'Creative Ireland: The Visual Arts [Contemporary Visual Art in Ireland 2000 – 2011]' curated/edited by Noel Kelly & Seán Kissane. ISBN: 978-1-907683-11-4
‘Sonia Shiel' published by the RHA, Dublin, 2009. ISBN 1-903875-53-6
'Sonia Shiel, Babels Biting the Moon' published by HIAP, FOUR & Roscommon Arts Centre, 2007
'House Projects' supported by the Arts Council Project Award, 2007. ISBN 978-0-9549844-2-7
Texts (scroll down)
‘Nobody’s Perfect’ text by Mark Hutchinson 2009
‘A Resolute Vulnerability’ text by Chris Fite Wassilak 2009
‘Sonia Shiel at the RHA’ text by Paul McAree. 2009.
‘The Brief Tremendous’ text by Chris Clarke. 2009.
‘Handmade’ text by Patrick Murphy, RHA, Director. 2008
‘Babel’s Biting the Moon’ text by Charlotte Bonham-Carter. 2007
‘Sheltering Daydreams’ text by Catherine Bernard. 2007
‘A Carpenters Omelette’ text by Dave Dyment. 2007
Nobody’s Perfect by Mark Hutchinson 2010 From 'Sonia Shiel' Published by RHA
There are many ways in which comedy might play a role in making art. If, in popular culture, making art itself is often something to be laughed at, it should be borne in mind that comedy also has a critical potential to dislodge and displace. In taking a critical stance towards the dominant habits and ideas of art, or what she describes as ‘the persistence of the ego and devotions of art,’ Sonia Shiel uses comedy. When she built a home-made lie detector, by carefully following the instructions of a video on the internet, she ended up with something which looked exactly as it should. However, in practise, it did not detect any lies but affirmed any and every statement as the truth. There is something about this promiscuous lie detector which is endearing and critical in its very uselessness. It can be read as a metaphor in hardware for a certain excess, an excess which is of the essence of comedy, which removes us from the expected and the practical.
The great Irish comedian, Dave Allen, told a joke that went something like this:
A priest gets up very early one Sunday morning in order to play golf without being seen because, of course, he should not be playing golf on a Sunday. However, up in Heaven, Saint Peter spots him and rushes off to tell God. As the priest lines up his tee shot, Saint Peter urges God to strike him down with lightning. God lifts His finger and points it at the priest. The priest plays his shot: the ball sails through the air, lands on the green, rolls across it and drops in the hole. A hole in one. The priest is ecstatic; Saint Peter is furious: “Why did you do that?” he demands of God. God calmly turns to Saint Peter and says: “Who’s he going tell?”
The point is that, for the priest, the torment of not being able to discuss his success will be far greater than the pleasure of the experience itself. Why? We never simply experience something in itself. The fact that when we experience something out of the ordinary, we have an urgent need to tell someone about it, testifies to the fact that our experiences are always experienced in relation to a dimension outside of ourselves. We are not simply at home in our bodies. In lacanian psychoanalysis, this dimension is called the symbolic order. And the symbolic order conjures into existence what is called the Big Other: an external entity in relation to which our inner experience is made meaningful. It is the Big Other which grounds and guarantees what one does. The situation is complicated because the Big Other does not exist.1 For example, God is one obvious form the Big Other can take. And talking to God is a way to ground one’s experience. But talking to God is not simply submissive: it is also the attempt to force the Big Other into existence through the performance of talking to it.
For artists, Art is often the embodiment of the Big Other: an ultimate guarantee that rescues whatever we do from its messy particularity. Artist may not often talk to Art but they habitually make sacrifices to it, in one form or another. This is not only to prostrate oneself before Art but the attempt to force Art into existence.
Art & Language conclude their essay ‘Abstract Expression,’ in which they have been discussing causality in pictures, by saying: “But causality is vanity. The real project is to do without it: to make do with nothing.”2 However, there are two radically different ways in which we could take this “nothing.” The first way, which I’m tempted to call the postmodern way, would see ‘making do with nothing’ as opening the door for multiplicity, relativism and a certain freedom: if there are no reliable criteria for action, you can do whatever you like. In such circumstances, as long as your choice is sincere in its particularity it cannot be criticised: it’s hard to be wrong about what your particular interests are. This situation, it could be argued, is in many ways the situation of contemporary art. Today, there seems to be no compelling reason for being one kind of artist rather than another.
