Mermaid Arts Centre, 21st Aug – 17th Oct – 2010

‘Thinking Heads rather than Talking Heads’ (Katherine Waugh and Fergus Daly’s ‘The Art of Time’)

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French Philosopher Sylvere Lotringer in Katherine Waugh and Fergus Daly’s ‘The Art of Time’, (Film Still), 2010; courtesy of Katherine Waugh and Fergus Daly.

‘When the philosopher announces a discourse on Time, we can expect the worst.’ [1]

Jean‐François Lyotard

What is your intention? is an aggressive question, which usually dumbfounds the recipient? We all want to answer with a short fluid quip, a delivery that shows that we are confident in our view of ourselves and the exterior world’s view of us. Katherine Waugh’s introduction to the screening of ‘The Art of Time’ at the Mermaid Arts Centre was revelatory in this respect. It revealed an “intention” to confront Time, that was grounded in philosophy, and which umbrellaed multidisciplinary art practices in contemporary culture. To confront Time head-on, as Waugh and her collaborator, Fergus Daly have successfully done in this documentary-film, is an achievement that cannot be measured, like the subject that they are chasing in the film. Waugh reflected on this ‘chase’ when she spoke of jet-setting artists being hard to catch – flying from LA – New York – Berlin. When caught, the artists self-reflect in their studios and living rooms about time, and the art-mode of slowing time in their practices. They seem to all at once encompass a contradiction of imagining a world in slow motion, but living a life that compresses time and space geographically and experientially. These artist are ‘urbanites’ who have either left their homeland for the art centres of the world, or are in-between places and time in order to display their work in a space that Vito Acconci says in the film, ‘has no windows’––the art gallery. Paul Virilio, with his usual lyricism, and a degree of panic added-on, gives us a “First light” view of this new world:

‘In the 18th century the by now rather shady population of Paris mushroomed and the capital became known as the New Babylon. The brightness of its lighting signaled not just a desire for security, but also individual and institutional economic prosperity, as well as the fact that ‘brilliance is all the rage’ among the new elites – bankers, gentlemen farmers and the nouveaux riches of dubious origins and careers. Whence the taste for garish lights which no lampshade could soften. On the contrary, they were amplified by the play of mirrors multiplying them to infinity. Mirrors turned into dazzling reflectors. A giorno lighting now spilled out of the buildings where it once helped turn reality into illusion — theatres, palaces, luxury hotels, princely gardens. Artificial light was in itself a spectacle soon to be made available to all, and street lighting, the democratisation of lighting, is designed to trick everyone’s eyes. There is everything from old-fashioned fireworks to the light shows of the engineer Philippe Lebon, the inventor of the gaslight who, in the middle of a social revolution, opened the Seignelay Hotel to the public so they might appreciate the value of his discovery. The streets were packed at night with people gazing upon the works of lighting engineers and pyrotechnists known collectively as impressionists’.[2]

Virilio goes on to brutally tear a hole is his description of time-past by concluding: ‘But this constant straining after “more light” was already leading to a sort of precocious disability, a blindness; the eye literally popped out of its socket’.[3] Virilio, with intentional sloth, leads us with meandering prose to abruptly wrench it away with force and speed. The slow sojourn through 18th Century Paris hits a ‘Stop’ sign! In the past we had time to ruminate, while today a sentence, a text, a word, is a stealthy substitute for the Epic.

The Brothers Quay, in Katherine Waugh and Fergus Daly’s ‘The Art of Time’, (Film Still), 2010; courtesy of Katherine Waugh and Fergus Daly.

‘The Art of Time’ is primarily situated in the city, except in the opening passages where Venice is presented as a geographic and temporal counterpoint – a nostalgic turn of the ‘hypermodernic’ page, a time when the passage was not so fast.[4] The film’s subjects are Time and Space, and how both are being lost, imagined, spread, leveled,  or reimagined by the multidisciplinary arts. I say ‘multidisciplinary’ with some trepidation, as the term ‘temporality’, which is the ‘lynchpin’ of philosophical discourse and contemporary art and cinema, is primarily being dealt with by the moving image rather than the traditional art object per se. ‘The Art of Time’, inadvertently asks questions about the cause and effect, or lack thereof, of contemporary art on history and time, and the philosophical discourse that continues to have a growing influence on arts formal exercises in space and time, and vice versa. If we take Martin Heidegger’s view that ‘Whenever [great] art happens—that is, when there is a beginning—a push enters history, and history either starts up or starts again’; from this ontological perspective, ‘history’ and ‘time’ are ‘grounded’ and generated by art and philosophy.[5] Today’s perception of time and space is managed by technology. The film’s pessimistic note is that technological innovation is disseminating time, space and information with ever-increasing speed. Philosopher Sylvere Lotringer’s most enduring comment in the film is ‘There is no space for Time’. The philosopher makes a convincing figure in the film, presumedly sitting  in the Ivy League College where he teaches, while Waugh and Daly juxtapose his confident reasoning against the back drop of a dizzying film montage of Time Square, New York. Speed and technology is Virilio’s thesis and his theories are becoming more salient year by year. However, half a century earlier Heidegger was posing a few questions himself on technology and time:

‘We ask the question concerning technology when we ask what it is. Everyone knows the two statements that answer our question. One says: Technology is a means to an end. The other says: Technology’ is a human activity. The two definitions of technology belong together. For to posit ends and procure and utilize the means to them is a human activity. The manufacture and utilisation of equipment, tools, and machines, the manufactured and used things themselves, and the needs and ends that they serve, all belong to what technology is. The whole complex of these contrivances is technology. Technology itself is a contrivance—in Latin, aninstrumentum’.[6]

Heidigger’s text, ‘The Question Concerning Technology’, is fitting in the context of ‘The Art of Time’. The german philosopher’s use of the idiom, ‘A means to an end’, is pivotal to our relationship with technology. ‘A means to and end’ proposes that the process of technology is neither enjoyed nor experienced, but denied as ‘ A means’, in order to have what Heidigger calls a causal effect, which is not known or understood yet in the present. In ‘The Art of Time’, art, theatre, cinema, animation, act as moderators of speed, or more appropriately, fabricators of a technological deceleration. Heidigger goes on to write:

‘Everything depends on our manipulating technology in the proper manner as a means. We will, as we say, “get” technology “spiritually in hand”. We will master it. The will to mastery becomes all the more urgent the more technology threatens to slip from human control’.[7]

Stan Douglas, ‘Overture’ 1986, David Zwirner Gallery, New York, Image here

Throughout the duration of the film there is a move by the philosophers and artists to try and place a tentative finger on the pulse of time through language and moving image. The philosophers John Rajchman and especially Sylvere Lotringer, come out on top in this sense, as clear and concise articulators of the cause and effect of technology on time. I can understand Waugh’s description of them as ‘pet-philosophers’ in her introduction to the screening. As I am not a philosopher, but an artist, I will first look at some of the artists that Waugh and Daly have chosen to represent temporality in contemporary culture.

