J. Doyle: Containers 2002, Back 2002. Photo: Patrick Rastenberger


Sets (or The broken-ess of things): New Works by Jeanette Doyle

In mathematics, a set is a 'well defined' collection. Well defined in this case refers to a clear possibility of determining whether any given object / element is a member of the set or not. This mathematical construct is both a wonderful and a complex idea which has embedded within it a rich intellectual history: it hints at a rather far reaching ambition to provide a unified grounding for large swathes of mathematical theory. The richness of this conceptual structure, which mathematics has tapped into, is arguably something already intuitively present to our everyday trafficking with the notion of a set. In the everyday, a set of things is a collection that belongs together and suggests also the possibility of something not belonging, of something ending up noticeably or decidedly in the wrong context or place: in the wrong setting as it were.

The apparent requirement that the artist should have an oeuvre, a clearly defined set of works constituted by equally clear subsets of elements (shows and projects), already participates in this thinking of, in and through sets. The stylistic unity or thematic continuity of the artworks is the principal required to establish what is and what is not in the oeuvre. Peter Wollen posits a similar construct in relation to cinema where he says: "my understanding of auteurism[… was] that you had made a series of films which, viewed as a unit , illuminated each other and formed a single coherent body of work." [*] Within artworld practices the catalogue of the work begins as the itemising list of the oeuvre. In a related manner, the catalogue essay often emerges as the attempted explication of the principals of unity subtending and binding the work coherently together. But we can set about things differently…

I can perhaps begin with time, as I appear to be already here in the middle of time: things come together in time, they co-incide, they endure however briefly and then they dissolve and break into another constellation of possibilities. In the piece 'Back' the children's coats are brought together from all the children's coats in the world by all manner of accidents, selected to hang on these hooks for a while, hanging at child's height.

Some other accident of insight might suggest that one coat is a little more grown up or perhaps even a lot more grown up. It belongs, in some way at least, further along the narrative of a biography, a life. It might be worth noting that the artist has pointed out that the jacket "is not meant to simply register as a sinister presence" but rather "to suggest the inability of an adult to inhabit the same space he or she has done as a child."[**] Perhaps then this other coat is in the wrong place or perhaps the wrong time or perhaps this is an accidental moment of nostalgia or a moment of risk when the adult interrupts the space and time of a child or perhaps this is just the right setting, and all belongs here just as it happens to be. Just so. It is the adult who invents childhood and it is the time-wary adult who most urgently tries, and so earnestly tries, to set things in a lasting order and establish things in their right proportions. Time resists this setting in order retaining a disruptive and dissolving fluidity.

Something of the anxiety of time is suggested in the piece entitled 'Set'. The set in question here is a set of crockery. This crockery has been smashed with a hammer, reassembled using glue and presented as if still substantially intact despite the holes from the hammer's impact and the veined surfaces that testify to those shattering blows. The catastrophe, it is thus suggested, has been overcome and time undone, reversed and subverted. But what appears to abide and endure is only the already broken-ess of things. The inutility of the set argues the futility of the repair and the abandoned-ness of things in the throes of time. No archaeological reconstruction can overcome the loss (the loss of things, the loss of others, our loss) but rather declares the abundance and hopelessness of all this loss (all the more fretfully the more it obsesses and fiddles at reconstruction).

In discussing this work and what might be written here, Jeanette tells me that "'Nostalgic Landscapes' has yet to be made [...]" We both hesitate and then laugh. This strange broken-ess of things in time: the broken-ess of things such as ourselves that project not only into the future, but into that future with a specific orientation to the past (nostalgia), a future doubly bound to the very fact of the loss of the past. The project of painting a series of Irish landscapes from memory while resident in Helsinki in this way reminds me of the poet who writes "I search / for what I have not lost […] I would stop/ if I knew how." [***] The potential absurdity of this temporality is fully realised in the work 'Containers' which presents the viewer with eighty clear plastic food containers with four compartments containing sand, pebbles, seawater and a shell. Here, the prospect of holding onto a piece of the seaside, a souvenir of a day in sea, sand and sunshine is translated into the individualised pre-packaged and sanitised commodity form. The commodity of course is a fetish with which to ward off the threat of loss, the threat of time and the unavowable inevitability of death. The form of the edible portion suggests that oral ingestion of the thing is the only hope of ever capturing, of ever fully possessing the thing. (It is noteworthy that in a Duchampian play here, the 'ready-made' becomes the 'take-away'.)

Despite the wry humour at work in these pieces, there is no wishing away of the anxiety that is enacted in a work such as 'Fragments'. "The characters which make up the words, which make up the sentences, which make up the paragraph, which make up the page are written directly on top of each other. So either a word or a sentence or a page becomes a single character." The repetitive labour which writes over each character in a sequence of text is Sisyphean in its continuous action of undoing the last thing done: each character written undoes the last character ultimately generating an image constructed of the now illegible text. If this question of anxiety is enacted in the process of these text-image works it becomes palpable in 'Somebody Else's Shoes'.

In the same poem cited above, the writer continues: "I didn't mean to mock you. I know there are people here/ - wretched, ill-fated - / who have lost their worlds / in moments of truth." This same insight seems to haunt 'Somebody Else's Shoes', a row of worn shoes with their soles burnt. These shoes, these things have travelled across the scorched earth. These things have crossed through terrible things. These things, like all things, seem to speak of other things elsewhere. This is part of the broken-ess of things across time as played out in our thinking of things. This is, and again I say 'perhaps', to do with the mindset of things like ourselves that seek to set things in order even as we precipitate catastrophe.

Mick Wilson, Dublin, April 2002.
Mick Wilson is an artist, lecturer and writer.

[*] P. Wollen, "Airports: A Personal Memoir", in David Blamey (ed.) Here, There, Elsewhere: Dialogues on Location and Mobility, London: Open Editions, 2002. (p. 106)
[**] Private correspondence with the artist, March 2002.
[***] T. Carmi "At The Stone of Losses"; G. Schulman (trans.) in At The Stone of Losses, Philadelphia: Jewish Poetry Series, 1983.