‘Oh look – you dropped your jar of lemon curd! And some of it’s landed in a spider’s web… Don’t eat all your cheese in one go… it’s murder!’
In his review of EV+A in a previous issue of Enclave Review, Ed Krčma wrote that curator Annie Fletcher had ‘an unruly way of drawing images and things into the charged field between thought and sensation’. I read the paragraph in which this was written, started the next one, and stopped. I went back, re-read it: ‘drawing images and things into the charged field between thought and sensation’. The more I read it, the more I lingered over each word, the richer it became: it’s so poetic, so allusive. So visual. It evokes those articles in the New Scientist which attempt to make comprehensible the activity of electrons, gluons, quarks and so on for non-scientists like me. A charged field… between thought – ideation / conceptualisation / consciousness – and sensation – that is, direct physical perception of the material world. Back and forth shuttle our cognitive processes between these dimly-understood, ill-defined, highly-contested poles of knowing and being. And we, drifting about aimlessly in our post-Cartesian world like so many molecules, we interrupt the seemingly natural causal relationship between one and the other, inverting the chain time and again. We ‘introduce images and things’ and we question them, ourselves, and the world, and come to some kind of accommodation with the idea of existence and its knowability and predictability. Art helps us with that process, by introducing images and objects that, sometimes, we might otherwise prefer to dismiss or deride for their lack of sense or logic or explicability. It gives us ‘unreasonable’ images, with which we can try to reanimate that space between our thoughts and our perceptions.
I suppose it is fair to call Cian Donnelly’s work ‘unreasonable’ but it’s not the whole truth. In his performances and the other works that arise from and go towards them, Donnelly introduces the viewer to a reason of his own, one that at times seems absurd, uncanny, excessive, ridiculous and disturbing, but which is nevertheless possessed, for Donnelly, of an internal logic, in which cause and effect are present and where actions have specific ‘reasons’, or ‘reasonings’. Donnelly’s work is not elegant, or deferential toward the viewer, or to the world that pre-exists it. It is not non-committal. It is populated by characters and gestures dragged from a gory half-world between knowing childhood fantasy and innocent psychosexual trauma: a figure with a long latex nose and a pointy hat combs the pubic hair of a seated skeletal mannequin; Pointyhat enacts a strange sexualised ritual with a yellow fake fur figure – an adult teletubby with the face of an anime monkey; on the instructions of a disembodied head, objects are pulled from compartments in the underside of a bright red alligator, each triggering memories and associations and further stories. Masks and costumes and disembodied voices make the human figure disgusting, and terrifying, and ludicrous.
It can be difficult – or at least exhausting – to describe Donnelly’s performances, since they are so all-encompassing: they involve the production of so many different elements. Some have had a life before as paintings or sculptures but are now props in this new world, some are used in different ways in successive performances, some are entirely new, painstakingly constructed specially for one piece of work. Donnelly writes and records complex audio accompaniments for the performances, incorporating his own music and spoken word pieces; these accompaniments act as a kind of metronome for the live material, with Donnelly performing in time to pre-recorded segments. He makes videos and animations which are projected within the performances, besides designing and making costumes and furniture and various objects and sets (complete with trap doors through which characters appear and disappear), rehearsing his performers and, of course, performing himself (in both senses of the phrase). A typical performance involves the interplay and interdependence of all these ‘particles’, none of which is significant in themselves until they are brought to life in the space-time of the work.
Sex, grief and belly laughs
The stage is bathed in multicoloured light, continually changing – pink, blue, purple, green, yellow. A large painting rests against the back wall: two red figures assuming the posture of a pietà, except that the ‘Christ’ is upside down, facing the ground. They are poorly defined, have blank white circles where their faces should be. The prone figure also has a white circle around his arse, which the seated figure has its hand on. On one side of the stage, a figure with a long pointed nose, dressed in ivory sateen, with a red wig and a bonnet; it has no legs, but is attached to a wooden stand. On the other side of the stage, set in the wall, a circular projection screen, showing a cartoonish animation; another spindly figure leant against the wall; a table against the wall; and at the front of the stage, a large furry yellow figure lying face down across a red wooden stool. Loud, kitschily poignant electronic music. The yellow figure slowly stands, his back to the audience, showing the oval blue plastic inset around his arse. It (he?) looks at the painting.