Stan Douglas’s dialogue in ‘The Art of Time’ is more modernist than postmodernist, reiterating structuralist notions of the ‘Real’ that are more in keeping with Jacques Lacan than Gilles Deleuze. In saying that, Douglas represents the artist ‘caught in time’, reflecting back on past events in order to escape the ‘loop’ through re-representation in the present, a technique that Douglas has used since the 1980s. Speaking on his work ‘Overture’, Douglas explains:

‘”Overture” was dealing with this conflict of “mechanical time”, which is all about repetition. Machines are meant to do the same thing over and over again by spacialising a temporal process. As opposed to the more “organic time” of the subject, which is the person who comes into the gallery space, uses the images they see for a certain amount of time, and walks away when they are done with it’.[8]

This is a common theme in the film, artists using methods, such as looping and repetition, to secure time in some way or another. As the artist David Claerbout discloses, he wants to occupy the time of his audience as little as possible. This is especially ironic considering the durational aspect to his works, but can also be seen as a testament to the artists’ effort  to show that there is not enough time.  This is where art fails and succeeds all at once. Alone, art is a signifier of some kind of absence experienced by the individual making it––an obsessive exercise in method rather than functional production, the Brothers Quay are an example of this symptom in the film. Coupled with the viewer, art, especially the moving image, which is the preoccupation of ‘The Art of Time’, presents a series of events that are continually fighting against what is outside in the ‘real’ world. Virilio writes and the artist Laurie Anderson  (who was asked to be part of ‘The Art of Time’ but fell-through), comments on this phenomenon:

‘Thanks to work like that of W. R. Russell and Nathan (1946), scientists have become aware of the relationship of post-perceptual visual processes to time. The storage of mental images is never instantaneous; it has to do with the processing of perception. Yet it is precisely this storage process that is rejected today. The young American film-maker Laurie Anderson, among others, is able to declare herself a mere voyeur interested only in details; as for the rest, she says, ‘They use computers that are tragically unable to forget, like endless rubbish dumps’.[9]

Robert Wilson and Philip Glass, ‘Einstein on the beach’ 1976.

In the film, Robert Wilson represents another aspect of arts slowing down of time, that is literal to the extreme. But it is a mistake to see art as a de-literalisation of the world. In fact, it is easier to recognise art as a super-literalisation of the ‘object’ and the ‘subject’ in the real world. Wilson’s collaboration with the minimalist composer, Philip Glass, produced an opera titled ‘Einstein on the Beach’, 1976. Snippets from the 1976 original is shown at sporadic moments in the film. For me, this is the winner of the race to capture time as a tautological production, that had no narrative only an ‘Icon’ and a ‘Place’. It is chance that Einstein, and not Hitler or Charlie Chaplin took the role as the Icon in the title. The ‘beach’ in the title acts like a adjunct to a non-existing narrative, a deliberate absurdity. Anti-narrativity is presented in ‘The Art of Time’ as another strategy that destabelises linear time. In a way, it would be better if the viewer was ignorant of all these modus operandi, by revealing them, the audience realises the simplicity of arts’ operations in time and space. What  the artist really wants is a viewer that is linear, in order to manipulate and confuse, momentarily bullying them in and out of time and space.

Chantal Akerman, ‘The Art of Time’, (Film Still), 2010; courtesy Katherine Waugh and Fergus Daly.

Chantal Akerman is the ‘Ethical’ chapter of ‘The Art of Time’. As a Jewish artist and a second generation survivor of the Holocaust, she exhibits an openness that is part biography––part art. She in a way separates herself from philosophical discourse, but in another sense is connected with 20th century philosophy on a humanistic level; a relationship that is experienced rather than read. Lotringer at one point of the film questions if ‘we are human enough to be humanistic’, I have to say, Akerman presents a positive case that we are. Her film ‘From the East’ perpetuates a cyclic fiction of an event that could be in real time and space. People are lined up at a Moscow train station, dressed in clothes that could be from 1950’s Germany, or 1991 (when the Wall had recently fallen but the displacement was still happening from west to east). Akerman’s subtitle for the work shows her ‘intention’ to illustrate an ‘unsure’ presentation of history in all its factual and fictional slippages: ‘Bordering on Fiction; (D’est: Au bord de la fiction). Virilio describes this displacement in Time and space as “delocalisation”:

‘With confusion setting in between the real space of action and the virtual space of retroaction, all positioning is, in fact, beginning to find itself in an impasse, causing a crisis in all position forecasting. This “delocalisation” also leads to uncertainty about the place of effective action, so that pre- positioning becomes impossible, which then undermines the whole principle of forecasting. When WHERE loses its priority to WHEN and HOW, a doubt remains–not about the effective plausibility of “virtual reality” so much as about the nature of its location and thereby about the very possibility of controlling the virtual environment’.[10]

Chantal Akerman, From the East, 1995, Film Still from ‘The Art of Time’; courtesy Katherine Waugh and Fergus Daly

Without a comment to give at the end of the screening of Waugh and  Daly’s ‘The Art of Time’, I am left with one word – ‘beauty’. ‘Serious’ Contemporary Art doesn’t like this word, I am suspicious of it myself, it’s like the word sublime––it’s commercial, sincere and nostalgic. This is what is called Art with a capital A; the exterior force that keeps art in its place and doesn’t let it veer into the very arena that it reveals in bit-parts to the viewer, the fast-track capitalist world. Art is ‘FRAGILE’, a word that Vito Acconci uses in his disavowal of art in the film. I see Acconci’s view of art in ‘The Art of Time’ as comedic rather than damaging. In the film, he is the art jester to Lotringer’s sage. It is especially revealing when Acconci discloses his attitude to his own enduring mark on art, which was the part-authorship of the repositioning of the viewer and the art object in the gallery, events that had a pivotal role in the development of conceptualism and contemporary performance, but which he is cynical of now. Back to this word ‘beauty’, it can also mean a ruling of the heart over the head. With such philosophical intensity, which the film offered, maybe the mind shuts down for the heart to take over? A humanistic ideal, where feeling conquers intellectualism, where art is unspeakable, where life is not concerned with meaning––just being.