But there is a second way to take the slogan ‘making do with nothing.’ In this case, the “nothing” includes making do without particular interests and individual eccentricities. Above all, it is to making do without the idea of Art itself. Rather than making do without criteria within Art, this would be to make do without Art per se; without the distinction of Art as its own set of practices. It is to manage without the comfort of recognising what one does in the Big Other.
However, the artist’s belief in Art is not simply manifest in dramatic moments. Indeed, the artist can actively and consciously deny any belief in Art and yet this belief can be manifest in the everyday habits, customs and practices of the artist. Belief is manifest not in theory but in practise: in the pull of the studio and the comfort of technique. In writing about political revolution, Slavoj Žižek has said that the revolution must strike twice.3 It is not enough to overthrow the explicit structures and institutions of power. The old society resides, precisely, in its everyday habits, customs and practices: it is here that its values and assumptions are embedded in material practice. Without overturning everyday life, the old society will simply resurface in a new form. And, mutatis mutandis, does the same not hold for art? Any transformation of art must change not simply our explicit conception of art but the daily practice within which the ideology of art is embedded. This is where the true difficulty and violence of revolution lies: not in seizing power but in breaking personal attachments to familiar and comfortable habits. Truly changing things must include changing oneself: making oneself out of place. For the artist, this is the true radicality of making do with nothing: it is not simply making do without external or additional support but rather requires the active destruction of everything one takes for granted.
The attempt to make do with nothing is the attempt to break out of the restraints of habitual practice: of ideology embedded in everyday intuition. In general, we might say that this is how ideology works: not by giving the wrong answer but by giving the wrong question. Ideology does not seek to persuade but rather gives the wrong co-ordinates for thought and action. For example, debates about what makes a baby turn into the person it becomes are habitually framed in terms of the choice between ‘nature’ and ‘nurture.’ The rhetorical power of the similarity in the sounds of the two words are part of the ideological slight of hand here. Nevertheless, we should pay attention to the assumptions shared by posing the choice in terms of ‘nature’ and ‘nurture.’ ‘Nature’ supposes that the subject is determined by factors that precede the individual, whether they be genes, God or something else; ‘nurture’ supposes that the subject is determined by factors that operate on the individual as he or she develops, whether they be familial, social or so on. Thus, they share both the assumption that the subject coincides with the individual and the assumption that the subject is passively determined in a non-reflexive way. Against this false choice, psychoanalysis would argue that the crucial process is trauma. The child actively chooses what to make of itself in impossible circumstances: where the available language is not its own and where its fundamental desires are prohibited.
In England, in the 1970s, there was a genre of jokes known as ‘Irish Jokes,’ which relied upon the understanding that there would be a stupid Irishman as the butt of every joke. One such joke (which also takes other forms) has an Englishman stopping to ask an Irishman for directions. The Irishman pauses for thought. Then he replies: “I wouldn’t start from here.” However, is this really such a stupid answer? Of course this answer can be read as a failure to understand the basic logic of giving directions. However, it might be more interesting to read the answer as a refusal to accept the terms of the question or as a withdrawal from its logic. It’s not hard to imagine an Irish worker winding up an English landowner with such an answer, for example. Indeed, the humour of the joke might come not from the apparent stupidity of the answer but precisely from our identification with the fictitious Irishman: from our recognition of the way all questions attempt to impose a logic upon us.
Withdrawal form the habitual choices of art means not being at home. Familiarity is not simply a matter of knowing the explicit rules but of knowing when the rules apply and when they don’t. In other words, the Law depends upon unspoken supplements and common knowledge. At a trivial, everyday level, when I bump into my neighbour and he ritually asks ‘How are you?’ he expects the answer ‘Fine.’ A detailed description of my various ailments would be taken as a troubling deviation from the protocols of such situations.
The displacement of being not-at-home entails two related possibilities for misunderstanding. The first is incomprehension: a failure to understand the everyday cultural habits and rituals which are taken for granted by those who are at home. In the film in which the fictional ambassador of Kazakhstan, Borat, played by Sacha Baron Cohen, tours the United States, he is, at one point, invited to a Republican dinner party. During the meal, he manages to convey to his host his needs to go to the toilet and is shown to the Bathroom. He returns carrying a small plastic bag. As he enquires of his host how he should dispose of this bag it becomes obvious, to her dismay, that this bag contains the result of his trip to the Bathroom. Here, we are not simply laughing at the discomfort of the xenophobic Republicans; more than this, we identify with Borat being out of place. Indeed, Borat is a vehicle for making the familiar strange, for making the invisible appear.
