Exhibition Profile | A Dormant Light

Aengus Woods reviews Lucy McKenna’s solo exhibition at Solstice Arts Centre.

Lucy McKenna, Lenticel I, II, III & IV, 2022, steel, acrylic, dichromatic plastics, wire, light; photograph by Lee Welch, courtesy of the artist and Solstice Arts Centre Lucy McKenna, Lenticel I, II, III & IV, 2022, steel, acrylic, dichromatic plastics, wire, light; photograph by Lee Welch, courtesy of the artist and Solstice Arts Centre

In W.G. Sebald’s final novel, Austerlitz (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2001), there is a remarkable moment in which we are told of one Andre Hilary, a secondary school teacher, who presents the Napoleonic battle of Austerlitz to his young students in such incredible detail that they could see “the disposition of the regiments in their blue and white, green and blue uniforms, constantly forming into new patterns in the course of the battle like crystals of glass in kaleidoscope.” But for all the multitude of local colour and detail he might offer, Hilary laments that he could never supply enough to do justice to its reality because “it would take an endless length of time to describe the events of such a day properly, in some inconceivably complex form.”

A similar entanglement of time, complexity, and detail is at play in Lucy McKenna’s recent solo show, ‘A Dormant Light Resides in The Eye’ at Solstice Arts Centre (20 August – 22 October). It’s a varied and ambitious presentation spread across numerous rooms with forms, materials, motifs, and methods colliding, subtly implicating each other, and moving toward a cumulative effect, that of a set of works without clearly defined boundaries, orbiting around each other, pushing and pulling, while not settling into any kind of stability or fixed significance.

The exhibition title ‘A Dormant Light Resides in the Eye’ is drawn from Bright Colors Falsely Seen (Yale University Press, 1998), a history of synesthesia by Kevin T. Dann. Synesthesia is a neuropsychological trait in which the stimulation of one sense causes the automatic experience of another sense. This seems to offer McKenna both a starting point and a kind of modus operandi to explore the manner in which not only the senses but all kinds of phenomena can become implicated, intertwined, and bleed into one another.

Upon entering the gallery space, the viewer encounters a single photographic print, a jagged clash of purples, greens and yellows; an amalgamation of plant life and inorganic material that seems both natural and unnatural, hovering somewhere between photograph and photogram. We then encounter in the first gallery a set of 16 framed carbon prints of plants with medicinal properties, hung in diamond form. These are juxtaposed with a separate, serial arrangement of hand-folded origami research notes. The notes themselves follow a paratactic, associative logic, running from Umberto Eco through quantum physics, evolutionary theory, folklore, and the colonisation of space. Directly opposite is a large-scale work composed of coloured, laser-cut plexi-glass shapes, arranged, overlaid, and reminiscent of the labyrinthine geometrics of microbial forms.

From these beginnings the show proceeds and grows, taking a vocabulary established in these initial offerings and expanding it, combining, recombining, and adding strategies and motifs in a manner suggestive of the complex connections between sense and affect, mind and body, space and time, nature and culture. A very beautiful set of works named Transients (2022) consists of a replay of the plexi-glass shapes already seen, but this time laid out on transparent shelves through which light is shone to create a kind of shadow writing on the walls. A nearby digital video work, The Cosmic Repeater (2022), consists of kaleidoscopic imagery, set to the disembodied voice of Google’s AI text-to-speech application, reading Carl Sagan’s The Cosmic Connection (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1973), which seems to embed McKenna’s process within a recursive, vertiginous awareness of the infinitely expanding universe. 

In the final room, a sculptural assemblage, Lentical I-IV (2022) throws some light upon the imagery and processes seen in the photographic works that punctuate the show. An arrangement of dichromatic plastics, torqued and crumpled using wire and steel then illuminated with spotlights, takes on a curiously plant-like form. Shot through with multicoloured hues, gentle reflections and refractions, the overall effect is that of an ethereal, three-dimensional instantiation of her photographic compositions. 

Lentical I-IV shares space with a number of framed works on paper and a wall-hanging sculpture of lit globes that brings to mind the mutating topography of foam and bubbles. But the room is ultimately dominated by Holographus 1-5 (2020), a striking set of works spread out over five pedestals. On each pedestal is presented one small glass plate illuminated by a single adjustable light. Upon examination, each reveals a miniature universe, a holographic world of coloured points and stars with a depth of field distinctly at odds with the flat physicality of the plates themselves.

A particular strength of the show is the manner in which the individual works resonate with each other, deepening their significances and multiplying their points of reference until each is entangled in a web that seems to refer far beyond its own extremities. But such virtue also begs the question of how well the works stand up in isolation. Taken individually, a slight unevenness presents itself, with some pieces doing more conceptual spadework than others. But it’s a minor quibble at the end of the day; the show presents itself as a multi-stranded and multi-faceted unity, and it is best taken as such.

At all times within these works, McKenna seems most concerned with making sure that no single thing remains simply ‘what it is’. Sight becomes sound, color becomes shape, movement and stasis become in the end, barely distinguishable. The challenge that she sets herself in this show is to somehow present these processes in two registers simultaneously: that of the subject, and that of the universe. 

As such, in these smooth elisions between light and material, the embodied and the intangible, we see something akin to the synesthetic process at work in real-time. However, in the synesthetic process so presented – with all its slippages and ambiguities, and its refusal to be pinned down by any discrete sense or concept – we also see the faint intimations of a kind of Heraclitean flux that implicates the viewer in a vast mutating reality. 

Aengus Woods is a philosopher and critic based in Meath.