Column | The Sisyphean Task

Rod Stoneman discusses a recent exhibition in NUI Galway, presenting the work of practice-based PhD students from the Burren College of Art.

Tanya de Paor, Spinning a Yarn, 2021, film still; image courtesy the artist and Burren College of Art. Tanya de Paor, Spinning a Yarn, 2021, film still; image courtesy the artist and Burren College of Art.

“A steady digression to a fixed point” – Rose Hobart.¹

Driving to the NUI Galway Art Gallery, preparing to make the opening remarks at the launch of an exhibition on 12 March 2020, I received an unexpected telephone call: “Turn back – the event and exhibition are cancelled; the university is in total lockdown.” A dramatic moment, as the planned opening for ‘The Sisyphean Task’ coincided with that now fateful day when schools, colleges and universities across Ireland closed their doors in response to the rapidly escalating Covid-19 pandemic. 

There was a long passage where the art works lay in silence and darkness in a locked subterranean gallery, like the inner tomb of an Egyptian pyramid. Finally, the exhibition emerged again for two weeks, from 15 to 26 November 2021, still a time of continued uncertainty. 

A group of students from the Burren College of Art, working on practice-based PhDs, had proposed ‘The Sisyphean Task’ as the title of their exhibition. This refers to the repeated struggle to push an immense rock uphill, connecting it with the erratics on the Burren – huge granite boulders discarded on the surface of the karst pavement by the last Ice Age over 10,000 years ago. Their choice of this term also denotes the lonely work of developing research through art practice – finding forms, making meaning, developing an enquiry, and so on. 

The Greek myth was originally invoked by Albert Camus when he wrote The Myth of Sisyphus in 1942, during another dark period in European history. Disillusioned, yet aware of the limits of rationality, he answered the question of the absurdity of existence with an acceptance of the human condition in its proper terms: revolt, liberty and passion. Camus concluded: “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

An epoch later, the Sisyphean myth is drawn upon by the four very different artists, currently studying at the Burren College of Art. Qi Chen’s translucent shimmer of painting on silk transposes Chinese traditions of historical portraiture to an Irish context; a multiplicity of people with different origins return the spectators’ gaze with a quiet assurance in their composed faces, including a visage inscribed: “We are all ‘the other’ somewhere”. This work connects obliquely with Kelly Klaasmeyer’s portraits and written stories of friends – fragments of narratives which range from dramatically close encounters with violent death in the Balkan wars, to a pregnant woman escaping from a car crash. The paintings and texts are presented in the domestic frame of soft chairs and tables of books, a sitting room articulating the exhibition space itself.

The explorations of Tanya de Paor suggest an aesthetic to address consumer culture in relation to the ecological crisis. A suspended drawing on Perspex and a woollen thread, drawn out in the video, Spinning a Yarn, begin the work of undoing, untying, unknotting, loosening, and disentangling assumptions, perhaps reasserting the connection of all living things. The fourth artist, Robbie E. Lawrence, explores the psychology of death, proposing one powerful image in oil paint, a lace doily covering the sightless sockets of a human skull, a veil so you cannot see, 2019 – a memento mori, as Camus proposed: “Come to terms with death. Thereafter anything is possible.” 

Taken together, these works of art can be seen emerging from these unprecedented times, still searching for meaning and hope in an uncertain landscape. The return to the task of art is to renew the conditions of invention and intervention. It involves a determination to achieve some form of optimism and hope, effortful and to be repeated, over and over again.

Rod Stoneman was a Deputy Commissioning Editor at Channel 4 in the 1980s, CEO of the Irish Film Board in the 1990s, and an Emeritus Professor at NUIG, after setting up the Huston School of Film & Digital Media. He has authored several documentaries and books.


¹Rose Hobart, A Steady Digression to a Fixed Point, (Metuchen NJ/London: Scarecrow Press, 1994)