The second possibility for misunderstanding entailed by not being at home is taking things too literally or seriously. It is, for example, not knowing when a question has a ‘polite’ or ritual answer, as in the example of my neighbour’s question, above. This can be a question of not knowing when to stop; of excess; of giving more than was bargained for. But it can also be a question of not providing an excess that is expected, as when workers disrupt production by ‘working to rule.’ This type of misunderstanding is related to the active and deliberate strategy of ‘overidentification,’ theorised by Žižek.4 Overidentification is, precisely, to take things literally, without the expected ironic distance. This is proposed as a response to the fact that ideology is cynical: in asking wrong questions and giving false choices, ideology does not care what you think; its only concern is that you accept the unspoken assumptions and hidden supplements which underpin its explicit content. Overidentification challenges ideology by taking its explicit content more seriously than it takes it itself. In communist Poland, there was an official Day of the Police and Security Service. In Wroclaw a group calling themselves Orange Alternative organised a march to show their support for these civil servants. They showered police officers and patrol cars with flowers and attempted to embrace and thank them. These attempts were met with reasonable force and some arrests.5
Being out of place (as opposed to being lost or fallen) is comedic: it is to invite misunderstanding. But here we should bare in mind the tentative distinction Alenka Zupančič proposes between bad and good comedy.6 In bad or conservative comedy, things are thrown out of place only for everything to be restored to its proper place in the end. In good comedy, in contrast, not only do things remain out of place but the displacement spreads, becoming a movement which continues to disrupt and displace. Here we might think of different types of sit-com. In ‘Friends,’ the role played by characters outside the group of friends was to disrupt the unity of the group – but only so that the group could expel the intruder and reassert its hermeticism. In ‘Fawlty Towers,’ in contrast, an external element disrupts the normal functioning of the hotel and every attempt to dispel it leads to yet more disruption – until all is chaos; at this point the program ends without resolution and without order restored.
It is difficult to imagine what an art of refusal might be like in these times of artistic multiplicity and relativism. It is hard to withdraw from the dominant expectations of art precisely because today, in art, anything goes. It is in this situation that comedy has critical potential for art: it is precisely in relation to this situation of multiplicity and relativism that the artist needs to feel not-at-home. But it should be added that this displacement is a process or a movement rather than a static dislocation: it is to be in a continual process of making do with nothing.
To attempt to make do without art is to be out of place within art. What connects the idea of ‘making do with nothing’ to the idea of ‘good comedy’ is the aversion to particularity. As I described above, the radical sense of ‘making do with nothing’ does not mean doing anything and then getting the particularity of what one has done accepted as art: it is to make do without particularity. Following Zupančič, it is bad comedy which is about the Particular finding its proper place; good comedy by-passes the Particular, in that particular things become props in a process that destabilises the very idea of things having proper places. One example Zupančič uses is an archetypal comedic situation where a Baron slips over and lands in a muddy puddle. For Zupančič, the true comedy here lies not in the high being brought low. If we stop here we have stopped too soon. Rather, the true comedy lies in the fact that the Baron subsequently gets up and carries on despite his fall. The muddy puddle has only brought him down to earth physically, not psychologically; rather than shaking his belief it has demonstrated that his belief in his own Baron-hood is unshakeable. It is thus that the muddy puddle is a prop that sets this demonstration in motion.
A props department, in a theatre or film studio, is full of things that can be put to use in different ways in different circumstances. A prop does not have an intrinsic identity, even if it was made for particular circumstances. Props are not meant to stand out: they are useful inasmuch as they can combine with other props and scenery to form different backgrounds or sets, which are, in turn, part of a narrative or process. Props are never the real thing; even when an art director uses a real mug to stand in for a mug on a film set, for example, this mug has ceased to be used as a mug and instead is used as a prop: it has entered a world of artifice, where its identity is formed in relation to the movement of other elements of the artifice rather than its erstwhile history.
Why might an artist use props? To what problem might this be a solution? Of course props can be used unremarkably as part of a conventional product of display in one form or another. But what is of interest here is the idea of an artist engaging with the process of making props rather than the utility of props in relation to a conventional artistic product. In this case, what is important is that props are knowingly artificial and that they are things not to be looked at in their own right. Trompe L’oeil was the lowest of the genres because it destabilised the position of the spectator: there wasn’t a correct place from which to look at a trompe l’oeil painting precisely because you didn’t know what you were meant to be looking at or even that you were meant to be looking.7 A picture of a pin-board, for example, would be hung in a house, in a place where you might expect to find a pin-board, rather than in a place where you’d expect a picture to be. The idea was to trick the spectator; or, rather, the spectator, as opposed to the individual, only came into being as a result of being tricked. We might expect such a spectator to be a little paranoid: to move about; investigate; look with anticipation; touch or even pick up the painting. In other words, trompe l’oeil made looking itself uncertain. Given the specific situation at the time, what we might call the artistic conjuncture, trompe l’oeil displaced painting from the conventions of art: quite literally from its proper place. Trompe l’oeil was comedy. Within our own artistic conjuncture, props might have a similar potential. Props connect with trompe l’oeil in their irreverence for particularity and focus on activity and process rather than fixed results.
