MICHAEL HANNA: LOOKING BACKWARD, PS2, Belfast, November 30 – December 21, 2019

I write this while the gallery is moving once more,  above is a photo of a new place in Rosemary Street. Below – ready to move?

 

 

 

Mimicking a threatened organism the PS2 moves and moves to survive. It feels like an omen, that Hanna’s theme of utopia was the final work at its ground floor showroom in the Royal Avenue.

 

I missed the HIVE choir performance in response to the exhibition.

The lights zoom on some words  of the cut and pasted text from the romantic novel set in Belfast, the notorious Mills and Boon editions. Its hall mark –  a happy ending is a sibling of utopia.

Monument VIII, 2019, Paper on dibond, 142×142 cm

From a distance -when the details merge into rhythm of dark and light grey, it  is reminiscent of Rothko’s grey on grey (I saw it in a Deutsche Bank collection, no image). Viewed nearer the surface, its aesthetics hurries up to be nearer a newsprint,  anxious to let the eye to read words. That difference pulsed like a  life energy determined to cross over mysterious layers of imagination, quickly evaporating.

Hanna decided that the closure would be entrusted to the video, at the end of the walk among the exhibits.  As if premonition of HIVE’s use of light he called it “INDOOR SUNLIGHT” (2019)

It is 16 minutes long  – feels longer in its lento tempo… It offers no  linear story – instead various fragments of various levels of being, found, arranged or constructed, the video offers a flow of appropriated or recorded footage of whatever arrested Hanna’s observation on his journeys  here and across Europe. Nothing is identified by place or name. It constantly provokes and disappoints search for meaning, for some stable identity.

xxx

The gallery handout  issued for the viewer of Hanna’s installation gives the statement of intent:

Looking Backward is an exhibition of photography, text, painting and moving-image works by Michael Hanna that considers ideas of promised futures and the relationship between utopia and the local. The exhibition takes its title from a utopian novel written in 1888 by author and journalist Edward Bellamy. The book, which was a bestseller at the time, was written in the midst of great wealth disparity and economic and social turmoil. After over a century of sleep, the narrator awakens in his hometown of Boston in the year 2000 to find himself in a world of post-capitalist harmony. As the story progresses, he learns about the differences between the two periods and eventually recognises the faults of the nineteenth century.

Like much utopian writing, Bellamy uses fiction to navigate his ideological world; however the vast majority of the novel concentrates on detailing its structure. In Bellamy’s future, wealth is shared equally between all, and there is no hunger, poverty, political parties, advertisements, banks or money. The works in Looking Backward respond to this imagined and impossible ‘future-now-past’ state and some of the central themes of the novel through re-worked familiar formats, such as the neon billboard and the romantic novel, and images that employ as well as deny the inherent optimism of utopian world-making…

I have not read theat book, I have not listened to the curator’s ( the talented Alissa Kleist) talk,  I have not joined the vernissage’s crowd. I only spent time with each exhibit.  I prefer and value this freedom for its similarity with listening to a brook in the forest.

First part  near the entrance was displayed to be visible in daylight, the last part followed the now ubiquitous projections in a dark room at the back of the gallery.

The first part was tacit and static. Even the text escaped legibility by preference for minuscule size.  The second part, the video was demanding and refusing to give out its raison d’etre.  Hanna offers in his notes to the exhibition, available as gallery handout, that it “…incorporates, and expands on, the central theme of the exhibition”.

Consequently,  each of the other exhibit ought to partake on that theme.

View from the outside the PS2

 

View towards the entrance

The neon word  on the PS2 shop window corrupts its spelling by NI pronounciation  in a typeface designed in 2004 ( according the gallery handout), making visible the  vulnerability of utopian optimism about the role of the computers. In my experience, we were promised the world with less paper if switched to the new tools for communication. Well – the opposite seems to be the case forty years on. Hard copies of everything in case the internet or software seriously malfunction.  Hanna’s choice of tying it to NI (via pronounciation) is neither true nor helpful. Nevertheless -it appropriates its subject in a kind of playful illusion smeared by an irony.

The walls carry unassuming pictures.

