A fairly common site in the city of Barcelona is the amputated chimney: these are the tall free-standing chimney stacks that once puffed industrially revolutionising smoke, but that nowadays perform the role of cultural witness to Barcelona’s industrialised past and are a last remnant of the factories and workshops that they were once attached to. There is one such specimen in the courtyard outside the small gallery space in Barcelona, the Galeria Alegria, where Sinéad Spelman exhibited Chimney Song in May 2011 . For Sinéad the chimney is a physical manifestation of the structure of memory, it could also resemble an amputated member or limb and suggests the phantom limb that severing causes. We often overlook these red brick columns but they have specific formal and spatial attributes: down the tubular stack pours the air while concurrently it also blows upwards and escapes through the cracks in it’s covering. The drawings for Chimney Song are dispersed around a large white sheet of paper, the action taking place in each one is separate from the next: we see a woman standing on an over-sized sink plug or a normal-sized chimney plug as it hovers in space, we see her pulling it up a ladder behind her, we see a man pick up a disk that may be a manhole cover (or is it the plug?) – in each picture the figures find a new possible use for this strange object. All of the drawings on the sheet are self-contained and they all seem to float in space like the figures on the walls of ancient Roman villas. The main object of Sinéad’s enterprise is her drawing, the elaborations upon the inspiration for these drawings, in the form of objects or videos are secondary in her mind to the drawings themselves, the videos and objects are the real remnants of two dimensional worlds. Against the wall, below the sheet of drawings there is a black, seemingly silicone, object. This object, on first impression, looks like a Mexican mariachi hat but on closer inspection it appears to be solid all the way through and made of some kind of black plastic. It could resemble an over-sized plug for a sink, a child’s soother or even a small (taking into account the relative scale) model of a butt plug, however in the end it seems more likely to be a plug for sealing off the chimney stack from above.
At the base of the chimney is the oven or kiln where the fires once burned, and within this cavernous box-like space the artist has made a video of herself singing a love song to the chimney. There is a sense of the very physical sensation of pleasure or satisfaction to be within that space just as many of the drawings give form to a physical sensation whether real or imaginary, possible or impossible. We gain a sense of the gratification and satisfaction felt in touch, the tactical nature of our senses and the haptic element in visual art. There are other drawings by Sinéad that encourage us to appreciate (and deplore) the sensation of being enclosed in a space – one depicts the woman inside a network of orange lines that make up a pyramidal form, she seems both trapped and protected at the same time. Another is a drawing of a man in a coffin which is made up of red lines, in this instance he proffers his hand and the drawing is titled ‘Goodbye‘. This drawing encapsulates the failings of language in the clash between the horrifying fact of the death of a loved one and the inadequacies of language to express these feelings, the polite gesture of the raised hand belies this inadequacy.
The chimney has been amputated from its history, while it supposedly represents the industrial past of the city it has in fact become woven into the post-industrial present. This is not the first time that Sinéad Spelman has made work about amputated appendages, disembodied members or removed organs. Some of her drawings depict arms, legs, penises, unidentifiable appendages and pieces of flesh or flesh-like objects. We see them suspended on pieces of string or floating in space. These severed appendages seem to question the reality of the ‘whole’ subject, they go back to a moment before the subject thought of herself as whole, perhaps to the libidinal stage in infancy, but they do this in a dream-like way and in the present. In addition to this these drawings incorporate the grisly realisation that this appendage or organ has been severed or removed and that it is offered up for our scrutiny by the blank stare of the woman and man in some of the drawings. In other words these are philosophical deliberations; the lack of emotion on the part of the characters presents these dream-like worlds as a working through of certain facts and feelings and these are distinctly female. Sinéad has also made a video, ‘Song for my leg’, about a severed leg – she sings to it as though it has been amputated and fantasies about preserving it or making it tasty with pastry! Like ‘Chimney song’ it is a surreal love song and a song about death and the death of a phantom limb. The songs point to the common-place nature of death, the shock of it and the realisation of being flesh.
Here we find physical sensation of ciphering disjointed bits of reality, libidinal and erotic desires and the drive for satisfaction inherent in the day to day dealings with objects and with other people. However, these dealings could never be said to be independent of the ethical or political feelings that we carry around from day to day. The problem is that these two factors are inseparable, without recourse to one we are unable to consider the other. Critical thought is inextricably linked with the physical: for example if we are to protest against the wrongful imprisonment, torture or even execution of another human being or if we are simply horrified by the gruesome murders of a serial killer we will consciously or unconsciously have recourse to our own physicality. Sinéad sent me a quote from Susan Buck Morrs that succinctly sums up these feelings:
“You ask why the aesthetic is important for me today and what is at stake in its definition. That takes us back centrally to the question of politics. The aesthetic to me is a fundamentally cognitive experience. It is how the body senses reality, and I mean this in a rather animalistic, even biological sense. I know it is absolutely improper to say so, but this bodily experience is not always, already culturally mediated. To say so flies in the face of all received wisdom in the academy today, but I cannot deny my own experience. Ever since I can remember, my critical sense was nourished by bodily sensations-tense muscles, clammy feet, shoes too tight, breath too tight, holding back wanting to laugh-or to scream. Not feeling good in my skin was my way of criticizing the definition my culture was giving to the situation. Cultural meanings are sensed bodily as being wrong. Just plain wrong. How else are people capable of social protest?”[i]
On the opposite wall at the Chimney Song exhibition a selection of Sinéad’s drawings from the last year or so were also shown, they surround a short story written by the artist. Each drawing is like a vignette on a moment from life, sometimes a surreal moment – as depicted in the drawing of a woman stripping for a horse, sometimes concerned with surreal form, as seen in the unfinished bodies tumbling together and the strange shapes that seem to come from the sleeping dream-state or from a daydream. Meanwhile the decapitated forms resembling sides of beef are reminiscent of Francis Bacon paintings. In one drawing the woman dislodges huge boulders while in another she impossibly intertwines her arms behind her back. These vignettes are often meditations on physical actions but they are also drawings of people in states of profound introspection or even melancholy, the key example of which is one of the drawings in the trio Edges of the invisble which depicts a seated woman staring into the darkness.
The woman sits precariously on a stool while meditating on the void beyond the edge of the box-like building beneath the heels of her feet. She looks down and into the void, all is metaphorical here – the woman could be looking towards the future and the unknown (just as when historians or economists speak of surviving a difficult impasse they refer to standing back ‘from the precipice’) or she could be brooding over a recent quarrel. On her website Sinéad has put this drawing together with two others that are also quite heavily reliant on metaphor, in one the woman ‘walks on egg shells’ before her male companion, while in the other something has been broken and the akward angle of the familiar foot tells us who has broken it. While these three drawings taken together relay those difficult moments within relationships, the melancholic bearing of the seated woman also points to an art historical reference. The drawing immediately brings to mind Dürer’s Melancolia I. The seated posture of the woman with her legs slightly spread and her back slightly bent over is very similar to that of the angel in Dürer’s print, although while Dürer included all manner of references to melancholy, depression, genius and the saturnine disposition, Sinéad has replaced these with ‘the void’ pure and simple. The key comparison may be made in the glum seated position, it would seem as though this is a pose that we have carried with us since antiquity (as Aby Warburg argued that Dürer did). Nowadays this pose may be translated into a critical interest in the dystopic. Sinéad’s work seems to interpret this tradition from a more personal point of view, working through the physicality and the psychology of these disjointed feelings.
[i] Aesthetics after the End of Art: An interview with Susan Buck-Morss by Grant H.Kester. Art Journal, Vol. 56, No. 1 (Spring 1997).