Other Realities

Mary Cremin ( curator, writer, Director at Void Gallery, Derry )

Paul Nougé (1931) “The world has been altered. There are no longer any ordinary things”.

The exhibition space is often a site of experimentation where the artist can bring ideas into fruition without which they would remain unrealized in the studio. Marie Hanlon is primarily known for her geometric paintings and drawings highlighting her interest in line and form. For the exhibition, Everything we see… Hanlon has taken this interest and used it to inform her experimental video and installations, creating abstract works that can be both humorous and poetic. She uses everyday objects to replicate the line and sense of movement expressed in her drawings. Ordinary objects are situated in unusual contexts to provide new meaning for familiar things, a reference to the Surrealist, René Magritte’s philosophical and conceptual ideas. He once stated: “Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.” The Surrealists were preoccupied with interrogating the conventions of language and visual representation. In Magritte’s work there is a tension between nature and artifice, truth and fiction, reality and surreality. Hanlon’s work uses similar strategies by appropriating familiar objects and revealing them to be something more. It may help us to recognize representational hierarchies and conventions that support fixed meanings and to create a distinction between normative associations of what something appears to be with what it is.
An exciting development in this body of work is Hanlon’s collaboration with contemporary Irish composers whose music provides, not only the soundtrack to the video works, but acts as the narrative voice for the visual material. Lining the wall near the entrance of the exhibition are prints of hand written scores by eight composers, these denote the gestural nature of written music. The mark making of notation and its relationship to drawing is the beginning of the exchange between composer and artist.
The installation Beyond Recall (2014) consists of a series of wire coils suspended from the ceiling and a video documenting the coiling and uncoiling of wires. The coils become three-dimensional drawings alluding to the artists more general mark making. This is a meditative piece accompanied by Jane O’Leary’s music Awakening. Its sounds are generated from the circular motion of the hand on a set of variously pitched ceramic bowls. We associate the languid movement of the wire coils as a response to the audible sound and so the work becomes interactive. Circular motion continues throughout, it unfolds as you tune into the conversation between sound and movement and become gently introduced to the new works.
False Move (2014) depicts a series of white blocks scattered repeatedly in different configurations on a flat surface. The title suggests a game but there are no signifiers to determine how it operates. An element of risk is suggested and Rhona Clarke’s rhythmic sound work Afterthought adds to the drama of the piece. There is a sense of anticipation and tension inherent in the work, its idea hinges around the number of falling blocks and the rate at which they fall; the building up, the slowing down, then beginning again.
Cornerspace (2014) is a flow of 55 photographic stills depicting real and imagined spaces; the camera is pointed towards corner areas reflecting line and spatial considerations. Scenes unfold with images of gallery spaces inhabited by viewers and performers, both activating the white cube of the gallery and referencing other artist’s work. Fictitious spaces constructed from studio props are introduced throughout and music by Rhona Clarke accentuates the spatial aspect of the piece. Hanlon plays with ideas of the real and imagined, scale and spatial perception.
These video works reference the psychology of perception both learned and assumed. The viewer deciphers imagery by subjective contours of their own making, which is referred to as ‘guided projection’ or, what psychologists call the, the ‘perception of symbolic material’. The artist alludes to both artifice and reality and plays with the elusive nature of seeing. The dynamic visual experience relies not only on a sequence of objects, colors, shapes and sizes, but the interplay of directed tensions: the boundaries of the gallery space, the principal locus of attraction and repulsion, as well as the element of chance. Rudolf Arnheim stipulates: “In ambiguous situations the visual pattern ceases to determine what is seen, and subjective factors in the observer, such as his focus of attention or his preference for a particular direction, come into play.” The environment becomes unstable and somewhat unpredictable. This concurs with linguist Ferdinand de Saussure’s notion of the arbitrariness of the sign – “that is, the essentially circumstantial, conventional, historical nature of the bond between the signifier and the signified”.
In Lines & Spaces (2012) the camera’s position is fixed for the purpose of one long take; Hanlon’s subject is the basic functionality of a venetian blind. The blind becomes a metaphor for the interior and exterior world, slowly opening and closing, allowing light to stream through in different intensities, then gradually disappear. The piece is formed in three parts: closed, open, closed. Rhona Clarke’s composition compliments the overall aesthetic using the metallic sounds of digitally manipulated percussion samples to create a sense of expansion and mystery. The work, while quite simple in its conception, captures the poetics of space, light, line and form. There is an otherworldly aspect to this piece echoed also in For All We Know (2013).
This begins as a cosmic moment where a spherical object, planetary in nature, appears to intensify, explode and fall to earth. The music, Soundscapes III by Gráinne Mulvey, is made up of electro acoustic wind sounds with live flute, which accentuate the flickering light of the astral form as it morphs through different scenarios in the human realm. It dances around the frame as a reflective dot, then becomes a ball hovering above a tubular base before the image shifts to depict a cable being pulled through the opening of a spool. The sound accentuates the frenetic movement of the cable and mimics its animation. Then the scene changes again, now showing pages of a book being flicked through quickly. The book in question is entitled Beautiful Frames by Swedish artist Dawid and in this context it acts as a metaphor for all that is known. When the book returns at a later stage, it is blank. The piece ends with footage of the night sky; the shrill exclamations of the earlier soundtrack fading to nothingness. For Hanlon, the central theme hovers around seeing and knowing, can we know based on what we see? The works apparent conclusion is that we arrive back at the beginning knowing nothing more than we knew before. Rudolf Arnheim proposes the idea of ‘perceptual forces’ as real in the realms of existence, since there exists both a psychological and a physical force. There is the gravitational force that is active in the object but there is also the psychological inference or what Arnheim refers to as ‘illusions’.
Hanlon points to surrealist methodologies in that she combines elements of profundity with high jinks. Her piece Everything we see… (2014), is a direct reference to Month of the Grape Harvest (1959) by Magritte. In Magritte’s painting we see a bare room, through its open window we are confronted with a group of identical looking men wearing bowler hats. With blank expressions they fix their impassive gaze on the interior of the room. As a pictorial device Magritte repeatedly used frames alluding to the frames function as indication of “fictionality, or at least artificiality”. The painting is a meditation on illusion – within our interior worlds we can keep the outside world away by closing our eyes, yet it is ever present. Month of the Grape Harvest references anxiety and alienation while commenting on the homogenization of society. According to Robert Short, Magritte’s visual language is based on “a cultivation of pictorial equivalents to filmic devices such as framing, montage, camera movement, simultaneity, point of view, depth of field and narrative sequentiality”. Hanlon’s video installation pays homage to this piece, the men in bowler hats are transformed into a virtual choir consisting of males and females. They sing words taken from interviews with Magritte denoting ideas of realities hiding other realities and nothing being what it seems. The voices, many and varied, are digital manipulations from a single male and female source. Further playing with the illusionist aspect of the piece, the sound is subjected to reverb and panning, adding a sense of spatial uncertainty. The gender specificity of the voices is also brought into question as deep sounds are occasionally assigned to the females and the higher pitches, at times, to the males. Hanlon’s appropriation and relocation of everyday objects which are then placed outside their natural environment references André Breton’s idea of creation as a “fusion of elements of fantasy with elements of the modern world to form a kind of superior reality”. Hanlon carefully fuses the idea of reality and fiction, creating a liminal space. Here the viewer is transported to a superior reality where we question our perception of what we see. The interconnection between visual and musical elements creates a synergy that conspires to leave one in a dream space.
Jean Goudal in his influential article “Surrealism and Cinema” (1925) stated that in the cinema,
“(….) just as, in the dream, moving images lacking three-dimensionality follow each other on a single plane artificially delimited by a rectangle which is like a geometrical opening giving onto the psychic kingdom. The absence of color, too, the black and white, represents an arbitrary simplification analogous to those one meets in dreams”.
In finding a new potential in things or objects, the transformative element can be related to the idea of ‘becoming’ – a gradual shift of transforming into something other than the perception of ones self. In a letter from René Magritte to Michel Foucault (May 23, 1966), he wrote: “Only thought resembles. It resembles by being what it sees, hears, or knows: it becomes what the world offers it”. In essence, all that we know is what we are, and what we experience is the sum of our parts. Rooted in the commonplace, Hanlon questions our perceptions of the world and ourselves in ways that render reality unfamiliar or that make, as Magritte said, “everyday objects shriek aloud”.


