DAY MAGEE SPEAKS TO KAREN DONNELLAN ABOUT THEIR RECENT EXHIBITION AT THE RHA.
Everybody knows that sugar is bad for you. And yet, as children, it is what we are often first rewarded with, in exchange for being good. You then spend your whole life trying to be good, and then, one day, you’re in serious need of a root canal.
Jelly tots and marshmallows, pierced with wooden skewers and arranged in geometric optical illusions, litter the wall. Invoking subatomic particles and platonic forms, the otherwise preservative-rich materials of Cosmic Flaccids (2023) branch out in generative activity and suggest that something is growing.
“I’m horny for physics,” smiles the artist, Karen Donnellan. With wry glee and a show-matching outfit, Donnellan tours me through the confections, speaking at length about entropy versus syntropy – how the forces of disorder might indeed give way to creation – skinny-dipping, and their trained material, glass.
Baudrillard wrote about glass in 1968 as a “material of the future.” In its transparency, glass reflected “faster communication between inside and outside,” though significantly, in his view, as a trick of the light – an ersatz communication that homogenised these distinctions as opposed to dissolving them. However, what we look into here are not shop windows, but rather, Donellan’s own System of Objects.
Vivid purples punctuate the pastel-coloured crystals and minerals, and the anomalous ways in which the light meets sheets and shards of dichroic glass. A pink rope chew-toy loops around a clear phallus (if not an inverted yoni); lavender anal beads circle the raw cast of Romanesco broccoli; a pair of rose quartz domes bear fake pearls, Blu-Tacked on for nipples. Innocence and deviance intermingle, the earnest and ironic continuing their dance. Just as the works produce literal refractions, so too does each pairing pose an infraction – these things are not supposed to be together. Containing multitudes, they are never quite placed in the mind, however fixed they are in situ.
And both of us, artist and spectator, are cackling. “You have permission to laugh in a gallery, in these white-cube spaces,” they say, as if we specifically need reminding. “If we don’t have pleasure in the smallest part of our lives,” Donnellan says, then referring to the endlessly nested scaling patterns of fractals in nature, “how can we bring it out into the world?”
Donnellan invokes American feminist writer, Audre Lorde (‘The Erotic as Power’), and the ‘pleasure activism’ of adrienne maree brown, speculatively posing sex, if not pleasure itself, as a reparative and political technology. Donnellan’s works seem to ask: how might our bodies conceive of, let alone enact liberation, if they have not themselves lived through its conceivable effects of joy and freedom? How else might bodies, these agent sites of knowledge production, of phenomenological data, build or even envision utopia without having first visited upon it? Experiencing is believing is being.
This is where the naïve and esoteric may meet; where reward and punishment, pleasure and pain in their polarisation must, at some point, coalesce in a gradient dialogue. The first principles of being are one’s binary acceptance of, or resistance to, sensory input. As we grow, life in all its sensations begins to muddy; boundaries are discovered, begin to blur, or even reshape themselves in our ontological gymnastics.
Choice necessitates consent, not simply to another’s body, but to one’s own body, to its own potential – that is, what do you want to feel? “That my values as a child are still valued,” they tell me. “And that glass can be fragile… but it can also be strong – we have whole buildings made from it.”
Day Magee is a performance-centred multimedia artist based in Dublin.
Karen Donnellan’s exhibition ‘Cosmic Wetness’ ran at the Royal Hibernian Academy from 24 August to 1 October 2023.