As I write in the first person, which seems appropriate after watching a film that was so generous in how it revealed art and philosophical perspectives on time from individual viewpoints, sometimes in the first person (the artists), and other times with objective distance (the philosophers), Waugh and Daly’s sensitive edit offered the audience a layering of perspectives and a desire to see more. These differing viewpoints shared insights that could not be revealed wading through a cryptic philosophical text. Just like Wilson and Glass’s ‘Einstein on the Beach’, the opera would sound or appear self indulgent if one of them was missing in the work. It is with such polar views, articulations and formal expressions that sets-up questions rather than a dialectical conclusion; Waugh and Daly’s intention from the beginning. I would like to conclude where the philosopher John Rajchman (one of the interviewees in ‘The Art of Time’) begins in his article ‘Thinking in Contemporary Art’, who writes:

‘I’d like to start from the principle that there is no art – and in particular, no ‘contemporary art’ – without a search for new ideas of art, of what it is and of its particular relations with thinking itself. For what is new is in fact not what is in fashion, but what we can’t yet conceive, can’t yet see, or have the sure means to judge’.[11]

Vito Acconci, Film Still from ‘The Art of Time’; courtesy Katherine Waugh and Fergus Daly.

Rajchman’s simple premise for a meeting between ‘thinking’ and ‘art’ is succinct perfection. His use of the word ‘fashion’ in the context of art is usually voiced by the begrudger. Indeed, it could be added that ‘fashionable’ trends in art could be the tell-tale sign that the art work is already stale, rather than fresh. ‘Fashion’ could also be a signifier for money and capital, and the involuntary disappearance of the trend before it is consumed, the last hurrah. It is apt that ‘The Art of Time’ begins in Venice where you can imagine Virilio’s ‘lanterns’ still lighting and ‘Art’ being a very different thing than its contemporary equivalent. Maybe Acconci’s position is correct, one that has evolved from being digested over and over in books and reappraisals. As he said himself, people were doing what I was doing in the gallery ten years earlier–in the streets. Maybe arts continual ‘distribution of the sensible’, digestion and reworking through discourse is its own undoing. Or, this is our ‘intention’, and art should be undid before it gets ahead of itself, and is left to its own devices in the big bad capitalist world, its chief and consort.

In ‘The Art of Time’, Waugh and Daly have directed and produced a film that questions the “lynchpin” that holds the fabric of philosophy, art, music, the event, life and death together. This “Lynchpin” is Time, and what an exhilaratingly elusive thing it is!

James Merrigan is an artist

Works cited

[1]   Jean‐François Lyotard, ‘Emma’, in Misère de la philosophie, Paris: Galilée, 2000, 57‐95, p. 68.

[2]   Paul Virillo, The Vision Machine, Trans: Chris Turner, Verso books, New York, 2000,  p. 9.

[3]   Ibid., p. 10.

[4]   Paul Virilio: From Modernism to Hypermodernism and Beyond (Published in association with Theory, Culture & Society), Sage Publications Ltd; 1 edition (November 13, 2000).

[5]   Martin Heigegger,  Poetry, Language, Thought. A. Hofstadter, trans. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.

[6]   Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays, Harper Perennial, 1992.

[7]   Ibid.

[8]   Stan Douglas, from ‘The Art of Time’, film by Fergus Daly and Katherine Waugh, 2010.

[9]   Paul Virillo, The Vision Machine, op.cit. p 11.

[10]   Paul Virilio, ‘The Art of the Motor’, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995, pp. 133-156.

[11]   John Rajchman, Thinking in Contemporary Art, For Art Journal, The Institute for research within International Contemporary Art, Date ?


Written by James Merrigan

October 14, 2010 at 5:32 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The ‘Truth’ followed by the ‘Lie’ (Unbuilding Conversation with Tamsin Snow and Armelle Skatulski)

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Tamsin Snow, Rhizome, 2010, Wood, Perspex, water, 170cm x 150cm x 22cm, Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray, September, 2010. 3rd Unbuilding exhibition titled Inventaire des œuvres démembrées

‘An Outside, more distant than any exterior, is ‘twisted’, ‘folded’ and ‘doubled’ by an inside that is deeper than any interior , and alone creates the possibility of the derived relation between the interior and the exterior. It is even this twisting which defines ‘flesh’, beyond the body proper and its objects’.

Gilles Deleuze

In the brilliant analysis of Michel Foucault, simply titled Foucault, Deleuze doubles up on his subject’s theories, expanding and creating new philosophies; I would even go as far as bettering Foucault, or at least creating new pathways, invigorating Foucault’s structuralist mode of presentation with Deleuzian potentiality. This seems to be a common effect, when philosophers, rather than cultural theorists, present the work of their peers through, what I can only refer to as a ‘doubling’. Geoffrey Bennington’s ‘Doubling’ of Jacques Derrida is another case in point, where Bennington literally shares the pages of the book with Derrida, their thoughts overlapping to open up an exterior space, or what Deleuze calls a ‘Fold’.[2] ‘Doubling’ and ‘Folding’, in the context of Tamsin Snow’s installation for Unbuilding, and the subsequent public conversation with the artist and her collaborator, Armelle Skatulski, could be seen as oblique facets of the the two events.

