Tom Ireland at Bloc Projects

Courtesy of Bloc Projects
Courtesy of Bloc Projects
Courtesy of Bloc Projects

Text by Fiona Shaw

By connecting space exploration and the expansion of 19th century America, Ireland’s Notes on Westward Expansion firmly positions the once shining beacon of modern life that was 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.

To read the full text go to http://blocprojects.co.uk/discourse/.

Tom Ireland’s Notes on Westward Expansion is on at Bloc Projects, Sheffield, until 18 August 2012.

To visit artist and writer Fiona Shaw’s website go to http://fiona-shaw.org.uk/.