Implicit in the phrase ‘based on a true story’ is the suggestion that facts have been manipulated to suit certain agendas; most commonly used in cinema, it hints at a certain degree of fabrication. In the case of the Coen Brothers’ black comedy Fargo (1996), it was revealed that – while claiming the film to be a true story – the directors had actually fabricated the entire plot. Indeed, the phrase is now generally assumed to mean that the majority of the story presented is probably not true. So you’d have been forgiven for suspecting the veracity of the work presented in ArtSway’s summer show, ‘Based on a True Story’ – but these art works aren’t out to deliberately deceive us. Rather, as the slightly vague curatorial premise proposed, they broadly reveal the way in which information and historical facts can be massaged, spun, re-interpreted or recontextualized.
Kirk Palmer’s contemplative film Hiroshima (2007), for example, deliberately omits any reference to the atomic bomb dropped on the city in 1945 – yet it’s virtually impossible to approach this compelling piece without recalling the horrific images associated with that cataclysmic event. These memories still haunt perceptions of this Japanese metropolis, though Palmer’s elegant study of everyday life presents contemporary Hiroshima as a thriving, verdant city where signs of its tragic past are conspicuously absent.
In Sarah Dobai’s work, documentary photographs of deserted and decrepit shopping centres are juxtaposed with posed studio shots of lone figures amid stark, grey environments. Complementing these are the grim yet fanciful cityscapes of Emily Allchurch, whose backlit digital montages recreate scenes from Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s sinister series of etchings, ‘Carceri d’Invenzione’ (Imaginary Prisons, c.1745–61). Imbued with a digital aesthetic redolent of computer games, Allchurch’s chimerical scenes sit uncomfortably next to Rachel Goodyear’s delicately rendered and highly idiosyncratic drawings, which are applied here to lost diary pages and other found objects imbued with ‘real-life’ histories.
Interjecting a touch of discordant levity, Jock Mooney’s gaudy DayGlo collages felt rather out of place. Constructed from hundreds of hand-drawn elements inspired by underground comics, the organic, wreath-like structures of works such as To Kiss the Palms of Death (2009) comprise a disparate mix of cartoon fingers, jellies and trees. Appearing like some sort of fungal growth, Mooney’s highly enjoyable (if incongruous) works seemed ready to start colonizing the gallery’s walls at a moment’s notice.
‘Based on a True Story’ was not without its longueurs, however. Andrew Cross’ prosaic video, Achilles Last Stand (2008), which features a protracted shot of a dusky field is about as frustrating as video art can get. Only slightly more engaging is Michelle Deignan’s Our Land (2008), a video which presents a discursive history of St. Anne’s park in Dublin. Although Deignan cogently attests the role of television presenters as emotionless, archetypal characters, upholding an air of impartiality, the insipid tone of her two narrators makes for a frankly soporific experience.
Antithetical to these was Ronnie Close’s superb multi-channel video installation Night Time Room/I Remember (2009–10). A trio of monitors plays interviews with former Irish republican prisoners telling of their involvement in the 1981 hunger strikes and the lasting psychological impact of their actions. Nearby is a dramatized film based on the men’s testimonies, whose nameless protagonist is seen flicking through diary entries from the time, while all around his flat are reminders of the Troubles. At once poignant and uncomfortable, Night Time Room/I Remember presents a portrait of a man who is now effectively a prisoner of his own political past. Like Palmer’s film, Close’s work benefited greatly from being installed alone in a separate room. However, in the main gallery there seemed to be little consideration given to how this eclectic combination of works might logically function together, leading to a cluttered and dissonant hang. At times the potency of individual pieces was diluted, leaving the overall exhibition feeling rather less than the sum of its (occasionally outstanding) parts. Nevertheless, while the Coen Brothers predicate the old adage that you should never let truth get in the way of a good story, the strongest works here suggested that the best stories often stick closely to real life.
First published in Issue 134