Camilla Hanney’s solo exhibition, ‘Lament’, showed sculptural and installation work, theatrically placed in Pallas Projects/Studios (1 – 16 July). The exhibition reflects, embodies, and presents a history of keening – an act of public grief for the dead, historically carried out by women in Ireland. Upon entry, a group of plinths faced the viewer. The space was still and silent, aside from the consistent and strangely comforting sound of diluted holy water, flowing in the fountain of a sculpture, titled Babble, Gurgle, Flow – an animated and surreal piece, populated by figurines with beaded heads.
Spheres, snakes, and silk feature in this body of work, which was loosely and suggestively curated into two parts at Pallas – one almost pseudohistorical and the other leaning into the autobiographical. The first grouping hosted a series of stage-like props, actors, and dead ideas, laid out at low height, potentially echoing the level of a ceramist or a keener at work. Vessels, vases, and figures marked their territory. Plinths were like graveyards, the dead manifested in ceramics, in the process of rising. Lit porcelain offered deep shadows. A pair of hand mirror forms, installed on the wall, appeared to hover in the space. There was a general sense of mourning being acted upon and suppressed in equal measure. Vulnerable vases were mixed with more resolved, confident things, featuring delicate details such as beads, pearls, and silver tears.
Transitioned by an L-shaped plinth – which seemed to echo the subtle L-shape of the gallery space – the second grouping of works tapped into the artist’s family history. Revealed behind a curtain, a vital thing in itself, thinner shadows emerge in this section, with more information, as if a little closer to the present. In Something Blue, imagery of Hanney’s late grandmother’s disembodied dressing gown floated, a cyanotype which looked like an x-ray. Skeletal hips and hands made heart-shaped patterns in burnt silk, framing a skull with floral bones in a quiet, suspended image, titled Shroud.
Having seen bones and flowers interchange, I began to project them onto the decorative, floral shawl of An Bhead Chaointe (2022), depicting a disembodied head and hands, proportionally skewed to suggest that the hands were originally stretched out in front of the face. Dance Macabre (2022) was also magnetic, wonky and asymmetrical, yet deeply ornate and beautiful with its own specific sense of importance.
Overall the exhibition had faith in fixed objects and the atmosphere their placement generated was palpable. In referencing forgotten traditions, the works almost seemed of the past, and therefore held an unknown power, much like French artist Marguerite Humeau’s exhibition, ‘Birth Canal’ in New Museum, New York, in 2017. In ‘Birth Canal’, recorded audio and a manufactured scent filled the room, supporting sculptures of prehistoric figures in asserting their presence. In ‘Lament’ there were fewer multisensory devices but the presented works handled and asserted their material limits.
The exhibition statement considers themes of loss as extending beyond death to include the loss of jobs, time, education, and economy, as a result of the pandemic. It emphasises care and repair as central themes, while suggesting the act of keening as a path towards emergence from grief. Hanney discusses how keeners (who were once respected members of society before the Catholic church removed them) were carers, grieving on behalf of a group of people, channelling volumes of odourless, shapeless pain, to honour loss and to bolster its unexpected power.
What resonates most in ‘Lament’ is a strange whiplash sensation one can get from engaging with Hanney’s bodily forms and range of scale. Bones are made visible, bodies miniscule, heads life-size, and tears solidified. These distorted parts trouble unchecked understandings of the contents of a body. They foreground loss and make space to recognise repair in its convoluted and messy elegance.
Jennie Taylor is an art writer living and working in Dublin, Ireland.