The humble, routine object regularly takes centre stage in the work of James Hayes. Re-framed and de-familiarised in a bizarre, off-kilter, vaguely vertiginous manner, the commonplace object assumes a supernatural status; it morphs into a fetish, a juju, a talisman.
In his last exhibition, In Memory of Hostile Things at the Limerick Printmaker’s Studio and Gallery, Hayes cast the domestic fly-swat in the starring role; he sculpted it in heavy bronze, mounted it on four plinths, and made it emit buzzing, insect-like sounds. With his current installation at the Droichead Arts Centre, Hayes returns to everyday objects once again: here, sculpted wax and bronze replicas of polystyrene jet planes and a video projection of revolving wind turbines are accompanied by a droning, pulsing audio track.
You hear this work before you see it. The gallery space is divided by an expanse of blank white wall which obscures the main exhibition area from view. A displaced humming noise whirs and vibrates rather ominously in the recesses of the dimly-lit interior. On the other side of the partitioning wall, at the far end of the room, a split-screen digital video is being projected. Shot close-up and from varying angles, two wind turbines are slowly rotating. The intervening floor space is occupied by twelve sculptural jet planes elevated at various heights on quadripods that look strangely like electricity pylons; their tails face the screen, their noses point at the incoming visitor. One lone jet plane sits atop a quadripod facing the projected video. This singular jet is flanked on either side by the other twelve planes, six on each side, as if in battle formation. Their shadows fall across the screen of turbines and multiply along the floor. Meanwhile, the audio track continues to throb quietly in the background. Do we hear the sound of wind turbines turning or jets stealthily flying? We are not entirely sure. The overall effect is unsettling, even a little uncanny.
In his essay ‘Das Unheimliche’ (1919) Sigmund Freud explored the etymology of the German word unheimlich (which in English we translate as ‘uncanny’). He observed that the uncanny is not simply that which we find frightening, eerie or grotesque but that which we specifically encounter as unhomely. In other words, implicit in experiencing something as uncanny we are aware that we once knew it and recognised it as ‘homely’. He writes:
This uncanny element is actually nothing new or strange but something that was long familiar to the psyche and was estranged from it only through being repressed … an uncanny effect often arises when the boundary between fantasy and reality is blurred, when we are faced with the reality of something that we have until now considered imaginary, when a symbol takes on the full function of and significance of what it symbolises. (Freud, ‘The Uncanny’ )
The homely and the unhomely are powerfully set in tension in this installation. Hayes manages to make the form and propellers of the wind turbines unavoidably reminiscent of the form and propellers of the blackened and bronzed sculpted jet planes, yet the textural surface of the objects – the planes sculpted and the turbines projected – doesn’t allow for too easy a fit. The monotonously drumming audio track – at once the sound of circling wind turbines and the hum of planes – further disturbs the placement of and conversation between the objects. The interplay of sound and form seems to suggest that the planes and turbines are one and the same object, but not quite. Overhead, the glass apex in the roof sheds no natural light. Instead, the space is artificially lit, softly, by a few roof-mounted spotlights which cast a diffused light over the oily, pliable texture of the twelve planes modelled from wax and the burnished lustre of the single plane cast in bronze. The shape is the same but the textures seem to be interrogating each other. Adding further textural and denotative intrigue, Hayes has sculpted the surface of the wax planes to mimic polystyrene. The use of wax – a natural hard-wearing yet impermanent substance capable of mutating between both liquid and solid form – and the evocation of polystyrene – a man-made, brittle, non-biodegradable material suggestive of industrial process and fabrication – highlights pertinent issues such as temporality and sustainability. Still, the wind turbines continue to circle and though their form harkens toward that of the jet planes, the turbines themselves remain austerely white and strangely petrified on the enormous video screen. They continue to rotate mechanically, reliably, and rather beautifully in the background. They are pristine, bright and gigantic. There is something rather Orwellian about the whole scene.
Homely and unhomely. Hayes’s installation brings a heightened awareness to the objects on view. The wind turbine is purportedly the harbinger of a new, environmentally enlightened age and the plane is symbolically emblematic of relentless industrialised energy consumption. That is the official line. Hayes’s installation places such presumptions in contention. The ideological and political discourses concerning energy generation and consumption, which situate our energy use and abuse in a paradigmatic binary, are being critiqued. In heralding the wind turbine as a saviour in the face of progressive ecological global devastation are we simply trying to find a quick-fit, desperate cure-all? Is the wind turbine an ecological panacea or a political placebo? Or simply a marketing ruse?
Hayes’s work asks us to question our own complicity with the ideological discourses that enable us to soothe our conscience regarding our interactions with our planet and, thereby, with each other. The questions his installation raises are not so easily answered but they are concerns worth raising. A week after seeing this work, the droning of turbines (or jet planes?) is far from a distant memory. I suppose that is a good thing.
James Hayes: Looking into the Light of Dark Matters was on view, 3 September – 4 October 2010.