The Diagnostic View IV(2007) 

is a copy of Der Diagnostische Blick IV, 1992, by Luc Tuymans in the same size!

Reviewing this Tuysmans’ paintings, Peter Schjeldahl observed a value pertinent to Hanna’s appropriation of it.

>>Tuymans discovers in the very humiliation of the medium a vitality as surprising as a rosebush on the moon. He does so with nothing-to-lose audacity, in terms of subject matter. If painting has nothing significant left to say, he seems to reason, it might as well say nothing about significant things….He told Artnet that in his initial hours of work, “until I get to the middle of the process – it’s horrific. It’s like I don’t know what I’m doing but I know how to do it, and it’s very strange.” Now, that – uncertain ends, confident means – is about as good a general definition of creativity as I know.<<  (https://saintpassionate.tumblr.com/post/229353138/luc-tuymans-orchid-and-der-diagnostische-blick)

Utopia is a confident means with uncertain ends – and everlasting dream of humanity to put things right. Consider just how many medieval and Baroque painters worked that theme, whether they called it Golden Age or a Silver one or a Paradise…

Hanna’s instinct in his little painting is truer than the laboured collection of strings in the video  Indoor Sunlight, where,  the irony and sober intelligence fight their  corner. Plato’s Republic, Thomas Moore’s Utopia are more known than hundreds of other philosophers grappling with the fact that utopia is as old as the entire historical epoch of human history.  

The two images of plane flying low  share one title “The Ones Who Walk Away” (2019). One was found online, the other is Hanna’s photograph of the plane near an East Belfast school.

 

 

Ownership and use of land  significantly contributes to utopian dreams for freedom and equality.  Increasingly, water and air, are coming under the same controls of ownership. Hanna photographed  Lagan Weir (2012) – a man made structure to control the nature.  That control is not visible.

This appears to be the key image. It connects us to the 19th C  with its inventions of water and steam power. Then several Utopian ideas arose, often in response to the belief that social disruption was created and caused by the development of capitalism.  One classic example of such a utopia was the book Hanna names as his inspiration: Edward Bellamy: Looking Backward (1888). It gave title to this exhibition too.

The title of the 16 minutes  video  Indoor Sunlight is the most direct and ominous characteristics of utopian wants and needs.  Whereas sunlight can enter rooms via glass windows, the reverse does not exist, except in a phantasy, or as  a disaster in our universe.  I think of these  two co-ordinates as necessary condition for the variety of utopia and its stubborn survival.  Fear and imagination are willing bedfellows.  Hanna avoids apocalyptic tones – the video is almost “sunny”  through gentle humour that cuts, contorts, reverts and speeds through the various motives. It is a bazaar of  wants and wishes, one undermining the other by simultaneous multiplicity (open-endednes). As EH Gombrich proposed:  the correct (i.e. intended by the artist) reading of an image is governed by variables: the code, the caption  and the context. (The Image and the Eye. 1982: 142)  If, however the viewer ignores any or all  while preferring the “power of the visible” – an experience similar to moving through nature, the meaning shifts from that intended by the artist to that preferred by the viewer. This is glorious and so rare a freedom, that it needs to be protected. I am certainly guilty of departing from Hanna’s intentions as described in the gallery’s handout, i.e.”…attempts at utopia building and how technology  shapes affective experience and future visions…”.  Instead,  I experienced what Italo Calvino refers to as “rain of images” (Six Memos….,1996:81). Of Europe and NI – appropriated and taken –  making up a sort of rain of images that were reluctant to admit identity or a reason to have one.  My freedom to construct my meaning occurs in relation to the visible  recognition of objects and situations.  And I think that is the crux of why people entertain utopia while knowing that it must fail.  That freedom  exists only in  thinking, imagining, in poetry, visual poetry included. A work of art affords the flow of the meaning between the artist’s free intention and the viewers free response. The freedom creativity craves is worth preserving over and over.  And yes, it is a kind of utopia to aim at one complete account of indissolluble synthesis of L’Etre et le Neant (JP Sartre).

 

Images courtesy Michael Hanna.

 

 

 

 

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Slavka Sverakova

writer on art

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