George Bolster & Damian Doyle: Amazement Insulates Us All/ Memento Vivere

The Lab, Dublin

George Bolster’s reticence in making work about his close friend Damian Doyle’s suicide is bound up with his sense of the risk involved, of lacking the necessary intellectual clarity when unresolved loss, grief, love, guilt, or indeed anger still make their demands. Even my writing here about suicide – after-the-fact and cruelly distanced – runs the risk of empty platitudes and misunderstanding. I was reminded, however, when viewing Amazement Insulates Us All, of something the Reverend John Ames, central protagonist of Marilynne Robinson’s 2004 novel Gilead, said: that some ‘epiphanies’ – perhaps counter-intuitively – only ensue ‘in the memory of it … (as) it opens to you over time’. This exhibition might be seen in a similar light. Here, the time its making required is akin to a physical, almost sedimentary, process: ‘a distancing from the grief,’ as Bolster puts it in the powerful video piece Self erosion (2014). And so if this review skirts too close to sentimentality and a preoccupation with content, it lacks the tender rigour of its object.

George Bolster: Self erosion (2013). 19 minutes. HD video projection. Image courtesy of the artist.
George Bolster: Self erosion (2013). 19 minutes. HD video projection. Image courtesy of the artist.

There is of course something truly loving in George Bolster’s act here: almost resurrecting his friend, Damian Doyle, and granting him a future that he could not imagine for himself. Art, as Bolster says, again in Self erosion, is conditional on the future. Without its pull, art flounders. There is no reason, none at all, to keep pushing, to keep suffering, and certainly no reason to make any more of it. Here, Bolster recuperates Doyle’s practice, remaking his artworks from memory, supplementing them with his own, and so enabling them to live on. It is joint exhibition, but with the sad caveat that Doyle appears only in translation.

Of course to remake is always to recreate, to select works and to hone in on elements that might only have become relevant with the passing of time. It is a one-sided conversation. The limitations of language – how to articulate loss, and indeed how to help – are foregrounded throughout the exhibition. Shades of words and symbols recur throughout Bolster’s work, and hang heavy, also, on any interpretation of Doyle’s. The permanence of death, as an indelible ‘punctuation point’ shuts language down. It can’t work there. Bolster’s mediumistic attempt to speak to and indeed for Doyle only makes this all the more apparent.

It may be a one-sided conversation, but on the other hand, it is an infinite one. Memory is fallible and thus bottomless. Such rich terrain forms the conceptual horizon for the exhibition, with Bolster remaking a series of Doyle’s modified readymades, alongside some of his own artworks, which often deal with belief and its systems. The exhibition is centred on Bolster’s aforementioned Self erosion, accompanied by a series of other sculptural works, both Bolster’s and Doyle’s, remade from memory by the former, in memory of the latter. The film was made some four years after Doyle’s death. In its voiceover, he reflects on Doyle, now with the necessary distance to articulate what he could not before. It is of course a piece about death, but more than this, it is a meditation on the necessity of belief as a means of endurance. Belief in art, in purpose, but also the retention of an ‘amazement’ indispensable to life itself. With searing precision, Bolster examines how and why Doyle forgot how to live, as the title puts it, and why he himself remembered, somehow. Inevitably, this attempt comes up short: such amazement, that lets life endure, only becomes visible as it’s lost.

The two bodies of work are very different. And it’s of course difficult to know how well they would have played against each other in the absence of tragedy, but it’s the only reading available. Doyle’s work, as presented here, appears more rooted in the here-and-now: modified readymades, massproduced thinghood, augmented so as to trick and second-guess the viewer. Bolster’s, by contrast, is more esoteric, more centred on the visual, though using language too. Whereas Bolster’s works have the look of artworks, Doyle’s are far more reticent in making that claim, like odd bits of something that may or may not be art. Preoccupation, an act before insight (1996) consists of an entire gallery wall covered with doorstops, lending an embellished air to an everyday object of little consequence. In another work, Buffer (1996), a pair of sandals – fashioned, somewhat impracticably, from concrete blocks – sit in an aluminium briefcase. Indeed, the pair and the series dominate Doyle’s work here. Taken alone, these objects are simply strange: cumulatively, though, they become familiar, even inevitable.

Self erosion, alongside the abstract installation that encroaches on its projected image, and a smaller ribbon text, wall-based work – seem to gather in around Doyle’s work, sensitively granting it the ineluctability of context. However, Bolster’s work cannot be taken alone, either, but must all the time be read in its relation to Doyle. In such a way, they offer themselves up to the same mediatory moves Bolster himself assumes, with Doyle. Whilst Doyle’s work needs translation, Bolster is open to being read through him, too. There’s something beautiful in that. For if all of the work here is Bolster’s, then all of it is Doyle’s, too.

Amazement Insulates Us All / Memento Vivere is a steady look at loss and death, and what’s left after it. The anxiety of ‘legacy’ reverberates throughout the exhibition. And yet it deals with such subject matter without once slipping into mawkishness. At times, it is difficult to take: though rooted in a subjective experience, such anxiety is universal. Art, as I said, is conditional on a future: like life, it is only bearable through some semblance of immortality, a means of seeing and effecting beyond the limits of the self. Perhaps what is involved is an acceptance of subjective permeability: of openness, of speaking on behalf of others, and of letting others go on speaking, on our behalf. At times, the unconscious nature of this thinking breaks down, and becomes claustrophobically finite. If such a thing is possible, then, it needs to be remembered and learned anew. As Bolster and Doyle’s exhibition shows, art-making has this singular capacity – to extend and renew, to restart conversations thought concluded.

Amazement Insulates Us All was on view 2 December 2015 – 16 January 2016.