Draíocht Arts Centre, 22 November 2017 – 3 February 2018
In Yvonne McGuinness’s two-channel film installation, Holding ground where the wood lands (2017) – commissioned for this year’s ‘Amharc Fhine Gall (Fingal Gaze)’ exhibition – a group of adolescents from a local Foróige club are depicted meandering through open fields and woodlands surrounding the former Plunkett Estate in Portmarnock (now Malahide Golf Club). Centred around a pivotal and formative time in their lives, the film fluctuates between documentary film and directed theatrics and depicts the young men engaged in a series of performative actions.
An idyllic history is portrayed, in which peacocks roamed these once private gardens. On one screen, birds flutter and fly, while a typical, yet strangely alien landscape is depicted on the other. We hear the call of a peacock, slightly muffled, as if belonging to a distant memory. On hearing it again, we realise that the call is being made by one of the young men, as he mimics the distinctive birdcall that would have once echoed here. Such inversion eloquently informs questions about performed identity and relationships with place that permeate the rest of the film.
Birds often act out territorial displays through their own unique rituals. One such feathered performer, evoked by McGuinness’s film, is the tooth-billed bowerbird (a well-known and admired mimic of the forests of Queensland, Australia). For good reason, this bird is also known as the ‘stage-maker’ bowerbird. It drops selected leaves light-side up on the forest floor, deliberately contrasting against the earth, before taking its place on this constructed stage. Fluttering a dance, the bird exposes a flurry of coloured feathers that normally remain hidden, weaving harmonies and making use of its own melodies, whilst also mimicking the songs of its neighbours. It assembles and performs with an elegant and deliberate rigour and, in pursuing such rituals, it builds territories of colour and song. While McGuinness’s peacock is grounded ‘where the wood lands’, the bowerbird’s territories constantly shift.
The youth group are the stage-makers of their own forest and territories; through their own rituals, they delimit and probe at its edges. They make borders by painting lines in the grass and let out animalistic screams, as if engaged in some ceremonial purge. The young men proclaim to “begin again”, vocalising this message and writing it on a wall. They make a campsite staged between blue and red textiles draped from surrounding trees. Sitting around the fire, they work through a scripted conversation, before reading in unison along with the voice of an older, absent man, who recalls this place as he remembers it in his youth. One of the young men unearths an adolescent tree in the forest. In darkness, the group march in a torch-led procession out of the woods, all wearing life jackets, to the sound of crashing waves. As a collective, they re-plant this adolescent tree, which becomes a ritualistic emblem. By relentlessly probing at the architecture of these territories, the film tentatively explores how these processes might relate to their identity, self-hood and sense of belonging.
Of course, a genuine sense of identity and belonging are not easily uncovered in the throes of adolescence, and McGuinness appropriately demonstrates these tensions through the geometry of material, both on and off the screen. The visual counterpoints of ritual catharsis and alienating landscapes across the dual screens compete with a steady editorial rhythm. This tension is also manifested spatially, as the two channels are projected on separate adjoining walls, meeting in a hard-edge in the corner of the gallery. These competing channels move past this staged dialectic to fleetingly converge. At times, it seems almost as if a synthesis has been reached – a thematic impasse crossed – only for the channels to split again and the tension to return.
Amidst this duelling, there are flatter moments and narrative elements that spin off into nothing. However, the sincerity of the actors in their participation ensures that the film, overall, remains engaging. The same cannot be said of the accompanying installation – comprising 33 freshly-cut tree trunks (some of which feature briefly in the film), six monitors looping video portraits of the actors, and a vinyl text piece installed on the back wall – aspects which are supposed to offer the film some spatial extension. Aside from the potent, almost intoxicating smell of perfumed wood coming from the tree trunks, none of these elements seem to offer any transformative dimensions to the main feature. A significant mediating factor however, is the gallery space itself, dialectically situated between another territorial relationship and presenting its own unique tensions – that of the art institution and the wider public realm.
Philip Kavanagh is an artist and writer based in Dublin.
Yvonne McGuinness, Holding ground where the wood lands, 2017, two channel HD film; images courtesy the artist.