Every archive is a personal archive, in the sense that it begins at the behest of an individual, or at least a body. In the last ten years or so, the archive has become a fitting place of investigation for contemporary art and much has been written about this phenomenon. In one of the most cognisant essays of our time, ‘An Archival Impulse’ (2004), art historian Hal Foster considers contemporary artists’ interest in the archive in terms of its attitude to classification, history, and memory. For Foster archival art:
Is as much preproduction as it is postproduction: concerned less with absolute origins than with obscure traces (perhaps ‘anarchival impulse’ is the more appropriate phrase), these artists are often drawn to unfulfilled beginnings or incomplete projects – in art and in history alike – that might offer points of departure again.
The work of Galway artist Majella Dowdican plays through many of the possibilities outlined by Foster, engaging in a sustained way with many of its key themes, ‘idiosyncratic probing into particular figures, objects, and events’. In her mixed media work, comprising of pen and ink drawings, painting, sculpture, and installation, Dowdican presents the beholder with images of the already made, the already done. Her uncanny, humorous and illustrative drawings detail a world of bizarre little men at odds with the world. Her wall sculptures and installations are built from the leftovers of a bureaucratic world, such as paper and cardboard—the very medium of the traditional archive. Dowdican’s is a world of prefabrication, a world where we our left to deal with the already made, the ‘post-production’ of every little thing that we encounter. But what does it mean to prefabricate something?
To build, to make: to fabricate.
We arrive and everything is already done. It is already finished.
A queer, uncanny feeling.
A world where everything is already built. A world where we have space but we seem to have no space.
It is these, and other thoughts, which arise from the encounter with Dowdican’s work. All her work has the air of the recycled—especially her paintings, a semi-abstract world of an empty city, their surfaces scratched and gouged to reveal their significance of their content through their form. We can imagine perhaps that in these painted worlds, these painted buildings, that there are archives still, full of information, awaiting only some to encounter them, someone to sieve through there facts and fiction.
For Foster, the archive is a place where all appears ‘both found yet constructed, factual yet fictive, public yet private’. The archive is there for the artist to use, but it also precedes them. Dowdican’s is of course a private amalgamation of imagery, but it is as equally public. The exhibition details not only the way she makes art, but also the ways in which she collects various images and ideas from the bureaucratic world and incorporates them into her practice. The little paper world of her installation, spread out all over the gallery floor, is fictive of course, like a abandoned film set. But it also speaks to us of our own factual world— an Ireland of abandoned housing estates and empty building—a post Celtic Tiger world were we are left to sort thought the bureaucratic mess left over.
Fabricated and pre-fabricated: something simultaneously already made but always being made.
The prefabricated cardboard box.
The prefabricated cardboard home.
Dowdican treats her materials with both sincerity and delicacy, showing us how, both literally and metaphorically, we can perhaps step into these prefabricated worlds of hers and negotiate them with the little sovereignty we have left. Her world is a world where the unknown is nothing metaphysical, but rather just another possibility that we have yet to uncover. Simple works such as Settle Yourself (2010) – a small pen and acrylic drawing – show us a confused individual confronted by a giant cardboard box containing (it seems) a whole prefabricated city.
There is no scream.
Only an attempt at understanding. Where now. Who now. When now.
Other works are much more ambitions in their attempt to convey to us this feeling of the all readymade. Indeed, the mixed media works (and the one installation) seem to succeed better than the few paintings in the exhibition, such as Nowhere Everywhere (2010). Though this is perhaps a reflection on the precarious state of contemporary painting, and it says more about my own uneasiness in allowing the oil-on-canvas to remain something capable of producing ambitious art.
But AWOL (2010), a simple oil painting on linen, may seem to answer this call: it includes a little ladder, fabricated from thread and matchsticks, which descends from the representation of the painted building (is it factory or a school?—both sites founded upon archivization) on to the actual gallery floor. Is this our escape? From the endgame of each painted world? Or is it just another self-reflexive trick, taken form the modernist toolbox, a way to draw attention to the medium itself? As with much contemporary art, all of Dowdican’s mixed media works (and her single installation) court the strategies of post-minimalism and Arte Povera in that they are both interested in the semiotic possibilities of the materials, the feelings or desire that may or may not exude from our encounter with them, and also in their attempt to reach beyond their own frame.
The power of Dowdican’s art is that it does not just allow us to look at it. Many of the works are placed awkwardly before us—on the floor, above or below our eye level, out of reach. We need to lean into them, raise or lower ourselves to them, in order for us to think about them. It is a world gone slightly askew—a world where we have words but no things to receive them.
Take Tampered Territory (2010), for example. Two cuboids secured to the wall; inside them, a number of elegantly trimmed branches; tied to them and falling all the way to the floor, eight little pieces of string. A work such as this certainly asks us to contemplate both its construction and its meaning. But how does this work address the prefabricated conditions of our social situations? Is it through its juxtaposition of natural and constructed worlds?
While its process of production is indeed laid out before us (and indeed all of Dowdican’s work does this), the gap between idea (the presentation of an archived world) and object (a strange amalgam of found and construction things) is pressing. Dowdican’s work does not come easy to us in that we have to spend time with it, analysing the correspondence both between works and also reflecting on the relationship between her mediums and the content they purport to show.
But that is not to say it is not worth pondering over, in spite of the games it play with us, to us. All art, in the contemporary sense of the word, demands an effort from us precisely because it asks us to consider not only its own time (the time we spend in front of it) but also the historical time, the learned strategies, of all the art which precedes it—how did Dowdican get to this point, why does she use such as such materials, what are her own artistic influences?
For Foster, ‘perhaps the paranoid dimension of archival art is the other side of its utopian ambition’. And of course, we can see this in operation in Dowdican’s exhibition: her paper cut-outs, her cardboard cities; all of them they to try to rebuild themselves from the already broken—a paranoid world of paper words and worlds—a world so full of information, that it does not inform us.
Majella Dowdican’s work was on view at the Galway Arts Centre, 11-21 January 2011.