Armelle Skatulski & Tamsin Snow, Inventaire: Objet 1 (The Dying Gladiator), 2010,  Giclée print, 14.8 x 21 cm

First up–the Installation, titled Inventaire des œuvres démembrées, which materially combined perspex, mirror, water and a blue neon light, with photography. A fixation on a classical statue – The Dying Gladiator, located in the Gardens of Killruddery House (where Snow undertook a two-month residency as part of the Unbuilding Project), became a series of mirrored, doubled and ‘fractured portraits’. In a bizarre event of Trompe-l’œil reversal, I had to test the water in the perspex pools to see if it was real or an optical trick. OK, this could be viewed as male narcissism, a fitting perspective considering the repeated image of the male figure throughout. The same phenomenon occurred to this viewer with the open-mirrored box with photographic portrait, when reflective surface was mistaken for chalk. Under the banner of the Baroque, Snow describes the work as examining ‘the language of museology and the fragmented narratives it presents – where historical realism meets fictionalisation and where the private collection retains an aura of mystery for historical investigation’.[3]

Tamsin Snow, Rhizome, 2010, Wood, Perspex, water, 170 cm x 150 cm x 22 cm, Mermaid Arts Centre, September, 2010.

The ‘Conversation’, which occurred in situ with the installation, disclosed some narratives, that by chance, ‘mirrored’ the fractal events that made up the whole of the installation. One story that outlined the disappearance of the Dying Gladiator statue was very apt, especially when it was discovered later that the statue was hollow at it centre. Someone from the audience was quick to point out that the statue was an original, but was moved periodically for filming; which Killruddery House benefits from now and then. Going back to Deleuze’s questioning of the ‘double’ and ‘fold’ in Foucault, he writes:

‘It is as if the relation of the outside, folded back to create a doubling, allow a relation to oneself to emerge, and constitute an inside which is hollowed out and develops it’s own unique dimension: ‘enkrateia’…This is the Greek version of the snag and the doubling: a differentiation that leads to a folding, a reflection’.[4]

What was most evident in Snow’s installation, is the artist’s reliance on the ‘Art Gallery’ or equivalent, for its reception. Once again, the work reflects on aspects of display and staging that already exist; an almost self-reflexive art object. The artist’s practice hints at the existence of the museum, but Snow’s work falls in between the antique cracks, illuminating with neon and incongruous plastics. This affect, is an 80’s relapse into kitsch; an artificial stage for some false consideration.

During the conversation, Snow was asked about the Unbuilding architecture and the display of her work within a predetermined fabricated space which she had no hand in. Snow’s usual practice of framing the work in self-fabricated environments had to be given up this time around; the architecture became a museum of sorts for the artist to display in; I assume a leap of fate for the artist? Whether serendipity or good planning, Snow’s work intentionally highlighted the ‘hollow’ nature of art display, which her own practice plays with, and put at the forefront, the Unbuilding architecture, which also functions as a false arena to the overly civically minded architecture of the art centre.

Bruce Nauman, Self Portrait as a Fountain, 1966–67, from Eleven Color Photographs, 1970. Chromogenic print, Image here

The questions that I am left with centre around history and the mimesis that follows in language and form. Should history be represented as fact in all its marble purity, or as the fiction/ fact that Snow articulates in her installations? Other artists, such as Richard Prince and Bruce Nauman, could be seen as meditators on the ‘fake’; the latter’s ‘Self-Portrait as a fountain’ single handedly evokes the path that Snow is taking. Could we term these artists as ‘Baroque’, the superficially flamboyant ‘Lie’ that followed Renaissance ‘Truth’? Or is ‘Truth’ really truth, or just a hollowed-out statue?

James Merrigan is an artist

Works cited

[1]   Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Trans. Sean Hand, Continuum books, 1999, p 91

[2]   Jacques Derrida, Geoffrey Bennington, University Of Chicago Press, June 15, 1999.

[3]   Inventaire des œuvres démembrées: Artist Statement here

[4]   Deleuze, op.cit., p 83

Written by James Merrigan

October 12, 2010 at 1:10 am

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The idea of distance – ‘Levinas Style’ (Francis Halsall in Conversation with Cliona Harmey)

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Unbuilding Conversation 4: Francis Halsall converses with Cliona Harmey about her exhibition titled ‘The idea of distance’, at the Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray, Thurs 16 Sept, 7pm, 2010.

‘What interests Levinas in the moment of Descartes’s argument is the human subject has an idea of infinity, and that this idea, by definition, is a thought that contains more than can be thought. As Levinas puts it, in what is almost a mantra in his published work, ‘In thinking infinity the I from the first thinks more than it thinks‘.[1]

Simon Critchley

Emmanuel Levinas’s seminal work from 1961 Totality and Infinity: An Excess of Exteriority came to mind after what had been said at the 4th Artist Conversation in the series of Unbuilding Conversations at the Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray. The clarity that the English Philosopher Simon Critchley brings to what he terms as the ‘opacity’ of Levinas’s language is helpful in traversing the gap between Levinas’s philosophy on what has been said, what happens when you are saying it (present-ness); and the ethical relationship with the person (the other) who you are conversing with; something that Levinas calls an ‘Excess of Exteriority’.

Francis Halsall (Academic lecturer from NCAD) and Cliona Harmey (Artist), had a back and forth conversation that tried to grasp ideas that were Levinasian and Bergosian in nature. Harmey’s exhibition titled The idea of distance immediately situates language – “The idea”, with a practical measurement –”distance”. In the exhibition statement, Cliodhna Shaffrey writes:

Harmey’s exhibition might read as a reflection on distance, and though vast spaces have been overcome through extraordinary engineering feats and communication technologies diminishing the proximity between points and elements – her work returns us to the ideas of open space and the possibilities of infinities.[2]

Confronting one of Harmey’s works in the space is unlike confronting a static art object (in time and space), to consider or experience. What the viewer gets is a disruption in time and space. The mind wanders to the destinations that are being fed live into the gallery from afar, discretely hidden in modified, black silhouette readymades. Shaffrey goes on to describe:

Sculptures perform as apparatuses incorporating small electronic devises and live data feeds of the schedule of the ships that arrive and depart from Dublin Bay Port during the course of the exhibition. Their names appearing on the dual black and white monitor – Ulysses, Bro Trader, Swift, Alexender – track an efficient system of sea traffic, that seems by comparison slow, almost static when viewed as real time within the exhibition experience, suggesting the notion of duration (the ever-going-onness).[3]

Cliona Harmey, ‘Hawaii 5010’, modified easel, LED, Arduino microcontroller, loupes, Part of Unbuilding at Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray, September, 2010. Image here

In a sense, Harmey forces us not to stay-put, but to be pulled in and out of space and time in a metaphysical sense. In the aesthetic there is also a leap in time, the leggy-black silhouettes that frame the hidden technology point in the direction of the past; a victorian sensibility when Empire meant travel and consumption of “oriental” shores. And as with all reflections on the past, nostalgia and technological obsolescence are beneath the surface of Harmey’s practice.

