DUBLIN — We all have that one story we tell, about a crazy thing we did when we were younger. Few of us make a commissioned art installation about it. For A Voodoo Free Phenomenon, the pitch-black Project Arts Centre gallery hosts a projection of artist Garrett Phelan talking at length about his experience at Newgrange, a Neolithic site in Ireland. He sits at a black table that holds a microphone and a cup of coffee, inside another darkened space, with a night-vision green sheen to his face. Two separate sculptures entitled “Ethereal Assemblages” (2014) are placed in front of the video. They feature individual microphones tethered to faux ancient Celtic artifacts, referred to as “Undiscovered Celtic Gold, 2500 BC,” by long black cables. Spotlights stream a dim gold light onto these structures.
Phelan’s story tells of his incredulity as a 20-year-old Irishman and his cunning to gain entry into the ancient cavern of Newgrange during the winter solstice at dawn, in order to witness a sliver of sunlight stream through a slit during that tiny window of opportunity. The world has long been in awe of this monument to the sun and the cycles of the earth that has retained its accuracy for millennia. Only 10 people are allowed into the narrow cavern each solstice dawn, and Phelan joins visitors from Japan and Sweden and a TV crew. It’s completely dark inside, and he nudges his way into the top of the cavern next to the film camera. When the light slowly peeks through the crevice, Phelan feels nothing but disappointment at first. Despite instructions to stay back from the light when it enters, he crawls through to the central path where he can see the light shine on ancient cryptic symbols carved in stone — now, he says, this is “epic.” But his mannerisms contradict this statement and instead convey that the anticipated encounter didn’t materialize, that the connection to ancient Ireland didn’t feel real. Interestingly, what he feels now is a nagging guilt over not conniving to get his mother, who drove him there before dawn, into Newgrange with him. Memory, reflection, and priorities shift over time.
The video concludes with a slow-motion scan of more faux gold Celtic artifacts and then rests its gaze upon a retro microphone. All of this highlights Phelan’s voice and an artistic desire to locate a sense of that voice in the cacophony of Irish history, culture, plus the current social and familial milieu. His manners on-screen are self-effacing, as he walks in, sits in front of the camera, and rambles on, with plenty of “um”s and “ah”s and rarely looking into the camera. He simply tells his story for 20 minutes with no editing or splicing. It’s a story to listen to rather than watch, and one gets the sense that Phelan is narrating it again and again in order to process the event. The darkness and his downward gaze, mixed with the guilt burdening the whole thing, turn the gallery into a sort of confessional.
Does he just want to be free from it all? That’s the question taken up by a companion projection, an animation, that beams high up in the rear of the gallery. The answer is yes and no. A black cube is drawn on a white background with the words “free from” at the top, and below scrolls a litany of things to be free from, most of them contradictory and impossible, such as nature, dreams, obedience, color — freedom as such is thwarted. There is a conflicted sense in the exhibition overall, hovering between a desire to find authenticity in collective Irish identity and a desire for complete independence and freedom from it.
If the sculptural microphones represent the voice, then the faux Celtic gold they’re attached to represents Phelan’s cultural baggage, a mystic source that replaces the electrical energy normally required for amplification. Phelan’s ability to express himself is anchored to the past and its Celtic legacy, but this connection is fake and untenable, while his bond to the family, and in this instance the fierce knot of apron strings, is very real. The topic of the Irish “mammy,” or mother, is worth a whole other article, but in short I’ll say: she is epic. She is mythologized as resilient and brazen but faultlessly selfless, with a ‘don’t mind me’ response to everything. She is a myth born out of a history of poverty and state law that forced women to quit work upon marriage up until 1973.
A Voodoo Free Phenomenon appears to be about the floating signifier that is the Irish male. Phelan’s experience in the present feels lost in the past — represented by the gold and the memory of a story retold, plus lingering shame — and in the imagined future, seen in the fictional freedom expressed by the animation. His sense of self has gone missing, and he’s unable to pinpoint his own voice. The whole exhibition seems like a quest, as we witness his return to the source, Newgrange, the birthplace of Irish culture, and to his own birthplace, the mother, while true authenticity remains out of his grasp.
Garrett Phelan: A Voodoo Free Phenomenon continues at Project Arts Centre (39 East Essex St, Temple Bar, Dublin) through April 9.
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