Props are unlikely candidates for artworks precisely in that they can only be props in relation to other things: a prop is intrinsically not itself. It is in this light that we might think of Sonia Shiel’s work in terms of props. It is not that she has any kind of attachment to props per se (which is a word I have applied to what she does and not a word she uses herself); rather, what is of interest is that props combine artifice with being part of a process. In the work Miles and Miles, for example, she combines what she calls innumerable sections of “painted-on” road, which neatly expresses how the ‘road’ is merely a fragile surface that emerges out of a combination of pieces. These are things to be used and reused as part of a process rather than to be arrested and fixed. And it is in the uncertainty of this movement that the comedic dimension arises. Thus, her work not only deals in places where the Law and stability are in doubt, which is to say places in the process of being transformed in one way or another; her work also enacts a kind of instability, where her props are always liable to reform or move on. Unlike trompe l’oeil, she does not create illusions; rather, the processes she uses open up a comedic dimension of uncertainty. This is to refuse the comfort of familiar choices. Uncertainty, not knowing what is going to happen next, is of the essence of good comedy and of an art which is not at home.
At the end of the film ‘Some Like It Hot,’ Daphne (Jack Lemmon in drag) is coming up with all sorts of reasons why Osgood Fielding, an old millionaire who has taken a fancy to Daphne, should not marry her. Finally Daphne gives up the pretence of being a woman, pulls off his wig and declares, in his normal voice, ‘I’m a man.’ To which Osgood replies “Well - Nobody’s perfect.” We should read this final refusal to submit to reason not as a sign of delusion but rather as a principled refusal to let things return to normal. This is to remain faithful to the transformatory potential of love, to the exceptional, in the face of all the reasons why one should be sensible and realistic. It is to resist the cynicism of the conventional. It is to persist. It is this connection between comedy, refusal and persistence that should interest us as artists. Good comedy is intricately tied up with being faithful to the belief that something else is possible.
1 There is no space here for a proper foray into the complexities of lacanian thought. For an entertaining introduction see Slavoj Zizek, How to Read Lacan, Granta, London, 2006
2 Art & Language, ‘Abstract Expression,’ reproduced in Modernism, Criticism, Realism, Charles Harrison and Fred Orton (Ed.s), Harper and Row, London, 1984
3 Slavoj Zizek, ‘Revolution Must Strike Twice,’ London Review of Books, Vol.24 No.14, July 2002, pp. 13-15
4 Overidentification crops up frequently in Zizek. See, for example, Slavoj Zizek, The Metastases of Enjoyment, Verso, London, 1994/2005, pp. 71-72
5 See Inke Arns and Sylvia Sasse, ‘Subversive Affirmation. On Mimesis as Strategy of Resistance,’ available here: http://www.projects.v2.nl/~arns/Texts/Media/Arns-Sasse-EAM-final.pdf
6 Alenka Zupancic, ‘The ‘Concrete Universal,’ and What Comedy Can Tell Us About It,’ in Lacan: The Silent Partners, Slavoj Zizek (Ed.), Verso, London, 2006
7 For more on Trompe L’oeil, see my ‘Gotcha: Why Trompe L’oeil Painting Is Better Than Sliced Bread,’ in everything 3.3, 2000 it is availabl at
A Resolute Vulnerability, By Chris Fite Wassilak 2010 From 'Sonia Shiel' Published by RHA
The painter kneels between the woman’s open legs, delicately applying a brush. The original painting, Pierre Subleyras’ The Pack-Saddle (1735) is an illustration of the rather more tame poem by 17th century fabulist Jean de La Fontaine, which tells of an artist who, when away from home, would paint the image of a donkey on his wife’s navel. Rubbed off in the heat of the moment, Subleyras depicts the adulterer, a rival painter, as he is attempting to cover his tracks; but in a moment of forgetfulness—or professional pique—the lover adds a saddle as a flourish to the image and gives away the game. Sonia Shiel’s version of the very same moment in The Studio (2008) is somewhat different: the woman curls into herself with downcast eyes, in apparent bashful pleasure; the illicit lover, in the original wearing a simple cloth cap, here dons a formal white wig; but perhaps most noticeably, his paintbrush is pointed distinctly lower. Shiel’s interpretation of Subleyras was not based on the tales of La Fontaine, but more on her own beliefs in the transformative properties and powers of the artist: here recasting the scene to reflect her indignant impression that the painter was attempting to perfect her, using paint to make her more beautiful.
