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Notes on 'Notes on Westward Expansion'

Bloc Projects in Sheffield asked me to write something about Tom Ireland’s 2012 exhibition Notes on Westward Expansion. Below is that text.

The review was also excerpted in Corridor8 magazine.

Notes on ‘Notes on Westward Expansion’:

Tom Ireland invokes the past and future simultaneously in Notes on Westward Expansion: the past of heroic endeavour and its perhaps inevitable future as a subject for storytelling.

The title, which also functions as the title of most of the works in the exhibition, hitches the wagon of American frontier spirit to that other great American adventure - the moon landings. Both of these periods are firmly fixed as History by now, to varying degrees, and both are surrounded by a significant amount of nostalgia that often takes the form of fiction.

The thing about fiction, however, is that it has a structure that the natural unfurling of reality does not. We are animals that thrive on stories and the reality of space exploration is not always a satisfying enough narrative. Back when the moon landings were in full swing there was the very real danger to the astronauts, alongside the sheer insane audacity of the endeavour, to keep everyone’s love of a dramatic arc satisfied. However, as became evident in the years following the conclusion of the Apollo program, the interest of the public can only be sustained for so long without a story to follow. So now we are left with the practical bits and pieces of lunar-landing technology scattered throughout our lives in a pretty mundane way - cordless tools, scratch-resistant lenses – and no longer watching the sky as people are fired far beyond our atmosphere on top of billions of dollars’ worth of rockets. Instead we watch billions of dollars’ worth of CGI rockets leave Earth on a cinema screen on a far more regular basis than they ever did in truth.

By connecting space exploration and the expansion of 19th century America, Ireland is firmly positioning the once shining beacon of modern life that were represented by the manned missions to the moon as something very much over. Full of ambition and conquest and discovery, but definitely finished. A relic to be codified into myth and a short-hand of visual phrases.

The language of space exploration has been stripped down in this show to the bare minimum. We know where we stand with grey rocks and dust, silver foil, institutional lighting and an eerie void. It is testament to the lingering familiarity of those iconic photos of the moon from forty years ago. It is also telling of the prevalence of films that have been made about the moon and space at large, some of our most enduring secondary souvenirs of that extraordinary time.

This fiction-as-relic is especially in evidence in the form of Ireland’s black void painting. This object recalls the monoliths found throughout the solar system in Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke’s epic film 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as conjuring the metaphorical monoliths of Modernist art. In 2001, the ominous black artefacts are the remnants of an extinct society, which seem to give human evolution a bit of a kick whenever they are discovered. Similarly, Modernism was responsible for a revolution in cultural terms that has been impossible to ignore.

Ireland’s painting, in contrast to the grandiose soundtracking in 2001 that occurs when anyone draws near to one of the monoliths, emits a melancholic music: a super slowed version of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata stretched to keep pace with Neil Armstrong’s time spent on the lunar surface. The noise indicates we are in the presence of something not-inert, but it is not a statement of intent as much as an introduction to the possibility of action. The void-object reverberates with the sense of its own potential, even as a remainder, to affect us one way or another. But this action requires human contact – the object needs an audience for its story just as the 2001 monoliths need the proximity of humans, or their forebears, in order to activate.

It is this idea of activation that allows Ireland to draw parallels between space on all scales – both the space of the universe and that of the gallery. His work in this show takes in both and draws out their similarities as sites for action and interaction.

Space (outer, rather than gallery) has, for over a century, been a seductive setting for fiction. Space is, to a certain extent, an unknown entity upon which it is easy to project a story. It sits for the most part, or so it seems to us most of the time, in a position of inactivity; something we only think about when confronted with events like the Apollo missions or the recent landing on Mars of the Curiosity rover. It is activated briefly in our imaginations via occasional intrepid interventions, or, much more commonly, through science fiction stories such as 2001.

The gallery operates in a similar way. Often it is empty, blank and visitor-free, unchanging between exhibitions, but it is brought to a state of engagement by the presence of work and of viewers. In this way, both spaces – outer space and the gallery – act as blank slates that await human contact to bring context and interaction. Ireland has crushed the two realms together, these human-less staging areas for our stories and our ambitions, and filled the smaller space with all the potential of the larger.

Ireland embraces the scope for fiction in both spaces as a way of communicating beyond the bare bones of the factual, and his precise and careful hand offers just enough readable material in order to engage us in a remembrance of dreams lost and recalled through the very human desire to retell, retell, retell.

© 2012 Fiona Shaw, all rights reserved

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