than merely deflecting our gaze by pointing, van der Grijn invites us to look at what she sees, through her very eyes. Like moving into a darkened room, it takes a while for vision to adjust. The female protagonist in the film reaches out for the new eyes, but these are not just intuitive eyes for the blind, dying or dead to see through – they are literally the artist’s eyes, and by extension, they are our own.
The importance of this can be understood, not just in relation to the recurring themes of van der Grijn’s work, but the way these themes relate, what is left unexpressed or undefined, the space in-between. While themes of time, space, perspective, memory and perception – elements we use to construct our experience in the world – are central, the question of where this construction occurs, somewhere ‘in-between’, along with a way of looking, vision, predominate. The viewer is drawn to look, within a space that is neither here nor there, inside nor outside, conscious nor unconscious, underlying nor overlying. This space in-between, together with this way of seeing, is the space of art, of trauma, of life in its terrifying and glorious immediacy. Juxtaposing artforms and playing with themes of perception, time, space and memory, ‘JUMP’ leads the viewer into a space where they come face to face with life, in a way that is perhaps only possible through the lens of death. From the moment of entering the exhibition, the viewer is drawn to look; once attention is gained, they cannot look away.