Donnelly describes his journey from abstract painting to the Gesamtkunstwerk of his performances as one from an austere, phoney conservatism, which had very little connection to his own life and circumstances, towards an explosion of meaning-making possibilities, one that is ongoing, and which is driven by a desire to explore in much greater depth the themes and ideas with which he is preoccupied: death and grief, the unlikeliness and abjectness of life, fetishisation, objectification and desire. To this end, around a decade ago he began to think about creating fictional ‘contexts’ for the drawings and small paintings that he was making, and this eventually led to his performing as a character named Daniel Cullen, who had produced all the works in response to the death of his wife. Cullen was developed in performances at the British School at Rome and Catalyst Arts, Belfast, amongst others, during 2008 and 2009. These performances increasingly employed live and pre-recorded musical accompaniment (in Rome this included the formation of a choir, The Order of the Golden Ghost). Overcome by grief and guilt, Cullen had begun to hear voices and receive visitations from entities he called ‘blood wizards’, who performed numerous songs to him. The blood wizards are represented in Donnelly’s performances by sculptural objects made from layer upon layer of dripped acrylic paint and resin, which take many months to make; often the various layers, of multiple bright colours, are visible from the underside, beneath their glossy white shell, like the rings of a psychedelic tree. In common with the other ‘things’ that Donnelly makes and uses these blood wizards have a discomfiting materiality, their liquid state frozen and made solid, their unwholesome, oozing warmth made cold, hard and white. Occasionally, when they appear in performances, they have eyeballs or a wig.
The demands of this manner of working – constructing an elaborate explanatory narrative which eventually seemed to close down the works rather than to throw them open to new meanings – reached a natural conclusion. Donnelly returned for a time to painting and presented a solo show, Burnt Wig Blues, at the Third Space Gallery in Belfast in 2010. Included in this show were a number of pieces (including the large ‘bum pietà’ described above) which would go on to feature in subsequent performances.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that Donnelly’s relationship with the art gallery has at times been a little ambivalent. The basic activity in which he is engaged usually relies at some stage for its dissemination and validation on galleries or museums of one type or another, but the manner in which such institutions can predetermine the nature and form of the work they exhibit has never entirely satisfied Donnelly. Just as object-making, painting and drawing, as ends in themselves, are no longer Donnelly’s primary activity, so the gallery is not necessarily the most natural home for the works that he is now producing. And art objects which, when first exhibited, had a monetary ‘value’ attached to them, commensurate with their display in a commercial gallery, are now recycled as performance props, with no value other than that momentarily ascribed to them during the performance itself; they seem successfully to have found some kind of afterlife. In fact they are almost ‘meta art objects’, self-aware and self-referential, objects which amongst the other props and materials used in the performances are a sign of ‘art’, and thus even more rarefied, amongst all the totems and relics and amulets that Donnelly uses in his works.
The performance described briefly above was presented at the Context Gallery in Derry in 2012. This was the first occasion on which Donnelly fused all the diverse elements of his practice into a new, self-contained world, moving away from a literal narrative (around the character Daniel Cullen) to a context constructed through actions, music and imagery, as much as the spoken word. As the work thus became radically more open, it was able to inhabit a greater range of symbols and metaphors, and to step further away from the familiar causal relations of the world beyond the work. In fact the completeness of Donnelly’s performative universe induces a sort of vertigo: do you really want to follow him in?
To Donnelly himself, however, the analogues of his symbols and props and actions are always obvious: he seems to find describing or explaining them a little odd, like being asked why your handwriting is a certain way, or you don’t tie your shoes with a double knot. He is not reticent, nor does he seek to mystify. ‘Why’ questions just take him off-guard, make him take a step back to find out when a character started doing this, or behaving this way, or using these affectations (which is entirely the wrong word, since none of this is an affectation or a pretension; it’s all there, the ragged costumes, the distorted bodies, the expressionless masks, the music, the movements, the sex and the death, because it is an essential part of everything else).
A figure wearing a grotesque latex face with a greying beard and moustache sings along to some harsh electronic music. His right cuff is extended into a long, closed cone. The beat of the music is up-tempo, drums and synth. Sometimes the man sings himself, sometimes he holds the microphone to mannequins dressed in ragged costumes, whose mouths he moves as they take their turn to ‘sing’. He sings with a falsetto, he sings with a resonant bass. There is lots of reverb on the voice. After a few songs he sits down at the back of the room and holds the microphone to a disembodied latex head with a shock of hair. The head tells a story:
‘I was in the sea, by these rocks, very close to the shore. I feel safe. And then, there was this strange nudging, right against my arse. I turn around and see the body of a dolphin behind me. It must have its snout between my legs. It starts to penetrate me. My cock gets hard. I look around, seeing if anyone else is about, but there’s no-one about, so I take my cock out of my shorts and start wanking myself off. I feel the dolphin nudging itself deeper inside me. It’s so strong. I start to come, and it’s the most intense I’ve ever felt. The dolphin pulls out, and I fall back, seeing my cock come out of the water, and the spunk is going everywhere, all over the rocks. The dolphin pops up in front of me, with that strange dolphin smile, and my spunk is landing on its face, dribbling down all over its mouth. I don’t know what happened, but I started to punch the dolphin in the face. I punched it and I punched it, but it just kept bobbing back up again. My hand was bleeding, the dolphin had my blood on it, and its skin felt very dry, even in the water it felt like rubber.’
