Critique | Abigail O’Brien ‘Justice – Never Enough’

Highlanes Gallery (offsite), 4 September – 15 October 2021

Abigail O’Brien, Harvey, 2021, Aston Martin Volante, dimensions variable, installation view, former Methodist Church, Laurence Street; photograph courtesy the artist and the Highlanes Gallery. Abigail O’Brien, Harvey, 2021, Aston Martin Volante, dimensions variable, installation view, former Methodist Church, Laurence Street; photograph courtesy the artist and the Highlanes Gallery.

Abigail O’Brien’s solo exhibition, ‘Justice – Never Enough’, was a part of the Highlanes Gallery programme for Drogheda Arts Festival 2021. Installed in a former Methodist church, directly across the road from the main gallery, this exhibition comprises 12 photographic works and a sculptural installation accompanied by a recorded song. ‘Justice – Never Enough’, concludes a 15-year project in which the artist has explored gender through the four Cardinal Virtues – Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude and lastly, Justice.

This body of work pivots on a cocktail of James Bond one-liners, the Aston Martin car and the MeToo movement, with Harvey Weinstein literally at the centre of the space. The central sculptural piece is a carcass of an Aston Martin Volante, likely to have lived during the 2000s. Raised by a modest platform on wheels, the work is titled Harvey, 2021. We can guarantee the car has been in a crash because rarely would a car of this calibre wind up dumped; the smashed windscreen and deflated airbag confirm the final days of this luxury object.

The retrofitted upper floors (of what was originally a high-ceilinged church) hover over the parameters of O’Brien’s sculpture. A heavenly gap in the upper floors makes it seem as if the car has either fallen from the sky or is about to ascend upwards. Either way, as we know it, the car is dead. It is hemmed by images depicting what it was made to be – a fast, sharp convertible car that strongly references the fictional, womanising secret agent, James Bond. The walls are generously populated with equally sized photographic works. Edging on the hyperreal, each photograph shows the Aston Martin in its pre-state, well before its death. Parts and sections of perfect machinery fill the compositions, each frame echoing the paint job and polished finish of luxury cars. Exaggerated colour, shine and form bring pornographic interpretation into reach. 

Seeing such close monitoring of production makes me think of Tacita Dean’s Kodak (2006). Dean’s looped film of the production of black and white film in the Kodak factory in France differs in concept yet potentially shares the close, fascinated, observation of the steps to produce what is typically visible upon completion only, with an effort to capture what is redundant in relevance or in use.

Each photograph’s title, which are also quotes from James Bond films, features somewhere in the image. One sees misogyny disguised as charm, poor humour presented as smart wit, and most of all, unchecked toxic masculinity that continues to roam living rooms and cinemas on repeat.

A car, displayed off-road, static and sculptural, has undeniable impact. It is curious that such an unforgiving form can work so well as sculpture. Luxury cars are at home when on show and, in that, they have a distinctive set of associations with wealth and power. Chris Burden’s Porsche with Meteorite (2013) comes to mind, a work that empowers and expands a vintage luxury car even further by weighting it against a meteorite. Generally, a familiar vehicle that demands observation instead of use can effectively set the scene for re-examination, re-imagination or, more directly, an indulgence in metaphor.

Here, we have metaphor multiplying metaphor. The sculptural work, Harvey, sliced on one side, cobwebbed and likely to have been mugged of its remaining valuable parts, appears monstrous, as well as dead. A steadily looped song, Justice – Never Enough by James O’Neil of Bitches and Wolves, blasts from its immediate surroundings. The song fills the space to match what seems to be a mixture of beauty and disgrace. Seeping through is the frustrated assertion of deprivation of justice for victims of rape, sexual abuse, harassment, assault, violence and trafficking.

This exhibition offers multiple facets of the Aston Martin which sustains a richness and buoyancy. One can move between marvelling at a car in production, to being hit by a quote such as “put your clothes back on and I’ll buy you a lollipop”, all the while a wreck in the room lingers. So, circulating versions of one particular thing is effective, but the repetition of the Aston Martin can be jarring. It starts and ends as metaphor which can skirt around an opportunity to unpack the complexities and details of the issue it is addressing. Voice, symbol and metaphor of the male has the floor. This is clearly intentional, but textures of multiple voices are missed. An absence that does work is the lack of figuration. Only objects are visually depicted and this carries the show. It makes space for a sort of reset button on the identity of the Aston Martin. The car is laid out in a range of states: vulnerable, pregnant and morbid. Never revealed in full, it feels ready to be reframed by a new driver. This offering rattles in the space of justice, not enough but making useful noise.

Jennie Taylor is an art writer living and working in Dublin.