Flotsam and Jetsam

TACTIC, Sample Studios, Cork

Curator Kirstie North’s title for this exhibition does more than simply describe the show; it simultaneously binds the featured artworks together and invites reflection upon the contemporary purchase of these maritime terms. The difference between flotsam and jetsam is no longer common knowledge: flotsam refers to items which float as a consequence of the action of the sea, whereas jetsam refers to items jettisoned from a ship. Yet today their meanings can be extended metaphorically beyond floating debris to introduce broader ideas of the unwanted and discarded, of odds and ends and junk.
The first work encountered in the exhibition is Simon English’s When We Left the City (2012), a masterful optical performance. A scene tantalisingly reminiscent of the heyday of old Hollywood glamour has all the right ingredients: a long shot, smoky lighting, a mysterious car driving down a foggy highway. However, despite what my eyes believed, it was filmed using only a dinky toy car, cardboard, masking tape, straws, and a homemade conveyor belt.

Left to right, Fiona O'Reilly (wall pieces), Paul Chrisholm (TV), Anne Marie Taggart (Sculpture in foreground), Swaantje Guntzel (piece on plinth). Image credit: Pamela Myers.
Left to right, Fiona O’Reilly (wall pieces), Paul Chrisholm (TV), Anne Marie Taggart (Sculpture in foreground), Swaantje Guntzel (piece on plinth). Image credit: Pamela Myers.

The beauty, delicacy, and preciousness hidden in the conventional and habitual are again highlighted in Fiona Reilly’s Time Spent (2008). Time Spent is an on-going project for which the artist has gathered together every bus ticket from every journey she has taken on the Dublin Bus since 2005. The tickets are stuck and coiled together in chronological order. There are currently in excess of 1,250 tickets and Reilly is still adding to the collection; she intends to continue the project until the paper ticket system becomes obsolete, until it represents a forgotten history.

Alternative histories of the obsolete, the forgotten and the overlooked are presented throughout the show and are documented most poignantly in the exhibition’s namesake, Sam Walkerdine’s Flotsam and Jetsam (2012). Flotsam and Jetsam is a documentary film exploring the relationships, history, and struggles facing a dying breed of beachcombers on the Frisian Island of Texel, north of Holland, where a strong tidal system and winds wash up an estimated two tons of debris on the shore each day.
If we return to the original meaning of ‘flotsam and jetsam’ as tidal bearings, consequences of the action of the sea, another unifying theme emerges, that of action and re-action, cause and effect. The so-called junk, waste, and odds and ends that make up this exhibition are the remnants of our contemporary throwaway culture narrating the untold stories of the dispossessed and demonstrating that effects are more heterogeneous than we could possible imagine. The show both endows our detritus with unexpected value and celebrates the possibilities inherent in the discarded.
This jubilance that can be evoked within the overlooked, forgotten, and pushed aside, is best encapsulated in James L Hayes’ The Rocky Mountain
Flyer (2008/9), which charts the tragicomic flight of a polystyrene model jet plane over the Rocky Mountains accompanied by a replica of the plane made of recycled scrap iron. The work is sophisticatedly simple, with a child-like grace; it takes what we regard as nothings, polystyrene, and playfully attempts the impossible.
Flotsam and Jetsam was on view at Tactic, 24 May – 2 June 2012.