Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter recently welcomed the custom-built Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC), home to three visual art spaces: the Sunken, Tall and Upper Galleries, curated by Hugh Mulholland, alongside dance and theatre areas within the complex. Officially launched in April, the MAC’s inaugural exhibition in the Sunken Gallery featured the impressive Somewhere but here, another other place, a large sculptural installation by Donegal artist Maria McKinney.
The Sunken Gallery is located on the ground floor of the MAC. As the viewer descends the stairs to the split-level gallery, she can at a glance consider the entire space and survey the gallery from a different perspective, given that the sightline upon entry is almost at ceiling height. On this occasion the gallery is full to capacity with a densely ordered assemblage of domestic furniture, suggestive of an architectural structure. In 2010, Somewhere but here… had been exhibited at the LAB, Dublin, where the mezzanine floor provided a balcony view of the piece. This architectural feature afforded a new vantage point which was crucial to fully appreciate the arrangement of McKinney’s strategically stacked tables, and the jigsaws of the dramatic and ostentatious Neuschwanstein Castle that they support.
McKinney’s installation is comprised of a motley collection of assorted tables – including robust dining tables, functional and practical kitchen tables, and delicate side tables atop spindly legs – creating a diverse and idiosyncratic balance of a multitude of styles and tastes. They could be seen to satirise and mirror the eclectic range of different periods and architectural styles, including Baroque, Gothic and Romanesque, illustrated in the grandiose jigsaw representations of Neuschwanstein Castle that adorn each table top. Ludvig II, the Bavarian monarch, shortly after becoming king began a project that he would never live to see completed, on account of his mysterious, premature death. The German legacy, however, is the world-famous, fairytale Neuschwanstein Castle – the dramatic, Alpine citadel built in homage to Wagner and his operas. The palace is largely Romanesque in style, a picturesque, romantic interpretation of the architectural fashion favoured in the 19th Century. The sculptural assemblage of the tables, arranged to form turreted components of the installation, could be seen as a device to draw attention to the architecture of the fantastical castle.
The recurring castle jigsaw puzzles cover every available table surface, each jigsaw featuring the castle observed from varied angles, in all seasons and climatic conditions. The time and attention taken to source such a diverse selection of jigsaws featuring the same motif is highlighted, but in particular it is difficult to ignore the laborious task required to complete quite so many. Meditative and even transcendental qualities can be attributed to the process of assembling the wooden tiles to complete the image; this recreational activity becomes a site of reflection, creating a temporary distance from everyday reality. The inherent escapism of this exercise is encapsulated as the maker becomes totally engrossed, daydreaming of the idealistic, utopian scene they are slowly constructing. Lost from their immediate surroundings – perhaps the kitchen table where all of the pieces are laid out before them – their rapt attention is focused solely on the puzzle, oblivious to the progression of time.
While the form of McKinney’s installation enables it to be adapted to suit different surroundings, the depth of the Sunken Gallery is not quite profound enough to offer the same aerial vista as in its earlier incarnation. In response, McKinney has altered this particular manifestation of the work, incorporating a stairway at the far end of the installation to facilitate a viewing platform. The gallery’s architectural limitations prevent viewers from standing at full height at a position that would enable sufficient space to assess the entire structure as a single entity. McKinney counters this impediment by deliberately choosing to build the stairway feature at close proximity to the ceiling, as this work in particular is concerned with responding to the scale and movement of the viewer’s body.
The emphasis on sensory involvement is a fundamental concern of McKinney’s installation. The playfulness of everyday spatial aesthetics in this work seek to engage the viewer, as the piece is subject to the perception of space, considered from a bodily perspective. Elements of Somewhere but here… , have drawn influence from Lewis Carroll’s novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). McKinney wants the viewer to feel the comparative discomfort of the giant Alice, as she remains cramped in a tiny room after she has grown to enormous proportions. The line ‘. . . she found her head pressing against the ceiling, and had to stoop to save her neck from being broken’, succinctly captures the constricted experience felt when surveying the structure from the top of the stairs. However, McKinney wants to play with the idea of scale yet again, when the installation is assessed from ground level and the viewer is now dwarfed by the towering mound of tables, mimicking the perspective of a shrunken Alice. These, then, are simple, subtle interventions that alter the viewer’s corporeal experience: from feeling tiny at one moment to gigantic the next. McKinney carefully injects an everyday, domestic undercurrent into the installation, inviting the viewer to construct meanings on several levels regarding systems of perception and space. The phenomenological nature of this work explores the ways we experience things, and their associated meanings. McKinney directs the viewers sensory perspective toward her installation, prompting consideration of memory, imagination, thought and emotion through the physical components of the piece.The viewer’s kinesthetic engagement involves a physical negotiation of the work and therefore a shifting perception of its structure. McKinney makes good, then, on philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s assertion that ‘The task is not so much to see what no one yet has seen; but to think what nobody yet has thought, about that which everybody sees.’ (The World as Will and Representation, 1818).