Visitors to the ‘Sculpturenpark’ section of the 5th Berlin Biennale in 2008 could just about have been forgiven had they missed Aleana Egan’s ardently unassuming contribution. In this stretch of urban scrub (formerly nicknamed ‘the death strip’), the Irish artist had installed a quasi-architectural, skeletal form entitled Grey luminous light from the sea (A Structure for Readings) (2008). This framework of thin steel rods defined a rudimentary enclosure: an open-sided box that might, at a glance, have been taken for a set of antique goalposts or a support for real-estate signage, were it not for some curious curvilinear detailing. Despite the title, there was, of course, no nearby sea in landlocked Berlin to help illuminate this inscrutable, quietly elegant object. Rather, the grey light of the biennial’s early days rendered the skinny structure barely visible.
Egan’s sculptures often aspire towards such determinedly unshowy presence. They maintain a demeanour of diffidence just as they sketch out shapes and spaces of distinct personality and reserved authority. The form of Grey Luminous Light from the Sea had, to some degree, been drawn from the background into which it seemed inclined to fade, its neat lines acknowledging corner-of-the-eye features of the surrounding built environment. But, in a manner typical of Egan’s ruminative tendencies, its characteristics were also outcomes of less immediate, and more obscurely subjective, influences. Though based at that time in Berlin (having moved there from Glasgow, where she had studied at the School of Art), Egan in part conceived this construction as a distracted, nostalgic response to the coastal architecture of her Irish hometown of Dún Laoghaire, and in particular to the remembered outline of a pier-end bandstand. Merging with this mental image of home was the phrase that gave the work its elliptical title: words written about the same location by another Dublin native, the novelist Iris Murdoch, whose work Egan has come to value for its sensitivity to tensions between the singular intensity of inner consciousness and the precise conditions of outer realities.
Murdoch is one of many writers who have had a forceful impact on the forms of Egan’s art – albeit in ways that are, quite deliberately, not always discernible. Vital bibliographic links are, from time to time, flagged in accompanying texts, while some especially well-read viewers may even be able to identify the non-footnoted literary fragments that serve as allusive titles. (Here is one beautiful example from ‘Day Wears’, Egan’s exhibition at the Douglas Hyde Gallery last year: No noise, no glass, no upholstery boxed her up from the extraordinary. Now, in your own time, name the author …) Mostly, however, the committed literariness of Egan’s work remains latent, indirect, unassertive; it inspires a prevailing mood rather than claiming any precise meaning. The variously sturdy and fragile sculptural ‘line-drawings’ that composed her exceedingly pared-back exhibition at Dublin’s Temple Bar Gallery in 2009 were, as Ciara Moloney has written, the restrained results of ‘a sustained engagement with modernist texts’. Yet this was an engagement concerned principally with contemplating how such writings ‘accrue new associations upon meeting with the full brunt of consciousness, one brimming with other thoughts, dreams, textures and encounters’. More recently, ‘The Sensitive Plant’ (2013), an exhibition at Dublin’s Kerlin Gallery, also took its title from a literary text (in this case a poem by John Keats) but looser, less overt imaginative guidance was also granted by (among other things) an unquoted passage from Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (1853) – an ambiguously toned moment in the novel when the protagonist, Lucy Snowe, experiences a thunderstorm ‘pealing out such an ode as language never delivered to man’. In the agitations of this scene we approach a paradoxical mode of literary awareness, perhaps recognizing, as Egan suggests, ‘the ultimate futility of language against the pure visceral pleasure of experiencing nature’.
Critical to Egan’s version of a word-versus-world negotiation is her methodical use of inexpensive materials. She stays true to what she terms a material ‘continuum’: combining products generally associated with construction work (bent and bolted steel poles; bespoke containers of compacted plaster) with more homely fundamentals: strips of cardboard, for instance, and assorted unfussy fabrics. In wall-hung works such as Like the Driving (2011) or Cold Clay for Silence (2013), lengths of cardboard are strung together with thick coatings of paint and polyester filler to form sagging escutcheon shapes. Something might yet be ‘heralded’ within this delineated space, but all that is presently evident is the see-through emptiness and the unpolished, provisional properties of the shield outline itself. Other works amalgamate materials in a manner closer to installation. Head Lacks Means (2011), for instance, typifies Egan’s ability to stage quotidian strangeness. In the corner of a room, two rolls of grey-brown roofing felt become austere floor mats; on one is placed a series of small handmade cardboard trays, painted lightly and incompletely in pale pastel tones. Alongside, a narrow timber beam is bound up with bundles of cloth; in the corner just beyond, two metal handrails inexplicably provide robust support. This puzzling mise-en-scène might well resist our inevitable efforts to impose narrative or find meaning, and yet the arrangement also proposes a cautious kind of invitation: its forms are basic but open, accomodating or stabilizing. As in much of Egan’s art, there is the simultaneous suggestion of stored-up reference and unyielding reticence. There is also the specificity of an encounter, of unique contact with idiosyncratically physical things that gradually, subjectively, ‘accrue new associations’.
Aleana Egan is based in Dublin, Ireland. She has had solo exhibitions at Douglas Hyde Gallery (2012) and Kerlin Gallery (2013), and her work is currently included in ‘In the Line of Beauty’ at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin. Next year, she will participate in ‘Vestibule’, an exhibition of outdoor sculpture in Merrion Square, Dublin.
First published in Issue 159