Jaki Irvine: This Thing Echoes @ Frith Street Gallery

‘This Thing Echoes’ is Jaki Irvine’s solo exhibition at Frith Street Gallery, featuring two video installations on the ground floor and a photographic assemblage in the basement.

Guanajuato 14 (2010) is a 4 minute video juxtaposing the tranquil cosmos of a hummingbird aiming for the nectar of a feeder against that of the surrounding urban environment; Shot in Mexico, On the Impossibility of Imagining the Numbers of Dead and Disappeared (2014) is a collection of 20 pigment prints placed on a large wallpaper themed after the Angangueo forests of central Mexico, where millions of monarch butterflies migrate every year. But the flagship artwork in this show is Se Compra: Sin é (2014) (funded in part through an Arts Council of Ireland Project Award), a 17 minute single channel video projection occupying almost the entire ground floor gallery space.

The video narrates aspects of the everyday life in the streets of Mexico City. Focusing on its inhabitants, we see street sellers, scrap and garbage collectors, random people engaging in different activities. Concurrently, Irvine introduces us to the hubbub of her chosen urban setting a recording studio in a parallel universe. There a pianist, a cellist, a violinist and Irish signer Louise Phelan, who performs the traditional Irish Sean-nós style of singing, survey the plethora of street sounds. Initially shadowing them and gradually coiling and merging the sounds of all sources, the end result evokes a curious score almost redolent of atonal music practices.

I visited the exhibition twice in an attempt to understand Irvine’s investigation on cultural diversities and the human connection within the given natural locus. The close ups on the human body (hands, feet, eyes, nose) bringing forward details of wrinkly surfaces, worn out nails, damaged skin, appears to underline her own conscious need to scrutinize the relationship between social status and body appearance.

Despite the palpable, although controlled and isolated, phonetic parallelisms between urban and studio crowds, the deciphering of further symbolisms among what the background of traditional Irish singing and the verve of the Mexico City street life might represent, is somewhat incoherent. Surely, Se Compra: Sin é, impregnates above everything, a statement of how music and sound invade in one way or another all aspects of the quotidian, surpassing cultural barriers.

Notwithstanding the curatorial aspect of the show for which a few alternative suggestions could be proposed (the photography assemblage could work better if it occupied one of the ground floor wall spaces, and if the leading video was divided into two synchronous channels, one of the the Mexicans and the other of the studio group), Irvine’s installations are sublime studies in human emotion and indeed worth experiencing. Kostas Prapoglou

Jaki Irvine talked to REVma -/+ about her exhibition and work:

REVma -/+: ‘Se compra: Sin é’ is a video filmed in Mexico City. Why have you chosen this place for your video’s narrative?
J.I.: I was living in Dublin with my wife, who is Mexican, when the economic crash happened. She’s a mathematician and couldn’t find work. Things became impossible and we decided to move. She is now working again and I divide my time between Mexico City and Ireland as a result.
My previous series of works, ‘Before the Page is Turned’, was shot in Dublin and focussed on some of the effects of this crisis, with relationships breaking up and people planning to leave or falling through the cracks in society. It was then, probably inevitable to begin making work in Mexico City, something like the aftermath of the previous set of works.
When I arrived in Mexico City, apart from the extremes of wealth and poverty, I was struck by the noises and sounds of things. As I was finishing editing a series of videos called ‘Before the Page is Turned’ at the time, I was already thinking of music, tonality and the place of ambient sound and noise in relation to this. So it was impossible for me not to also hear these bells and rasps and calls in terms of tone and rhythm, at least on some level, albeit something I hadn’t heard in this way before. Meanwhile I met the Irish singer, Louise Phelan, who also lives in Mexico City and we were speaking about the how one holds onto a sense of place through the voice and through singing. Obviously this is something that many people do… singing to hold onto the past- a kind of whistling in the dark as it were- when the future is so uncertain. And of course Ireland has a tradition of music of this ilk, as we have a tradition of emigration. So these things came together in Se Compra: Sin É.

REVma -/+: In a few sentences, what would you describe as cultural identity and how do you define it through your art?
J.I.: I’m inclined to say that I’m not all that interested in trying to define cultural identity as such, although it often seems that the further we go from our origins, the more stubbornly we identify with them, however imaginary that space might turn out to be. This was something I was trying to think about more when I made ‘The Silver Bridge’ in 2003.

REVma -/+: Your videos range from single screen to multi-channel installations. How do you decide the format for each of them and to what extent does your subject matter play a role in this process?
J.I.: It depends what I’m trying to think about. For example, I knew that with ‘In a World Like This’ or ‘Seven Folds in Time’ they needed to be multi-channel as the experience of something happening simultaneously rather than sequentially was important. In the latter for example, I was interested in breaking apart the music of a violin or flute and folding it up on itself, until something that began as a single linear thing opens out into a composition for seven flutes. And then there´s also the possibility of setting one’s own pace and place as a visitor within a multi-channel installation.
While the inherent linearity of the single channel is more restrictive in that sense, I’m not trying to mimic a cinematic experience either. So for example, ‘Guanajuato 14’ is on a small monitor attached to the wall as you enter the gallery, while the screen support for ‘Se Compra: Sin É’ was made with the same welded box metal that’s used for market stalls both here and in Mexico City. Similarly, the plastic stools are something used throughout the city in markets. The possibility of easily moving them around the gallery, rather than the more usual fixed seat arrangement was also more in keeping with the subject matter.
Then there’s something about a single channel that loops, which lends itself to the feeling of an insistent grinding return. This was also following on from the ‘Se compra’ van that goes around and comes around; the daily grind of work and the music that’s also structured in rounds.

REVma -/+: Are you planning to further explore Mexican culture for your future projects, or do feel the need to investigate the diversity of other social groups around the globe?
J.I.: The idea of arbitrarily lighting on social groups around the world as the subject of my investigations seems both bizarre and arrogant.
I’ll just go on and see what happens.