Shiel works across a range of medium, from her figurative paintings that detail contradictory settings and landscapes, to her handmade animations, or her deceptively ramshackle sculptures which belie their own constitution. But she is a multimedia artist for whom the act of painting is a central methodology and metaphor. It is the paradoxical embodiment of her art; a layered process which reveals itself through time, while simultaneously maintaining a resolute façade; an art which reaches back centuries that can carry within it the ideals and aspirations of its past while being put to new uses; it is the corporeal means of building a seductive fiction.
Visually, her work carries a rather idiosyncratic lineage, drawing, as above, on the rococo flourishes of Subleyras and Jean-Honoré Fragonard. In the deserted monuments and empty piazzas of her more recent paintings like Maybe I am paranormal (2009), we can find the Surrealist architectural landscapes of Giorgio De Chirico, while all around we are also confronted with the unruly, erratic and seething
thick-lined brushstrokes of late Philip Guston. But in the way she evokes and assembles these visions there is a self-conscious play of aspiration and failure; classical architecture and painting subjects provide the backdrop for contemporary contradictions and distinctly modern observations that temper their apparent lofty ambitions. The solitary campanile of Do you think anyone will come? (2009) sits on its own in an intimidating wilderness, the statue atop looking down onto the pile of trash accumulating beneath it. The wildlife portrait of a small branch of four cardinals is disrupted only by one of the birds who bears a large, white ‘S’ on his breast. Surely he must be joking, to claim as he does in the title, I am Superman (2009). Each painting presents a situation that slowly begins to fold in on itself with anachronistic details and impossibilities, an inherent ambiguity that is also readily evident in her sculptures and installations. The bulbs on the towering board that that spell out My name in lights (2009) are made of cardboard and packing tape; they might succeed in spelling the words that convey a yearning grandiosity, but by the very nature of its make-up we can see its professed aim will never happen. At the centre of her exhibition at the RHA, To the Middle (2009) reached up towards an ersatz night sky made of punctured black paper. An old-fashioned style lift constructed out of cardboard sat expectantly, unable to go up or down, while trailing around it was a set of increasingly flimsy steps. Each step of this stairway to heaven was made of cardboard and planed timber (both painted a darker brown and given large, exaggerated knots to appear like ‘real’ fake wood), as they wound their way around and onto the elevator to reach the doubtful reward of their two-dimensional paper goal.
Shiel’s work could be seen to be, on its sleeve, ‘romantic’ (in the common current use of the word), in its constant dream-gazing and regard for classical forms of beauty. More accurately, even, her stance corresponds to the vision of the artist passed down from the early, original Romantic movement, with its “dream of romanticising, re-enchanting, re-mythologizing the world.” At the heart of the Romantics was a mixture of a nostalgic awe for beauty, particularly the sublime of nature, and a cult of the individual, a potent mix in that time that expressed what has best been described as the “daring expansiveness and…desolating vulnerability of the late eighteenth-century imagination.” Shiel seeks to re-enact this bold imagination, but with a self-critical yearning, a stance that recalls the ambivalent tensions of Bas Jan Ader and the romantic conceptualist artists of the 60s and 70s, who took up a reified Romanticism, consciously performing the self-as-artist, tinged with a melancholic hopefulness.
But, crucially, Shiel is all too aware that the romanticizations of the 1790s and 1960s were journeys caught in the impossible attempt to emerge into the past. Her own performative nostalgia, in again taking up the Romantic stance, is for the role of art itself; not only is the idealism of those past eras impossible in this day and age, John Keats’ ‘thing of beauty’ cannot maintain its ‘joy for ever’ under contemporary strains. Shiel, in response, turns her self-performance of self-as-artist to, more specifically, artist-as-painter, occupying the role of the painter as the classical creator of beauty. Within that role, Shiel uses the opaque substance of paint to create artworks that draw from an idealised past, whether visually or conceptually, but are stopped just short in their emergence as aesthetic objects. Instead, she catches them precariously on the precipice struggling between disillusioned dreams and constantly renewed definitions of beauty. Not so much painting a rosy picture of the world as deliberately looking at it through rotting rose-tinted glasses: hers is a self-aware idealism, consistently undercut, a wide-eyed wonder that can’t help but watch itself fail. In this paradoxical emergence Shiel persistently questions what is demanded of and seen in art, to acknowledge—to paraphrase Keats—that its loveliness might not increase, but its relevance will not diminish.