Halsall acted as the perfect conversation instigator and host to Harmey’s responses, and acknowledged his own part (as an academic with his own modern and art historical project) in the fabrication of history, that will always be part fiction and fact. The artist and academic found common ground during the growth of the conversation. Critchley via Levinas says:

‘This relation to the other is irreducible to comprehension, what he calls the ‘original relation’, takes place in the concrete situation of speech. Although Levinas’s choice of terminology suggests otherwise, the face-to-face relation with the other is not a relation of perception or vision, but always linguistic’.[4]

Unbuilding Conversation 4: Francis Halsall converses with Cliona Harmey about her exhibition titled ‘The idea of distance’, at the Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray, Thurs 16 Sept, 7pm, 2010.

There is a dichotomy here between Harmey’s art objects that compress distance and the infinite space that has to be compressed for explicit ideas to become implicit through conversation. The idea of being ‘too literal’ was the main topic of the conversation. This is where Levinasian Ethics  is important to the practice of conversation, which he defines as: ‘the putting into question of my spontaneity by the presence of the other’.[5] Critchley  diagnoses this as a compression of what is first thought, in order for the “first idea” to be understood by the other. In relation to the conversation around Harmey’s work, the idea of being “Too Literal” was fended off as being the job of the art historian, while for the artist, especially inherent to Harmey’s practice (although the artist is dealing with real time and events), there is a step away from language–the literal, to force a gap for the experiential. Instead of closing the infinite space that Levinas aspired to do, Harmey is trying to expand the gap so that the literal ‘illustration’ of real time lapses back into the unspeakable. The irony in this case is, there is a time-delay between what is being presented through the art object and what is said afterwards through conversation on said object.

As a reflective and humourous aside, Halsall described how technology has transformed his relation to the other by way of ‘Skyping’ his mother. He also mentioned how ‘Skyping’ was another compression of space and time. Maybe our fast technological progress is a levinasian project to bridge the gap with the other so that we consciously overlap. Harmey’s project does the opposite. If the artist’s work could be verbally ‘Skyped’, I assume the artist would like it to sound like the slowed-down, broken-up, sounding out of vowels and consonants. Levinas’s “style” it certainly is not, or is it?

James Merrigan is an artist

Comments: Francis Halsall: Thanks for posting this. I’ve also posted the link here http://acw.ie/comments.php?id=356_0_1_0_C where another conversation is taking place about systems and which might be of interest.

Unbuilding Conversation 4: Francis Halsall converses with Cliona Harmey about her exhibition titled ‘The idea of distance’, at the Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray, Thurs 16 Sept, 7pm, 2010.


[1]   Simon Critchley, The Cambridge Companion to Levinas, Eds. Simon Critchley and Robert Bernasconi, Cambridge University Press, 2002.

[2]  Cliodhna Shaffrey, Exhibition Statement; http://www.unbuildingproject.com/index.php?/ongoing/cliona-harmey/

[3]   Ibid.

[4]   Critchley, op.cit.,

[5]   Emmanuel Levinas, 1961. Totalité et Infini: essai sur l’extériorité. (Totality and Infinity: A Excess of Exteriority), Duquesne University Press, August 1969

Written by James Merrigan

October 5, 2010 at 11:10 am

Posted in Uncategorized

An Awkward Consortium: Performance Art, Theatre and Parody

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Dominic Thorpe, ‘SHOULD HAVE LET THAT MOTHER SEE HER DAUGHTER’, Part of Unbuilding and Mary Kelly’s Burial Project, Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray, September 28th, 2010. Image courtesy of Mary Kelly.

What does the artist want from the viewer and vice versa? As artists and consumers of art, there seems to be a disjoint between artist and viewer, between expectation and disappointment, between what the artist reveals in the work and what the viewer picks and takes away from the work. Is the artist and the viewer fooling themselves in a game of unsolvable charades? Here is a painted/ sculpted/ performed/ technological gesture for you–the viewer, now go off and make it into language, which will hopefully end up as sense. Inconclusiveness is what art wants to present, the question is what is the artist waiting for from an audience that cannot clap, shout “hooray”, or “Boo!”.

As part of Unbuilding, specifically Mary Kelly’s Burial project for Unbuilding at the Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray, Dominic Thorpe was asked to restage a previous performance newly titled ‘SHOULD HAVE LET THAT MOTHER SEE HER DAUGHTER’, (the original performance took place at Millstreet Gallery, Dublin, in 2009 and was titled  ‘SHOULD HAVE LET THAT GIRL SEE HER MOTHER’ ).[1] This was the fifth exhibition in a rotating series of eight exhibitions for the experimental visual arts project. Thorpe’s performance acted as a 3 hour disruption in the week long event that ‘invited the artists from Unbuilding to respond individually to the notion of burial’. Although all art events are temporary, the art objects that are produced for the events stay around for a while, cynically lingering in the artist’s studio, or optimistically finding a home in a museum or domestic setting. In the past, performance art willingly avoided the production of an art object. The “object” for the performer was the threshold between performance and viewer. The artist and writer Melanie Gilligan says this has changed:

‘The sphere of ostensibly traditional object-production now overflows with practices considered performative by dint of their execution or content; performance almost seems on the verge of achieving objecthood itself (judging by such recent indicators as a conference at London’s Showroom gallery dedicated to “the performance of new sculpture,” or, also in London, “Absent Without Leave,” an exhibition at Victoria Miro Gallery focused on “performance as a material”)’.[2]

Absent Without Leave, Installation view, February 2007, Victoria Miro Gallery, London. Image here

On Victoria Miro Gallery’s website,  you will find the Absent Without Leave statement, which makes Gilligan’s remark more concrete:

‘Conceptual and performance artist Vito Acconci has discussed how, at a certain point in his career in the early seventies, he decided to appear less in his work, so that his presence was more of an absence. Absent Without Leave borrows the spirit of Acconci’s decision and uses it to platform an investigation of the idea of the ‘absentee performer’ – an idea in which the ‘performer’ (the artist ) is relocated from a visible presence, to a presence which is recorded in the conceptual fabric of the art works themselves. The exhibition featured works in which: there is potential within an art object for action to happen, which may or may not necessarily occur; there is a live event without a performer; there is a physical trace of an event which in fact never occurred; or there is a possibility to read the environment as something staged, or as a set awaiting a narrative’.[3]

Dominic Thorpe, ‘SHOULD HAVE LET THAT MOTHER SEE HER DAUGHTER’, Part of Unbuilding and Mary Kelly’s Burial Project, Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray, September 28th, 2010. Image courtesy of Mary Kelly.

