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Exhibition Review – Cecilia Danell, ‘The Last Wilderness’, The Dock, Carrick-on-Shannon, June – August 2017

July 14, 2017

Geometric Choreography

The current exhibtion at The Dock is ‘The Last Wilderness’ by Galway-based Swedish artist, Cecilia Danell. The exhibition was produced in collaboration with the Galway Arts Centre, where a different configuration of these works was previously presented from March to April 2017. This iteration at The Dock showcases fewer artworks and there is a greater emphasis on theatrical presentation devices, in keeping with Danell’s subject matter and ontological inquiry. This approach is also subtly site-responsive, referencing the theatre space housed on the ground floor, which invariably attracts a different audience from the gallery visitors who ascend the stairs. Playing with the staircase as a metaphor for connecting these two institutional realms, the kickboards have been painted in a soft purple hue, in a spirited gesture that also echoes the name of Danell’s music band: ‘A Lilac Decline’.

This theatrical inquiry permeates the exhibition as a whole. In Gallery 2, Danell presents a series of Nordic landscape paintings, developed while on residency in Norway last year. Spending time in this setting allowed the artist to become familiar, not only with the region’s visual and geographical features, but with how notions of remoteness and solitude are circulated and understood. The artist seems to suggest that the overly-prescriptive marketing of remote regions can often diminish opportunities for genuine discovery.  Heavy black curtains, retained from the previous exhibition, insulate the two end walls. It is always interesting to observe how gallery spaces might be ‘ghosted’ by their former inhabitants: for Ailbhe Ní Bhriain, landscape is also a subjective cultural construct. Coupled with two angled wooden partitions, the curtains serve as compositional devices that appropriately designate the large space as a theatrical arena. Across these unconventional supports, Danell’s paintings take centre stage.

Though very definitely figurative, there are moments of partial abstraction achieved within the paintings that indulge in the liquid, viscous and mark-making properties of paint. Against the black, expansive, curtained rear-wall, the lone painting, The Dripping, Melting March of Spring (2017), becomes dramatically charged with a vibrant colour palette of sky-blues, mauves and lime-greens. Four other paintings are mounted on the partitions, as wooden cut-outs lean against the back, like discarded props hidden backstage beyond the traditional viewing arena. With the inclusion of such apparatus, a dichotomy begins to emerge, between the things that are actively displayed, and those that are deliberately kept out of sight. The presentation of works is similarly playful in the blackened confines of Gallery 3, where several smaller paintings explore the more poetic, macro details of this same landscape. What appear to be icicles hang from an orb-like sculpture that emanates a counterintuitive warming glow.

Back on the mezzanine, an expansive digital photograph at the top of the stairs introduces us to The Magic Theatre (2017). This compelling and highly-detailed image depicts the oldest provincial theatre in Sweden, near the artist’s hometown. The theatre’s stage is quaint, enchanting and ornately decorated, yet it is intruded upon by a geometric form that punctuates the scene, propelling it into another time-zone. This three-dimensional structure is particularly loaded. For me, it channels associations with futuristic architecture and utopian-thinking popularised via new-wave science-fiction literature and cinema. The surface of interlocking latticework makes me think about geodesic greenhouses, nuclear holocaust and life on other planets.

In Gallery 1, the experimental film, Tonight at the Magic Theatre (2016), extends these anachronistic inquiries, blending Super 8 and stop-motion techniques to create a tactile, dream-like sequence. The screen is nestled amidst a purpose-built installation of laser-cut plywood trees, while in the corner of the space, another wooden forest arrangement recalls diorama scenic devices. An uncanny soundscape, developed by Danell’s collaborator Sofia Ek, effectively combines field recordings (wind, static and whispered voices) with pulsing, electronic, B-movie sounds. The film fluctuates between two sites: the theatre’s interior (depicting its functional, decorative and architectural features) and the exterior landscape (featuring a snow-covered woodland amidst the twilight-like darkness of northern winter). The duality of these manmade and natural realms is reinforced through the introduction of various polyhedrons, spheres and other geometric forms, in motionless and animated states. In the theatre, these props appear playful and mischievous, trundling on and off stage, before disappearing down a trap door.

However, when placed in the forest setting, these ominous shapes suggest a more startlingly geometry. They recall the fragmentation of the body in post-war art, evident across Surrealist photography, Dadaist sculpture or even Bauhaus performance art. The Triadic Ballet, developed by German painter Oskar Schlemmer, reduced the human body to basic geometric components using sculptural costumes, abstract scenery and futuristic mechanised choreography that echoed the movement of marionettes. In a similar vein, abstract musical animations of that era, such as An Optical Poem (1938) by avant-garde filmmaker and painter Oskar Fischinger, predated the emergence of computer graphics or music videos and had a profound influence on the visual language of the burgeoning science fiction genre.

Other art historical references are widely suggested in Danell’s film, which sees multiple tangible manifestations of painting: a traditional pastoral scene is reproduced on a stage curtain that is lifted to signal the start of the performance; the omnipresent multi-hued, prismatic shapes undoubtedly speak of colour gradients, pigmentation and formal abstraction. While Tonight at the Magic Theatre shimmers with the conceptual and technical apparatus of painting, it is difficult to tell whether her paintings – such as Stop Motion (2016), presented on an adjacent wall – fully reciprocate this gesture. Danell’s extensive body of work was made possible through an Arts Council Project Award which has enabled additional elements including the CAD laser-cutting, the use of Super 8 film (which is expensive to process) and a beautiful publication featuring documentation and an eloquent, newly-commissioned text by the writer Sue Rainsford. I would argue that such funding, coupled with the assistance of supportive galleries and curators, also buys artists the time and space to experiment, to refine their inquiry and to carve out a distinctive visual vocabulary that they can pursue into the future. As a multi-talented young artist, Danell has a wealth of inter-disciplinary skills and approaches to draw on. For me, the most exciting aspect of this new work is the possibilities unearthed at the intersection of film and sound, in the territory of artists like Pierre Huyghe. While the paintings and installations cleverly constitute important preparatory research, I wonder if it would be worth testing, at some later date, how the film might operate as a raw, standalone piece, perhaps in a non-gallery setting or as a film screening in the context of a festival or biennale. In this way, viewers would encounter these animated, magical realms – at once both futuristic and nostalgic – as an unfettered, exceptional and truly authentic moving image work.


Featured Image: Cecilia Danell, Tonight at the Magic Theatre, 2017

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