Humour is a device that Donnelly uses with deftness and cunning; he turns it like a pocket knife turned in the ribs. The impulse to laugh – nervously, or in confusion, or out of embarrassment – is one that he exploits. At first, the garish technicolor, the outlandish costumes, the sexual references and the squeaks and farts of the music seem to be nothing more than gleeful mess-making, endearing (or annoying) childish naughtiness. But the comedy always has some darkness, an unpleasantness which is present from the start and which quickly takes over: the sex becomes more excessive, more insistent and troubled, like a compulsion, and with it comes an obsession with gross physicality, with emissions and involuntary desires; death, too, and sickness; incapacity and physical dependence; tenderness, and grief; and all of it, very often, with some element of corporeal disgust. None of this is really played for laughs; not just for laughs anyway.
Inherent in this is Donnelly’s willingness to take on the persona of the abject subject of his performances. He debases himself, to the point where his degradation becomes a confrontation with the audience. His deadpan pretend-honesty, his first-person narratives, dwelling on all the wanking, and dolphin-fucking, and shit-eating, and vomiting and crawling and crying leave us standing there, considering the exact nature of the accommodation that we make with our selves, the psychologically-inauthentic manner of our coming-to-terms with our selves; all the necessary compromises we make in order to be able to get up in the morning and put one foot in front of the other. But it’s just a lark, really; Donnelly provokes this contemplation only to show how pointless it really is. Since the 1960s, when Philippe Ariès began to historicise childhood, and R.D. Laing attacked psychiatry, and Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault described the functioning of the institutions of state power, it’s become customary to think of this business of becoming ‘selves’ as marked by violence and repression: the family, the school and the state teach us to socialise, to ‘subject’ our selves to being named and called forth and made to account for themselves. We learn to inhabit rough, approximate images of our selves, images that can be regulated and transacted, but which never truly fit, and which become the triggers for all the traumas we experience in adulthood, as the repressions and denials become unbearable, the contradictions untenable. The thing is that this has all become a new orthodoxy: the knowledge of shame and compromise doesn’t bring with it an ability to access some kind of authentic self – watching Donnelly, we have to wonder who on earth would want that – but just more shame, and loss, and alienation. We have learned that this is what we are, fundamentally traumatised agents (‘divided selves’), whose best bet is to carry on taking the SSRIs, or not taking them, or trying to get off them; whatever other options there may once have been were abandoned long ago. Donnelly’s libidinous, potty-mouthed, polymorphously perverse performance ego (or id) is a goad, a taunt. We are what we are: none of it makes any sense, nobody planned it this way, and knowing that doesn’t make you any cleverer, or any happier. But now you know, you can never forget it: you’re shit, and you know you know you are.
We are drawn into Donnelly’s work by its otherness, its frightening, electrifying, horrifying, hilarious unfamiliarity; this world is so replete, so full, and once we are inside it we strive to find logic within its unreality, to find or impose order, so that we can reassure ourselves that meaning is indeed present. And yet we are always aware of the work’s illusion, its mechanics. We oscillate back and forth between self-awareness and absorption. We desire to comprehend and decode, but we can only do that by constantly stepping back and making reference to our own real-unreal world, making comparisons and analogues that we can then test by re-entering the lifeworld of the performance. After all this, the work becomes unsettling precisely because its rules and its causalities are ultimately so reasonable, even whilst they are so thoroughly abject. This playing out of psychological anxieties, repressed desires, unexplained dreams and unrealisable fantasies is compelling and credible. It is, we come to realise, very familiar after all, even as it becomes stranger and more tortured and darker and funnier.
– Your very first drawings after your recovery depicted figures floating in the sky above mountains.
Yeah, after I got out of Silver Bridge…I started making all this new work… About six months into it, there was an incident with a ghost. I was in bed, with this godawful sickness and dread…really awful…total despair…I thought about everything that had happened over the last couple of years; my father dying, the anger, sadness…the grief broke me…I never felt pain like that…awful…awful…awful I was writhing around in the bed…moaning, when I saw a figure scurrying across the ceiling..
It leapt onto my bed, punched me, then squatted over my face… The smell man…shit, piss, rotten fish..all the dead things from the sea It’s arsehole swelled…huge…grey and mottled like fishes skin… It trembled, and slowly produced a huge strawberry…a fucking strawberry, that toppled out of the arsehole and hung there…dangling on a golden thread… It reached back and forced the strawberry into my mouth I blacked out then and had this vision of a two-panel painting…with an image of me on one side, from above, lying in bed…I looked like I was in shock, with electricity surrounding my body… On the other panel were these floating figures, monks and nuns, in tunics… But they were young, little boys and girls, rosy cheeks, big blue eyes… They floated over the mountains and way off into the distance…spread out through the sky like some kind of procession or flock of birds travelling somewhere…