The “[stage] set awaiting a narrative” is a well worn ploy by artists, it has become a cliché or signifier for the loss of commitment to a narrative, which is inherent to contemporary art practice. The fear is that everything has been said and to say it again would have the effect of parody. This “waiting room” prop was initiated by literary events such as Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. In the context of theatre, performance art is the awkward bedfellow, the former gets the applause, while the latter is the dejected sibling. However, performance art seems comfortable in this position; it is energised by the silence and tension of the viewer.

Thorpe outlines the aspects of the performance ‘SHOULD HAVE LET THAT GIRL SEE HER MOTHER’ on his website:

Laying on a mattress underneath 900 ticking clock mechanisms

Writing the words ‘should have let that girl see her mother’

Pouring water from a silver bowl

Turning a fader increasing and decreasing the light

Whispering the words ‘should have let that girl see her mother’ [4]

When we take into account that this performance for Unbuilding was a restaged performance, Thorpe’s above outline of events becomes a “to do” list, rather than a ritual exercise on the present-tense. Gilligan also discusses the recent phenomenon in performance art of restaging or reappropriating performance from the past. Established  performative figures like Marina Abramovic and her Seven Easy Pieces is an example of this “theatrical” sojourn:

‘a series of performances that took place in 2005 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, where the artist restaged seven works epitomizing the transgressive ethos of the Conceptual era-among them, Vito Acconci’s Seedbed, 1972; Valie Export’s Action Pants: Genital Panic, 1969; and Bruce Nauman’s Body Pressure, 1974’. [5]

Dominic Thorpe, ‘SHOULD HAVE LET THAT MOTHER SEE HER DAUGHTER’, Part of Unbuilding and Mary Kelly’s Burial Project, Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray, September 28th, 2010. Image courtesy of Mary Kelly.

In the context of Kelly’s Burial, where art objects become funerary reliquaries or shrines for the chosen theme, is Thorpe’s reenactment a reliquary also? Does the nature of performance art, where the artist depends on the present rather than reflecting on the past, require a one-off show? Does performance art become theatre or even a parody of itself in the repeat showing? Kevin Atherton’s In Two Minds – Past Version (1978/ 2006) is a  reenactment of sorts. The original work from 1978 had the 27 year old Atherton on one video monitor asking questions of his self on the other monitor. At the time, this work was more about the art object reflecting back on itself, art was more important to the artist than life. 28 years later Atherton restaged the work, but with a twist. This time around the artist would ask questions of his younger self as a 55 year old man. This affirms not only a formal twist in the reenactment, but a rejection of the 1970’s Conceptual Art tenet of the ruling art object; life in this sequel trumps the art object. But Atherton’s proposed trilogy of the work, where he would forecast himself as an older man in make-up, is a parody of a parody of a parody (as he would say himself). Atherton’s practice easily avoids a performative critique because the work is already a dual critique of itself and performance.

Kevin Atherton, In Two Minds – Past Version (2006). Edinburgh, 2008. Image here

From a formal stance, on entering the architectural insert that has framed all the exhibitions of the Unbuilding project so far, Thorpe’s performance fits nicely with the description of the Unbuilding space by one viewer, who described the experience of walking up into the Mermaid Arts Centre’s new architectural addition as disrupting the “installation of an attic”. The filmic function of the attic is one where bad things happen, where memories in nostalgic objects reside, where things go bump in the night. As Thorpe lies flat on a brown sheeted bed, under 900 ticking clocks, and gesturing with only his arms – the rest of his body limp, and clothed in a banal grey t-shirt and trousers, the viewer is left with a framed image that is no different from the TV image. This is what perturbed one viewer, who hurried from the space after a quick glance. For this fleeting viewer, the still image was enough to create a memory-a memory of some uncanny episode, dreamt in bed or remembered from TV; framed and still. For this viewer, Thorpe’s controlled gestures (writing words with charcoal, pouring water in a metal bucket), beneath the hive of insect-like ticking clocks, was inconsequential, his/ her mind was already made-up with a glance.

Dominic Thorpe, ‘SHOULD HAVE LET THAT MOTHER SEE HER DAUGHTER’, Part of Unbuilding and Mary Kelly’s Burial Project, Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray, September 28th, 2010. Image courtesy of Mary Kelly.

For others, awkward or not, who stayed on for a longer duration, Thorpe’s performance achieved what Gilligan describes as performance “objecthood”, and what all performance artists’ aspire to grasp, the liminal space between performer and viewer. From a theorethical stance the ticking clocks invoke what Slavoj Žižek describes as the ‘Ridiculous Sublime’:

“there is nothing intrinsically sublime in a sublime object-according to Lacan, a sublime object is an ordinary, everyday object which, quite by chance, finds itself occupying the place of what he calls das Ding [the Thing], the impossible-real object of desire. . . It is its structural place-the fact that it occupies the sacred/forbidden place of jouissance and not its intrinsic qualities that confers on its sublimity.” [6]

Maybe the fleeting viewer remembers the scene from David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, which is also invoked by Žižek in his analysis of the Real:

…the broad shots of idyllic small-town Middle America with a father watering the lawn; suddenly, the father suffers a stroke or heart-attack while the camera dramatically zooms in on the grass with its bustling microscopic world of insects. [7]

David Lynch’s Blue Velvet,1986, composed video stills; Žižek’s ‘Everyday’ and ‘Real’.

