Richard Proffitt: Hold The Candle To Your Eye / Light The Criss-Cross On Your Chest

Sirius Arts Centre, Cork

Memory, journey and youthful discovery are the themes of Richard Proffitt’s exhibition of new and recent work at the Sirius Arts Centre. The show occupies a single white room whose large central window overlooks Cobh’s waterfront. Photocopied drawings from the artist’s youth, as well as photographs, framed ephemera and three mixed media installations line the walls or lie strewn and clumped upon the dark, heavily worn floorboards. On a constant loop are samples from Proffitt’s own backlog of ambient music made between 2005 and 2015, emitting from an old Sony CD player at the centre of the room. This sparse layout allows the visitor to weave comfortably through open spaces, creating a significantly different tone to the intensely lit, almost claustrophobic quality of some of Proffitt’s other gallery works. Unlike the hot darkroom lighting that accompanied the 2014 installation Cosmic Drift: Elevations of a Fried Mystic at The Hugh Lane, the only instance of artificial light in this exhibition is a small lamp within the main ‘shrine’. Without the emphases of spotlights on particular objects or enclosed scenes created by intense colour washes, the viewer’s experience of the space is freed up to be guided only by the sounds of the installation and the details you naturally choose to explore.

Richard Proffitt: Colour Blindly Watch The Moon (2016). Mixed Media. Image courtesy of the artist.
Richard Proffitt: Colour Blindly Watch The Moon (2016). Mixed Media. Image courtesy of the artist.

At once scattered and suggestively exact in their composition, the pools of aged found-objects evoke the passionate insistence of teenage shrines or looser versions of Rauschenberg’s Combines. In Lizard King, a goat’s skull balances on a piece of driftwood that slots into an old gasoline can upon on a pile of weathered boxes documenting a trip to Yukon. Like the principles of the rebus, the function of the little pile is to act as a series of visual syllables that present a puzzle to be solved. But instead of any concrete solution, Proffitt’s arrangement hinges on this very invitation to decode: encouraging open-ended associations of meaning with enough specificity to suggest a significance that we are never quite privy to.

The recordings played from within the central group of objects, Hold The Candle To Your Eye / Light The Criss-Cross On Your Chest, have a similar diversity and atmospheric charge. Comprised as it is of sounds such as air being blown into a bottle, psychedelic distortions, ambient chanting and distant breathing, we get the impression that a ritual is occurring just a room away. This atmosphere only thickens the longer you choose to linger; rather than being asked to actively tune in, we are instead encouraged to become immersed in free association. The assemblage itself incorporates materials as varied as seashells, African plates, a glass skull, an air conditioning fan and a scattering of cigarette butts and dried leaves that correspond with the many scratches and indentations of the floor.

Closer examination reveals the twofold appearance of details such as the webs of woven black bands in Follow Silent to the Flames, which are actually mostly strips of cassette film. Heavy discs engraved with tribal figures are in fact painted coffee cup lids with their undersides still stained with foam. The wire of a phone charger melts seamlessly into strings of seaweed. In another section, an ancient totem on a plinth morphs into what is actually a rusted and cobwebbed lighter on the upturned end of broken bottle. Similar decontextualisation is demonstrated by In This Dark We Call Creation, a series of what appear to be anthropomorphic silver engravings on slate or beaten metal. The ridges at the top of their surfaces offer the initial clue to what they really are: the painted and scratched insides of flimsy crisp packets mounted on cardboard. Significantly, this deciphering is only made possible by the viewer’s familiarity with the disguised minutiae; it is the activation of their own experiences and memories that unlocks and identifies the original forms of the objects.

Though the semiotics of rituals are in play alongside these ordinary expendables, it does not feel as if Proffitt’s aim is to explicitly engage with an elevation of the banal or to parody art’s fetishism. The modesty of the floor-based assemblages are devoid of Duchampian irony and, despite the exhibition’s largely autobiographical theme, also absent is the grandeur that would be conducive to constructing an origin myth like that of Joseph Beuys. But while it is undeniably incongruous to set mystical detritus within shabby austerity, prolonged time in the space rewards the viewer with a sense that we are witness to the morning after the ritual rather than its live enactment. As though recently abandoned, the off-kilter shrines are tinged with feebleness, like remnants of a ritual that have served their purpose, their magic now expended.

Perhaps the show’s most potent suggestion is that the reincarnations we go through as teenagers are skins to be shed in order to forge a fixed identity. Like the ingredients in a ritual that are necessarily used up and left behind, the purpose of Proffitt’s discarded drawings and tchotchkes is simply process. There is a point in the book, Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (2006), where author Rebecca Goldstein describes looking at a photograph of her eight-year old self and questioning: “Why is she me?” Taking into account the radical physical changes and mental experiences of the years separating childhood and adulthood, the little girl is an entity so inaccessible she is essentially a stranger to the author’s present self. Proffitt’s relics of a past life share this evocative distance, whose air of significance is as tantalising and impossible to reconnect with as the attempt to decode mystic symbols. However, while their original totemic power has evaporated in the sunlight and their meaning has departed from the port, the works’ strengths lie in their presentation of signifiers that engage the viewer’s memories of who they once were.

Richard Proffitt: Hold The Candle To Your Eye / Light The Criss-Cross On Your Chest was on view 11 March – 24 April 2016.