Sven Lutticken, “The Rebel As Consumer,” in Texte zur Kunst no. 65 (March 2007), p. 135.
Marilyn Butler, Romantics, Rebels, and Reactionaries, Oxford University Press, 1981, page 24.
The term ‘romantic conceptualism’ has come into use following Jörg Heiser’s article ‘Emotional Rescue’ in Frieze no. 71 (November- December 2002), and his subsequent exhibition, entitled ‘Romantic Conceptualism’ which included Ader, Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono, Susan Hiller and Lygia Clark among others.
John Keats, “A Thing of Beauty is a Joy for Ever” (1818): “A thing of beauty is a joy forever:/ Its loveliness increases; it will never/ Pass into nothingness”
Handmade, by Patrick T. Murphy, 2008.
The work of Sonia Shiel is not easily categorized spanning as it does painting, video and installation. This diversity of approach is a valid strategy in today’s world were the access to electronic technologies is as readily available to the individual artist as a tube of paint. What pulls them together within Shiel’s work is her emphasis on process, on play. Everything is moving, careening with curiosity, skill and humour to uncover the banal and the epic.This body of new work sees Shiel make use of everyday materials to build literal fabrications of ‘lofty’ notions. Her shambolic constructions simultaneously rouse and abandon ideas of ceremony, pomp and ego. They merge video, sculpture and paintings to expose subjects associated with the world’s make-up and by revealing their own, assume the subject of creativity itself. Her paintings though figurative are just about so, always tethering on the cusp of dissolution into abstraction, or alternately, always stopping short of distinctive image. Her surfaces are fluid, cascading into form, thinning into stain, their dynamic swirls insisting on the performative act of their creation. To look at a Sonia Shiel painting is to partner the artist in its making. Her coloration is off beat, a mix of lush and industrial. Though candy coloured they can be, they are never sweet. There is a dispute in these works, a struggle between the biddable and the obstinate. The painted ground threatens to devour the image, the image seems oblivious to its fragility, absorbed as it is by the touch and nuance of some very tasty brush work.
The vulnerable aspiration of art making, the processes employed to edge closer to something to say, something worth saying, are directly alluded to in Shiel’s work. Whereas the maelstrom of paint captures in stop-action the artist’s elusive goals, her video work directly cites the need for experiment to secure discovery. In “ Two beads and a bicycle pump’, 2006, we are introduced to the goofiness of the studio. One is reminded of Bruce Nauman’s and Robert Wegman’s early experiments with the then newly available video technology in the early seventies. It was work that gave insight into the artistic process and the necessity of playfulness to its ability to reveal. This was further emphasized in Fischli and Weiss’s, The way things go, 1987, a master work celebrating the profundity of play - this video coming amid the ponderous and oft time pretentious political work of that decade. Shiel also mixes the high and the low in her videos combining low production values with high intelligence. This is an artist who eschews the paraphernalia of technological accessories opting for the domestic video camera and her skill of putting the simple in front of it to great effect. In Titanic, 2007, the archetypal crusieliner is drawn on the hand, the waltz Song D'Autome provides the soundtrack. The animation is the movement of the hand, the crunch of the fist the punchline for the tragedy. In Shoot Out, 2007, the humour of shooting the stars instead of the shooting star is devilishly clever, the effect created using an array of flashlights.
Shiel is not content with her work being exclusively confined to the two dimensional, either still or moving. She wishes to extend her range into real space. Much of the strategy she deploys to attain such ground is more assemblage than sculpture. She utilises existing objects (often found on site) and implicates existing architectural features to amplify her paintings and videos.
Sonia Shiel enagages with the fairytale and the epic. But unlike say Karen Kilimnick who espouses a naive pre-pubescent view of romantic narratives, Shiel is more Angela Carter, for her the darker side of our psyche seeps out through the fabric of the tale. There is everything light about Shiel’s work and simultaneously everything dark, there is creative play and destructive desolution, there is the flighting image and its residual meaning, there is a fullness.
Sonia Shiel: The Brief Tremendous by Chris Clarke, 2008.