Thorpe’s ticking clocks, and on second glance, a pig’s heart strapped to his arm, invites associations with Lynch; but from an art world perspective, owes a lot to Paul McCarthy. In 2003 at Hauser and Wirth Gallery, London, McCarthy’s video installation titled Piccadilly Circus (an echo of the gallery’s location in London), was the usual mix of chaos and precision; control and disorder, chance and rehearsal. As a inexperienced art student, on leaving the gallery I felt the same “catharsis” that the author disclosed in his review of the of the show in Time Out London. which was my gallery guide for the day. This is how performance art finds “objecthood” – through the human encounter with the absurd and the after-effect of “catharsis,” or if not catharsis, a retelling by the viewer of the encounter, no matter how fleeting.

Paul McCarthy, Piccadilly Circus, Hauser and Wirth, London, 2003. Image here

What we have here is a disjoint in art, like the aforementioned gap between viewer and performer; between what is communicated and what is understood; and what is everyday and what is uncanny. Thorpe’s muliple clocks float between Žižek’s defininition of the Real via Lynch’s beetles, and the everyday–if you can imagine buying the cheap and simple time pieces from ebay; Lacan’s sublime object is debunked. The incongruous heart on one of the artist’s biceps, only seen with Thorpe’s incremental movements, is symbolic. A metaphor for what, I don’t know; but its aesthetic effect against the cheap ticking plastic was disruptive. Maybe the dead heart and wind-up clocks complemented each other on an intellectual level, and could be explained away as signifiers for time and routine; but their visceral aesthetic value outweighed any sort of academic reading.

Surprisingly, the noisy lunch-time cafe at the Mermaid Arts Centre lent a hand to the reception of Thorpe’s performance. For the uncanny to appear, the everyday has to be in the backdrop. What can be more representative of the “everyday” than the noise from a space that relishes in the acts of eating and conversation, while above in the “attic”, the obverse is happening.

James Merrigan is an artist

[1]   Dominic Thorpe discloses the impetus to make/ reenact work for Unbuilding: In 2009 I made a performance called ‘SHOULD HAVE LET THAT GIRL SEE HER MOTHER’. It was made after hearing the story of Maria McCrea on the RTE radio documentary ‘This is Maria McCrea’. Irish born Maria was a young girl living in England with her family when her Mother Left to return to Ireland. When Maria turned 18 she began to look for her Mother with the support of her foster parents in England. At the same time her Mother had been in Ireland looking for her. The social services knew they were looking for each other but didn’t put them together. One day Maria got a phone call from the social services to say her mother had died and did she want them to arrange for her to go to the funeral. This work in Mary Kelly’s exhibition ‘Burial’ as part of Unbuilding at the Mermaid Arts Centre is titled ‘SHOULD HAVE LET THAT MOTHER SEE HER DAUGHTER’. It was made about Maria McCrea’s mother who died longing to know her daughter again.

[2]   Melanie Gilligan, The Beggar’s Pantomime, Artforum XLV No. 10 (Summer 2007), pp. 426-433.

[3]  Victoria Miro Gallery Press Release for Absence Without Leave: http://www.victoria-miro.com/exhibitions/_375/

[4]   Dominic Thorpe, http://dominicthorpe.net/projects/should-have-let-that-girl-see-her-mother-09/

[5]  Gilligan, op.cit., The Beggar’s Pantomime

[6]   Slavoj Žižek, The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime, California Press, 2000.

[7]   Ibid, Slavoj Žižek.

Written by James Merrigan

September 29, 2010 at 12:17 am

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Reason Versus Beauty (Akio Hizume)

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Akio Hizume gives an energetic presentation on the  influence of the Golden Ratio on his architectural, sculptural and sound works at the Mermaid Arts Centre, 9th September, 2010 (Part of the UNBUILDING Project’s Series of Conversations)

I am absorbed in looking for any form around myself either material or immaterial one, working on projects every day. I love the ecology of the bamboo as an attractive material

(Akio Hizume)

As art enthusiasts, the ‘Golden Ratio’ has made itself present, consciously or not, from very early on, especially in revisions of Renaissance Art during our secondary school days. On the 9th of September, huddled in the back room of UNBUILDING’s architectural insert at the Mermaid Arts Centre (and surrounded by Tamsin Snow’s perspex water pools), Akio Hizume brought the audience on an energetically nostalgic trip, via the Golden Ratio.

Hizume was born in Nagano, Japan in 1960. He graduated from Kyoto Handcrafts and Textile College, majoring in Technology. Primarily an architect, Hizume sees the Golden Ratio as something more than beautiful symmetry. He says this belief  ‘is too easy’, that a function or reason lies behind the Divine Proportion.

So what is the Golden Ratio?

From leonardo’s Last Supper to the present day Stock Market, the Golden Ratio, Golden Mean, or Divine Proportion, is a speculative form. Obsessively documented by enthusiasts as a fundamental structure in the work of past and modern painters (which has been recently disputed), there seems to have been a push for the Golden Ratio to be present in any art form that was pleasing to the eye, when in fact the ratio was not present at all.

Akio Hizume’s slide projection of the Stealth Bomber, made with the Golden Ratio, which allows it to avoid radar. And Hizume’s  Golden Ratio Fabrications; Mermaid Arts Centre, 9th Septemebr, 2010.

This is Hizume’s thesis, that although the Golden Ratio is an aesthetic conundrum, there is a scientific function for this proportion to exist in nature. Over the last 20 years Hizume has weaved  baskets, constructed bamboo ‘Star Cages’ and composed music, all in the name of the Golden Ratio. But it is how he reflects on the Golden Ratio that makes it a human endeavor rather than just a numeric obsession.

Akio Hizume tries the focus the light from the projector through two acetate sheets in order to show a ‘lattice’ design, which is fundamentally a Golden Ratio, Mermaid Arts Centre, 9th Septemebr, 2010.

Standing, squatting, rhythmically knocking the ground, or throwing objects into the air, Hizume energised the space at the Mermaid Arts Centre. Holding what looked like a ball of cocktail sticks strung together before the light of the projector, but on second glance was a delicately weaved ‘globe’, held together with nothing other than Hizume’s technique of  inserting one stick over another. He rotated the globe of 3000 or so sticks in his hands – where light would presumedly not penetrate – until a Star of David appeared on the wall – flat as you like, with one ray of light penetrating the centre of the globe. There was something of the magician in Hizume’s presentation, but it is what he sees in the ratio – Jewish and Christian symbols – that hints at another goal other than mere trickery.

