Critique | Caoimhe McGuckin, ‘Fathom’

Riverbank Arts Centre, Newbridge; 9 September – 28 October

Caoimhe McGuckin, installation view, ‘Fathom’, Riverbank Arts Centre, September 2022; photograph by Brian Cregan, courtesy of Caoimhe McGuckin and Riverbank Arts Centre. Caoimhe McGuckin, installation view, ‘Fathom’, Riverbank Arts Centre, September 2022; photograph by Brian Cregan, courtesy of Caoimhe McGuckin and Riverbank Arts Centre.

In 2017, Caoimhe McGuckin graduated from NCAD, and in 2019 she received Kildare County Council Arts Service and Riverbank Arts Centre’s Emerging Visual Artist Bursary Award. This September saw the opening of her first solo show, presenting a series of 40 artworks on the theme of measurement – though the year in which each artwork was made was not disclosed. Whilst disabling any chronological reading of her practice, careful and at times delicate installation suggests that this was a deliberate sidestep. The exhibition statement refers to the intervening years (including the Covid-19 pandemic) as an inspiration, with measurement serving as an “ordering principle […] in the face of uncertainty and powerlessness”, out of which the artist sought to construct her own “personal system of measurement as filtered through an imperfect metric”.

An accompanying text offers individual descriptions for this body of work, pointing to historical eras as diverse as twelfth-century Europe, pre-Christian Ireland, and pre-Islamic Middle Eastern trade routes, while exploring size, weight, length, and various suppositions made between the body and its relationship to the material world. With all of the works situated in one room – from handcrafted and repurposed objects, to castings, dioramas, and looped screening – one is never too far from curious allegory. The source of each work is the rich heritage of human invention. Whether ancient, academic, or folk in nature, these roots offer added dimension to McGuckin’s work, as they do to the human story. 

As standardisation of measurement arose from trade, forming the basis of agreements and cultural exchange, power predictably remained with those who set the scales. In King’s Reach for example, we learn that a yard is the measure of King Henry VIII, from his nose to his outstretched hand. A disembodied plaster cast nose, linked to a thimble by a simple chain, ably illustrates the tale. Knowing the king first-hand would appear to provide a category of proof in all matters where the yard measure was applied. With calculations related to trade and land tax settled in this way, clergy and noblemen gained particular advantage over lower subjects, who could only trust what they were told.

Comprising distinct and evolving practices, ranging from the exact, but no less poetic, to the practical and irreverent, ‘Fathom’ assembles a picture of people in dialogue with the world as they find it. So, while we learn of a group of twentieth-century Harvard students employing one of their fellows to measure a public bridge, we are also told how 12 thumb lengths was the size of an Irishman’s ‘foot’, and how a ‘geansaí load’ is the number of apples that can be secreted away in an upturned jumper. Presumably none of these are conceived with trade in mind, language and discourse serving instead to fix their anecdotal method into living use. 

Throughout the work, linguistic markers appear as starting points, from which the artist has made devices suited to her own needs. McGuckin’s works present a visual language whose character is often personal, as outlined in Blink of an Eye and Crow’s Feet, A Privilege – each common language terms for the appearance of time. Where the former is represented through a grandfather clock, whose face has been replaced with mirrored glass, the latter repurposes a fishing net to function as a wall hanging, upon which cards and envelopes are attached. Encountered through reflection and memory alike, the personal is re-established in forms that evoke trust. Through a daughter’s closed eyes, photographed and placed to meet the viewer’s gaze from behind glass, or the close friend whose laughter lines did not have long enough to develop, the passing of time appears as an elusive but inescapable fixture of life.

The ancient Greek mathematician, Euclid, postulated that a straight line can be drawn between any two points. Although not directly referred to, this expression shadows McGuckin’s Unreliable Rulers. While space may be linear, experience is less so. With numbers replaced by emoji transfers, the line drawn between ‘happy face’ and ‘sad face’ seems to playfully mock our attempts to measure emotion. Altogether, ‘Fathom’ is a kind of wunderkammer or cabinet of curiosities; it shows how measurement connects, but also why it is connection and not measurement that we ultimately seek.

Darren Caffrey is an artist based in Kilkenny.