Critique | ‘A Conversation Ensued, Nobody Said A Word’

Colin Darke and Yvonne Kennan, Belfast Exposed, 5 – 28 August 2021

Colin Darke, 20th image [detail], ‘A Conversation Ensued, Nobody Said A Word’, 2021; photograph courtesy the artist and Belfast Exposed. Colin Darke, 20th image [detail], ‘A Conversation Ensued, Nobody Said A Word’, 2021; photograph courtesy the artist and Belfast Exposed.

‘A Conversation Ensued, Nobody Said A Word’ is simultaneously straightforward and complex in concept, with artists Colin Darke and Yvonne Kennan using photographs to have a discussion of sorts across the walls of Belfast Exposed’s first-floor gallery space, taking it in turns to present a photograph in response to the previous one. Each slightly larger than a postcard, mainly landscape in orientation with the occasional portrait interruption, a linear display of photographs snakes around the exhibition space. This is a deceptively simple presentation which merits a prolonged stay in the gallery that ultimately rewards the viewer.

With no indication as to which artist initiates this ‘conversation’, the viewer can begin to trace the works on display, looking for visual threads between images in the search for some kind of narrative. We know such narratives exist but are not so easily extracted from the works. The accompanying gallery handout suggests that this is a nuanced and playful discussion between two well-read and knowledgeable artists, which references the writings of Brecht, Barthes and Kafka, the art of Joseph Kosuth, Louis le Brocquy and Man Ray, the music of Tom Waits and Genesis, and the films of Sergei Eisenstein and Steven Spielberg. As to whether such references help guide or impede the viewer is debatable. Familiarity with such references offers breadcrumbs of understanding that aids one’s interpretation of this conversation; whilst for other viewers, they potentially act as a barrier to one’s search for definitive connections between works.

At first, viewers may find themselves drawn to specific images: a pair of moustached red mugs; a housefly across a muted gradient; a paintbrush balanced delicately on a tin of paint; a statue of the Virgin Mary face-down on top of a mirror; a discarded bicycle with its front wheel ablaze. There are many captivating photographs on display here – from the compositionally sophisticated to the humorous and absurd – their intimate scale inviting us closer to reveal smaller details which enable us to forge tentative connections.

After an initial walkthrough, one might begin to view the exhibition in pairs, as links between images displayed side-by-side begin to emerge: an image of two photographs sits next to another of a digital image on an iPhone screen; an arrangement of a collage of tiles is replicated with books; the aforementioned tin of paint is followed by a dollop of white paint; and another pair of images finds pleasure in the intricate shadows created by objects across white surfaces.

Standout pairings include a photograph of a woman (presumably Kennan) at night, barely visible in the image, with the golden hue of a streetlamp bleeding into the darkness from the right-hand-side of the frame. This is followed by a photograph of a pair of sunglasses, one lens of which has been covered in gold leaf, in a humorous and thoughtful replication of the previous image’s colour palette.

Whilst such pairings complement each other, others sit in stark contrast. Autumn leaves on a pavement, vibrant in their browns, golds, oranges, and rusts, sit next to a brilliant blue sky and a magnificent tree, its buds on the verge of blooming at the beginning of spring. Perhaps such contrasts indicate differences of opinion between the two artists, providing moments of tension amongst its overall harmony.

The viewer can certainly find pleasure in these contrasts and connections; however, I wonder whether the artists’ subtle visual clues and points of reference ultimately keep definitive understandings beyond our reach? Just as one begins to follow a thread, or piece together some visual or thematic connection, the conversation takes a turn and we are once again at a loss, scrambling to find meaning. This is also part of the fun of the exhibition; viewers are challenged to trace the exchanges between Darke and Kennan and forge their own interpretations. Those familiar with the writings of Brecht – who is cited as a point of reference in the exhibition text – may be 

particularly responsive to the role of the viewer here. In Brechtian epic theatre, there is an emphasis on the audience’s perspective, interaction, and reaction to the work, and so there is an implication that both artists are extending this invitation to the viewer, who becomes the integral third party in this unfolding conversation.

Ben Crothers is the Curator / Collections Manager at the Naughton Gallery, Queen’s University Belfast.