"Man feels an active power within himself, the whole of nature lies before him as a potential element for him to form and shape, and he cannot help but regard her in the first instance solely as material for his purposes. Thus in the very beginning he can hardly recognise any other object of aspiration and imagination than man himself and his manifold states and conditions, and indeed he feels compelled by the vivid force of phantasy to ascribe a human individuality even to lifeless things, and further to divine things as well."
Carl Gustav Carus, Nine Letters on Landscape Painting (1831)
In Nine Letters on Landscape Painting, the German Romantic (and friend of Caspar David Friedrich) Carl Gustav Carus espouses an active relationship to nature, through art, in which the painted landscape serves as a reflection of both human and Godly creation. The painting and painter are microcosms of an infinite and incomprehensible whole, the work of art testifying to, in Carus' words, "the inner affinity between man and the world spirit." It's a view that has changed somewhat since; from vaguely mystical, yet essentially non-doctrinal, strands of environmentalism, to despoliation in the name of progress and pragmatism. The inner affinity is often weighted to one side over the other.
The Dublin-based artist Sonia Shiel is neither precisely a Romantic nor a crude realist. In her latest exhibition, there's a trade-off between beauty and industry, where nature is remade through its cast-offs and cuttings. In Trappings, a single tree branch has sprouted and stretched from the base of a glass display case to breach the opposite corner. Fragments of ornamental plastic birds are scattered on top, nest-like, as if disturbed by the sudden rupture of the vitrine. The confinement of nature within the fixed parameters of the picture frame cannot help but eventually buckle and break its bonds. There is a tension between the man-made and the natural in Shiel's practice that is epitomised here, in the sculptural works that resemble outgrowths and protrusions from gallery walls, and in the paintings of idyllic landscapes blighted by tunnels and pipelines.
The respective mediums often overlap; pieces of card are tacked onto (and hanging off of) canvas surfaces, while Beastly Acts II, a painting of a woman clinging to a tightrope, is itself suspended between two vertical bars fixed from the ceiling. The image is replicated in its presentation; the rods connecting the canvas to the support are perfectly aligned with the painted rope. This merging of artistic disciplines or mediums is indicative of Shiel's syncretic reconciliation of sublime, primeval nature with mundane, everyday practices. A small appliance of fibre-optics and copper, plugged directly into the gallery foyer wall (as if left to charge during the working day) is titled Sample of Holiness. A circular racing track of spilled concrete and frayed, battered cardboard appears to have been either scrapped together in minutes or eroded out of solid rock. Nocturne depicts a playing card and a nighttime image of a mountain range, over-painted with thick swathes of blue that drip down the canvas, obscuring and delineating the peaks and troughs of the landscape before sliding off the surface. In the suites of landscape and architectural paintings, one also finds something of an updated, open-eyed Romantic sensibility. Instead of Friedrich's immaculately rendered ruins of abbeys and monasteries overgrown by flora, Shiel squeezes paint directly from the tube, scraping and smudging it into trees and rivers, cement bunkers, steel vats. It is a view from ahead, from another planet even (the paintings bear names of Mars, Venus, and Jupiter, neatly referencing both future exploration and classical history), in which these contemporary eyesores become the monuments to ancient eras and ideals.
There is an acknowledgement of relentlessness in these works, of the passage of time's uncaring obliteration of human endeavor, of all art and architecture. Here, one sees Shiel's application of found materials in a new light, as the fractured, scattered remains of mankind's futile attempts to form and shape nature.
Sonia Shiel – ‘Babel’s Biting the Moon’ by Charlotte Bonham-Carter. 2007.
FOUR at Roscommon Arts Centre.
It is not surprising that many of Sonia Shiel’s early works were inspired by genre paintings– a kind of painting popularized in the early 17th century, when artists began to represent everyday phenomena, such as peasants at market, or men drinking in taverns. The French master of genre painting, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, is clearly an important stylistic influence on the artist. However, Shiel has also keenly explored that saccharine sort of genre painting dubbed ‘chocolate box painting.’ Always executed on a small scale, presumably because of their original function of adorning Cadbury’s chocolate boxes, ‘chocolate box paintings’ are unwittingly banal. However, while Shiel experiments with the ‘chocolate box’ tradition, her renditions– imbued with a glossy texture of thickly applied paint– embrace the mundane with an ironic sense of grandiosity that elicits a variety of complex emotions from the viewer.