1 “L’Univers est changé, il n’y a plus des choses ordinaires,” originally published in Paul Nougé’s ‘Avertissement,’ in E.L.T Mensens & E. van Tonderen présentent seize tableaux de René Magritte (Brussels: Salle Giso, 1931), p. 7.

2 René Magritte quote “Everything we see hides another thing…”: source a radio interview with Jean Neyens 1965, cited in Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images, trans. Millen, Richard (New York: Harry N Abrams), p. 172.

3     Gombrich E. H, Art & Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, (NY: Phaidon, 2005), p. 170.

4     Arnheim, Rudolf, Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye, (LA:University of California Press, 1974), p. 14.

5 Foucault, Michel, trans. and ed. Harkness, James, This Is Not a Pipe, (USA: University of California Press, 2008), p. 5.

Bally, Charles and Sechehaye, Albert, Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, pub. 1916, trans. Roy Harris. (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1983).

6 Dawid, Beautiful Frames, ed. Mack, Michael, pub. Steidl, 2000.

7     Arnheim, Rudolf, Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye, (LA:University of California Press, 1974), p. 17.

8 Ibid.

9 Wolf, Werner  and Bernhart, Walter (eds.) Framing Borders in Literature and Other Media, Studies in Intermediality 1, (Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi, 2006), p 27.

10 Short, Robert, ‘Magritte and the Cinema’, Levy, Silvano  (ed), Surrealism: Surrealist Visuality, (New York: New York University Press, 1997), p. 101.

11 Breton, André,  ‘The First Surrealist Manifesto’. Manifeste du Surréalisme (Paris: Éditions du Sagittaire, 1924), English trans. in Breton, A. Manifestos of Surrealism, (Ann Arbour: University of Michigan Press, 1969).

12 Goudal, Jean, ‘Surrealism and Cinema’[Surréalisme  et Cinéma] (La Revue  hebdomadaire, February 1925), p. 343 – 57. Hammond, Paul (trans. And ed.), The Shadow and Its Shadow: Surrealist Writings on the Cinema, (London: British Film Institute, 1978), p. 49 – 56.

13 Foucault, Michel, trans. and ed. Harkness, James, This Is Not a Pipe, (USA: University of California Press, 2008), p. 57.

14 Quote attributed to René Magritte from his 1938 lecture entitled ‘Lifeline’ (Ligne de vie), Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp.