Siamsa Tire, Tralee
27 February – 27 March 2015
In the centre of this exhibition there is a floor piece comprising 4,000 Bord na Móna briquettes laid in a herringbone pattern. It is mesmerising – sheer opulence embedded within the familiar and the banal. This quasi-parquet flooring is exquisitely beautiful. A sky light above illuminates the undulations and the tips of the bricks shimmer. The briquettes are stamped with the obligatory Bord na Móna (BNM)
sans serif font, worn down in places over time. The variations of brown form a spectrum as rich as the striations of any precious stone or wood. It needs no explanation or interpretation. It is architectural and natural, universal and specific.
The floor is the starting point for Sue Morris’s exhibition ‘Luxury Goods’, a mixed media installation that sets out to use domestic found objects to explore notions of necessity and luxury within the context of austerity in Ireland. The briquette covering speaks to this brief, simultaneously evoking comparisons to both the grand house tradition and the simple mud floor. The work is propelled by a non-specific personal and public nostalgia, and the location of the exhibition in North Kerry, with its traditional bogland connections, is not arbitrary. Yet the strong aesthetic qualities of the floor piece both connect and divorce the work from all that it evokes; the familiar is made strange.
The briquette floor acts as a staging area before you enter a world of mise-en-scenes, telling a well know tale so common you can no longer distinguish the narrative. The pieces in the exhibition are purposely untitled and the four gallery spaces flow into one another. The works in the additional galleries are composed of domestic ephemera; the everyday is mounted upon the wall and showcased upon plinths. The banalities of sugar, coffee and oats are preserved in delicate vitrines, while golden soda bread is pedestaled upon a matching briquette rug. Porcelain spoons, reminiscent of something your grandmother might have collected, are lined up upon the wall; the pretty flower patterns are embellished with the words ‘food, water, heat, light, housing, transport and clothing’. A text from one of the later collages reads: “Our ideas of luxury will vary from those of other generations and will be concerned with household equipment rather than marble floors and expensive fire surrounds.”
These everyday objects are made strange not just by their change in context but also their inherent familiarity. Their material traces interweave with many of the viewer’s personal histories. They represent the valueless objects we often hoard away: old pairs of spectacles and pill bottles kept at the back of the cupboard, but not for prosperity. The objects hark back and long for the past, but the nostalgic affects are not twee; they are complicated and difficult to pin down. Another matching briquett rug is laid beneath the wire frame of a tiny bed, with a stack of styrofoam sheets wrapped in tissue to the right, and a teacup and shoes formed from paper at the feet of the bed. We are playing Chinese whispers and the echoes reverberate around the room.
A triptych of homes is displayed in the last gallery. Three tiny needle points of quaint cottages in vivid colours are paired with the artist’s monochrome collages of modern suburbia. The delicate vernacular of the thread and the implied nimble hands are juxtaposed with the dreary photomontages of 1970s-style constructions superimposed with forest illustrations. The collages on the opposite wall take the banal, the remnants of the junk drawer, invoices, bills, tax disc and delivery notices, and layer these forgotten documents with left over stationary, tracing paper, wallpaper, appliance manuals and magazines. The intricate designs and textures from the mid-century wallpaper creep through the utilitarian format of the old documents. A colour scheme of reminiscence, pasted together, faded and curling at the edges.
Nostalgia is used here as a critical tool to engage with the artworks. Nostalgia occupies the space of the collective in a manner similar to the public rhetoric of austerity that Morris takes as her starting point. It is not, however, a longing for a redeemed future. Instead ‘Luxury Goods’ uses the language of nostalgia to question the commonplace. In the terms of Svetlane Boym, nostalgia is both restorative and reflective: “Restorative nostalgia protects the whole truth, while reflective nostalgia calls it into doubt.” (1) Returning to the floor, it is difficult to restrain the urge to walk upon it, touch it, kneel upon the surface, run your hands through the peat and viscerally check its authenticity. These objects are material traces of the past reflecting changing values, roles, customs and habit, but material cultural is inscribed by both its previous and current occupants.
Gemma Carroll is an art writer and critic based in Cork.
Artists' News Sheet, May-June 2015