Shiel’s recent paintings have become increasingly ambiguous in form, occupying a space somewhere between figuration and abstraction. In the two paintings exhibited in ‘Babel’s Biting the Moon,’ Shiel adopts earthy, flesh coloured tones, while simultaneously employing her distinctive visceral sheen--– a sloppy sheath of smoothness over the canvas’s minutely textured surface. In each painting, a considered distribution of color results in a masterfully balanced composition. In Shiel’s work, it is difficult to discern background and foreground, or positive and negative space. As a result, hierarchies of shapes and signifiers dissolve, and Shiel’s often fanciful referents assume convincing ground. One painting in the exhibition depicts Little Red Riding Hood, the other, an abstracted wolf figure. The paintings were made during Shiel’s residency in Finland. During her stay, Shiel set up a collection point, asking local residents to donate objects. The painting depicting a wolf stems from the donation of a wolf’s skeleton. Just as the objects carry with them the personal histories and experiences of their owners, so too does each painting possess its own individual story. In her work, Shiel often grapples with fairytales and mythology. However, her interest extends beyond storytelling in popular culture, and her paintings frequently depict transgressive figures, such as beings that are part human, part beast, or part man, part woman.
Shiel’s exposition of phantasmagorical worlds, and their transformative capacities, is typical of her experiments with proportion. Both of the works on show at Roscommon Art Centre are executed on a small scale. Shiel is interested in making the mundane epic, and the epic mundane. It is no coincidence that Shiel should use one of the most epic names in the Bible, ‘Babel,’ in the title of the exhibition. Also typical, however, is her desire to undermine the epic, in this case by contextualizing ‘Babel’ in a phrase that connotes a children’s nursery rhyme. In 2007, Shiel made a video piece entitled, ‘Titanic.’ In characteristically low-tech production, the video records a hand that has been penned with the outline of a boat. As the hand moves, the boat rocks and sways, set to the melodramatic drone of a violin. Here, Shiel takes one of the world’s biggest luxury liners, greatest myths, and most extravagant Hollywood productions and literally shrinks it down to the size of her palm.
In Shiel’s juxtaposition of video and paintings at Roscommon Art Centre, it is difficult to tell whether the works co-exist as separate entities, or whether they are indeed intended to be understood as one installation. This uncertainty is an extrapolation of the sort of ambiguity that Shiel exhibits in the figurative forms of her paintings, again refusing easy categorization. Similar to her films and paintings, there is an edginess to the installation at Roscommon that is born of seemingly hastily fashioned constructions of raw, exposed materials. Dissected brown envelopes are made into a wood cabin, a white faux leather curtain is a substitute for a roof, and an upside down bucket becomes a lampshade. In these alchemic gestures, Shiel eludes to the kind of mythological, fantasy, and fairy tale worlds that have often featured in her work.
The video aspect of ‘Babel’s Biting the Moon’ is a purposefully clumsy portrayal of a constellation of stars in a night sky. The stars in the sky are actually dangling flashlights, and every now and then, one of them falls (or is shot down). Shiel’s utilization of low-tech materials is not unlike the Croatian artist, David Maljkovic, whose video, ‘Scene for a New Heritage II’(2004/6) depicts a ‘futuristic’ car encased in tin foil. The video is watched by the viewer from within a ramshackle wooden tunnel that appears to have been built with just a hammer and nails. In this way, both Maljkovic and Shiel use an architectural structure to facilitate an actual and imagined entrance into the video work and- in Shiel’s case- the paintings as well. As the viewer enters the exhibition at Roscommon, his experience is commandeered by a number of framing devices. The first frame is dictated by the white curtain that drapes over the shack. A glimpse of a dark sky and a constellation of stars is all that is visible. As the viewer moves forward, he takes in the painting of Little Red Riding Hood, and a fuller vista of the starry sky. Shiel’s staggered visual revelations enable the visitor to imagine his own entrance into the installation’s pictorial frame.
A sudden awareness of one’s own size within the installation is brought on by the coziness of the entranceway, and the small scale of the paintings. This feeling of awkwardness is immediately compounded by the video projection’s chilling soundtrack. Alternatively read as optimistic, or completely apocalyptic, the video’s simple flash light portrayal of a night sky is loaded with cultural references, from Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ to the cries for help that are made in Morse code, by people in distress. Shiel’s movement towards the juxtaposition of film and paintings is an important progression for an artist who has long considered the function of narrative in her work. Shiel’s execution of narrative with makeshift materials and haphazard constructions belies a complex understanding of craft and the act of making. It is this adeptness with craft that sets Shiel apart from the plethora of artists working today who are increasingly distanced from the tangibility of their practice. Just as Shiel draws upon the maelstrom of folklore and pop culture that defines our society, so too does she find ingenious ways of utilizing the physical world around her, while confounding a facile understanding of what we see, and even who we are.