Monday, 15 December 2014

Gretta's Gabriel, Gabriel's Gretta

Now perched on the Manchester / Salford (UK) border, ‘International 3’ gallery is currently home to Maeve Rendle’s two-screen installation piece ‘Gretta’s Gabriel, Gabriel’s Gretta’.

Gretta and Gabriel are a husband and wife couple Rendle has lifted from James Joyce’s short story ‘The Dead’; a story in which an Xmas get together terminates in Gretta’s attention drifting from her husband’s advances due to the distant warblings of a male tenor’s interpretation of the old Irish song ‘The Lass Of Aughrim’. 

With this starting point in mind Rendle has filmed tenor Michael Jones in the act of learning how to perform the song.

Far too often the formal construction of the component bits and pieces of an exhibition ape the spacing and space of a clothes shop or apple boutique without any attempt to take on board the centrality of this formal architecture to the substance of an ‘art’ show. Rendle’s displays foreground this aspect of staging, often in an idiosyncratic combination of the pragmatic and the anthropomorphic. ‘Gretta’s Gabriel, Gabriel’s Gretta’ is no different.

Two Sony playback cubes of different sizes show DVDs of Jones getting to grips with ‘The Lass Of Aughrim’, their plinths are different heights and a slightly diagonal spacing has the backs of the devices facing each other so the looped DVDs can’t be seen at the same time. Viewers circle the piece and alternate the visual playback experienced. Not that there’s much to actually see, a left shoulder and the cheek and chin of a turned head listening to headphones. One head seems to be gauging the tuning shifts by tentatively whistling along to the song being played back, the other singing in unison to the presumed playback of the song.

But there is a degree of trust on the audiences part; the tenor may indeed not be hearing or singing anything, soundtracks are as easily applied to electronic images as they are to the imaginatively remembered.

The indulgent and maudlin implications of using an old Irish song never takes hold over the piece. The unpicking of the insular mechanics of language, a straining towards articulation by the singer, retains the feeling of a performative distance from emotional sincerity but insinuates a keening aspiration to learn by rote how to actually engage with emotional demands. 

Joyce has always seemed smart, cold and aloof but drawn to and drawing from the intimate and particular. Distance and ill communication in one migraine inducing package with a healthy dollop of sentimentality (knowingly mangled along with the English language).

Joyce’s ironic detachment from his own biography allowed him to deal with the intimate at several removes, a myth-making process which helps the minutia of the everyday in his books resonate with an additional significance, and helped him to make the provincial feel universal. At odds with this is a certain literariness which both hides expressive intent and allows its articulation. 

Rendle’s installation echoes these onion layers of complexity by transcribing them into spatial intimations of intimacy and distance, closeness and rejection, engagement and performative indifference and yet still retains a human warmth to the whole gameplay.