Akiko Hizume’s ‘Quasi-Periodic Forms’ (Globe of cocktail sticks), Mermaid Arts Centre, 9 Septemeber, 2010.

Remarking on nature throughout the presentation, Hizume admits that the forms that he fabricates already exist in nature. But the twist in the tale is, he seems to believe that nature is not aware of aesthetics, but only concerned with economical form. The proportion of the Golden Ratio economically affords the mechanics of the natural world; such as speed, diffusion of light and stability. One frightening remark by Hizume was that the Virus compound is another Golden Ratio form. Maybe the Golden Ratio signifies something that Akio Hizume and we all strive to be?

Akio Hizume’s slide of the Goetheanium Monument (after Rudolf Steiner) which he hopes to build in his own Tea-Field in Japan. The Goetheanium has no right-angles and is approximately 150 metres in width (larger than a football pitch), Mermaid Arts Centre, 9 Septemeber, 2010.

Written by James Merrigan

September 15, 2010 at 9:19 pm

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Artists’ Conversation: Damien Flood & Alan Butler, Thus 26 Aug, 7pm, Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray

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Damien Flood and Alan Butler’s Castles in the sky is the first in a rotating series of exhibitions in the  project called Unbuilding, at the Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray. Unbuilding is an experimental visual arts project composed of 11 new commissions, an architectural intervention, screenings, international guests, local discussion and off-site events.

On Thursday 26th August at 7pm, at the Mermaid Arts Centre, Flood and Butler will be in conversation with other artists and curators.

Castles in the Sky, Damien Flood and Alan Butler, 21st August – 29th August, 2010, Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray.

The back-story to this collaboration began eight months ago as a conversation between two friends and colleagues. Over that period, Damien Flood and Alan Butler have made work, in and around this conversation, one which pivoted on a shared understanding of ‘the tension between childhood dreams and failed, present-day utopias’. The audience can pick up on bit-parts of the conversation between the two artists in the popular and sub-cultural referencing, that was so theatrically potent in the 1980’s, and still has a hold on Flood and Butler’s generation.

The artists have both created individual works alongside their collective pieces. Flood traces the space with paintings of domed shapes, which off-set the the obtuse and acute angled architecture of the built environment. The paintings could be dreamed utopias, celestial resting places removed from cluttered technology. His cardboard ‘Babel’ tower on a glass plinth, sets up Butler’s video ruminations on religion and technology. In Butler’s manipulated videos (which are in keeping with the colourful media self -promotion of nondenominational church movements), the artist references religious icon, The Dalai Lama, and his sub-cultural equivalent, Marshall Applewhite, of the American Religious Group – Heaven’s Gate.1

References to the film Blade Runner, which has been an important signifier for the failure of  boyhood dreamt realities for the two artists, can be heard in the appropriation of the unreleased music from the film soundtrack. The audio emanates from the collaberative work Fortune City, pervading the space with sombre tones.

Coming together, Flood and Butler’s Mighty Dragon, Rolling City of Tomorrow, with model landscape on board, symbolises an energetic, child-like start, which will inevitably slow down and stop; with age the Promise is broken.

Text: James Merrigan

1 In 1997, the year of the comet Hale-Bopp, 39 members of Heaven’s Gate, committed suicide, along with their leader.

Castles in the Sky, Damien Flood and Alan Butler, Mermaid Arts Centre, August 21st, 2010.

Castles in the Sky, Damien Flood (FRONT) and Alan Butler (BACK), Mermaid Arts Centre, August 21st, 2010.

Written by James Merrigan

August 23, 2010 at 6:23 pm

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UNBUILDING’s Built Environment

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Architectural Intervention, ‘UNBUILDING’, Mermaid Arts Centre, August 21st, 2010.

Shaffrey & Associates, Early Architectural mockup for UNBUILDING Project, Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray, Co. Wicklow,Aug, 2010

‘UNBUILDING’ has arrived through the marriage of different disciplines. The practicalities of teaming art with architecture is usually evolved through compromise. The reality of ‘building’ architectural design is another hurdle. Sometimes the piece of plywood is not as malleable as the drawn line. But this project has not evolved through fast-track processes to fit an institutional schedule. Over the past 8 months, a dialogue between curator, artist, architect and builder has been built, deconstructed, and in the final days – tweaked – to create a space that brings together, a series of outcomes, that do not overlap, but meet at the centre, to be discussed and manipulated by the artists’ projects, weekly talks and events that make up the 10 weeks of  UNBUILDING.

Architects – Grainne Shaffrey and Thomas O Connor (SHAFFREY & ASSOCIATES), have been involved in the project from the beginning. They have designed a space that brings architectural design and it’s function – in relation to art – into question. David Brickenden (Timberline) has been involved with artists’ projects since the 70’s; working with the likes of Mario Merz from Art Provera origins. With his team of builders, he has brought a skilled and sensitive hand to a difficult build. The built environment of UNBUILDING combines innovative and ‘open’ architectural design and specialist wood craft  under the umbrella of art. As a ‘collective,’ we have asked the question: how do we develop a space that avoids the standard process of curating art, in and around an established space, that was built with all the compromises that come with civic architecture? Through group discussion, Shaffrey Associates have designed and Timberline have crafted a space that is both:

open & closed

sensitive & abrupt

deliberate & impulsive

Above all, the architects and builders have been responsive to the artists’ and curators’ needs, that leaves us with a space that questions, rather than defines.

David Brickenden and his team of Builders (Timberline), UNBUILDING’s Built Environment, Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray.

Shaffrey & Associates, Architectural Drawing for UNBUILDING Project, Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray, Co. Wicklow, Aug, 2010

David Brickenden and his team of Builders (Timberline), UNBUILDING’s Built Environment, Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray.

Shaffrey & Associates, Architectural Drawing for UNBUILDING Project, Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray, Co. Wicklow, Aug, 2010

David Brickenden and his team of Builders (Timberline), UNBUILDING’s Built Environment, Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray.

David Brickenden and his team of Builders (Timberline), UNBUILDING’s Built Environment, Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray.

David Brickenden and his team of Builders (Timberline), UNBUILDING’s Built Environment, Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray.

Written by James Merrigan

August 21, 2010 at 1:07 pm

Posted in Uncategorized