Questions around authority and authorship dominate the art works in Art by Proxy. This exhibition is the second in the school’s annual Peripheries show, in which contemporary artworks are exhibited in the County Wexford town. In Art by Proxy artists’ personal marks are absent from their paintings, they are credited with the creation of work which third parties have largely put form to and create artwork by interrupting the work of others.
The ‘proxy’ hovering above this show finds expression through both the methods employed in the creation of a work and through its content. An irreverence towards the art object is one identifiable characteristic of the exhibition. Various shades of anger serve as a catalyst for much of the work, with the expression of antagonistic positions evident throughout the exhibition. Where the subject of a work has given direct authority for their images or stories to be used, the aesthetic of that piece tends to be more patient and subdued. On other occasions the anger driving a work is immediately apparent – often in the form of a purposeful carelessness in relation to the materials used.
The artist/activist Augustine O’Donoghue collaborated with the Sahrawi artists, Eseniya Ahmed Baba and Mohamed Suliman, in the Tinduff refugee camp in Algeria on a project revolving around the design and application of henna tattooes. The images the artists worked with were photographs of fellow Sahrawis designated ‘missing’ since the political upheavals of the 1970s and 80s. Art by Proxy contains a series of seven photographic images documenting O’Donoghue’s work around the Tinduff camp. We see people being tattooed in their makeshift homes; another image shows the original faded passport photograph converted into tattoo. While O’Donoghue’s photographs reflect a practical need, they also contain strong poetic resonances. Her photographs are surrounded by an air of melancholia – where a sense of the dust of the desert, the implied heat and faded tattoos all speak of a strained and challenging reality.
Lisa Marie Johnson occupies a similar position to O’ Donoghue as an artist/activist. In Art by Proxy she explores the tense circumstances of a Bahrainian doctor’s life through a collection of photographic images and a sound work. Dr Nada Dhaif is subject to state oppression and Johnson combines a selection of images of Dr Nada involved in activist activities with quieter, staged images of her in a pastoral setting. The monologue accompanying these images is scripted in such a way as to interweave references to Ireland’s history of pursuit of citizen equality. Johnson’s use of Dr Nada’s story throws weight behind her intention to bring about change in Bahrain – it also depicts the universal story of an individual fighting a lonely battle.
Nevan Lahart’s installation includes a video recording of a performance which took place on Art by Proxy’s opening night. In the video Lahart communicates via Skype with a young man who was at the opening in Gorey – instructing him vicariously as to how to paint his picture. We watch Lahart in ‘real-time’, nonchalantly choosing the content for his painting by searching through newsworthy articles on-line and instructing his proxy accordingly. Along with the monitor documenting this performance, what remains in the exhibition space is a paint-strewn worktable and an easel supporting a paint-dripped canvas with the barely decipherable words ‘art is whatever, long live phone apps’. An adjoining room contains a series of five black and white photographic prints of the artist Kevin Atherton interrupting a performance by Nigel Rolfe in 1980. We see Atherton addressing the audience in an animated manner, a further image shows him being forcibly removed from the performance area and, in the final image, looking the worse for wear at the far side of a bar. In a wall text accompanying these images Atherton is quoted as having said, ‘I am happy to be thought of as a young iconoclast wanting to protect the integrity of real time performance art and to challenge its institutionalisation via conventional theatre’. He goes on to say, ‘my act was an indefensible act of drunken vandalism on the day of my 30th birthday but I did it and I can’t deny it’. Here, both Atherton and Lahart demonstrate iconoclastic tendencies of different hues. Their contributions to Art by Proxy could not exist without the presence of a perceived notion of a conventionalised art to rile against. Both men dive passionately into the fray of power-play around status in art – thwarting and disrupting the perceived expectations of an audience along the way.
The figurative ‘proxies’ in this exhibition vary from the quiet and subtle, as in Laura O’ Gorman’s observations of Padraig Poil on Inis Oírr island, to fiery engagements, such as Atherton’s ‘use’ of Nigel Rolfe in the creation of his work. The use of a proxy suggests the occurrence or presence of something elsewhere, indicating a certain remove from the original. It is this gap, or distance from the original which segues into a wider questioning around authorship. The strongest works in Art by Proxy explore ideas around originality in art and in so doing display their status as replications with pride.
Authorship has been entirely dissipated in Alan Butler’s The Image Factory. One of the two 18 x 12 inch canvases comprising ‘The Image Factory’ is an oil painting of the interior of an oil painting factory in Dafen, China. All of the many paintings being produced in their factory on the day this image records are identical: the portrait of an elderly, bearded man. The second canvas in The Image Factory is a finished example of the portrait.
Through a process Butler describes as ‘feedback’ we learn that the images for these two paintings were sourced through a complicated and circuitous route, involving tangential connections on-line and misunderstandings in communications with the Dafen factory. What transpires is that the bearded man has been identified as Vladimir Stasov, a vocal 19th century exponent of the cultivation of a unique, national artistic style in Russia. Choosing Stasov as a subject involved the critical and humorous intervention by one of the anonymous 10,000 painters in Dafen. Extending the implications of art as proxy to the traditionally subjective world of painting in this way unearths urgent and uncomfortable questions around art as commodity. While the use of a proxy can be shorthand for a cynical and hopeless reflection on our mediated world, many of the artworks in this show were ultimately optimistic in their use of a proxy as a means by which to insist upon the democratisation of art and stake a claim for art’s agency in the political realm.
Art by Proxy ran from 4 –10 August 2012.