BY Isobel Harbison in Reviews | 20 JAN 16
Featured in
Issue 178

Grace Weir

Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, Ireland

BY Isobel Harbison in Reviews | 20 JAN 16

Grace Weir, Dark Room, 2015, HD video still. Courtesy the artist 

Grace Weir is fascinated by space and time, gorgeous complexities for quantum physicists and experimental filmmakers alike. Black Square (a 40-minute, dual-screen video projection) follows the artist and her technical team to the Very Large Telescope on Cerro Paranal in Chile in  pursuit of a picture of a black hole. Shot from a variety of perspectives of and through the telescope, this contemplative introductory work sets up the basic  premise for Weir’s exhibition ‘3 different nights, recurring’: her sustained interest  in the value of art at the fault lines of scientific knowledge.

Weir’s three new commissions, Black Square, Dark Room and A Reflection on Light (all 2015) are prioritized with their own projection rooms in each corner of the Irish Museum of Modern Art’s (IMMA) L-shaped galleries. Between them, installations and videos on monitors illustrate how consistent her approach has been since the 1990s. In The Clearing (1999),  the camera is plunged into the sea, travels through the water and surfaces again toward the sky in a perfect, 40-second looping circle, bisecting the horizon line and defying linear narrative in response  to the systems thinking of that time (also popularized by the open source movement). Forgetting (The Vanishing Point) (2000) records a cloud evaporating, referencing Filippo Brunelleschi’s famous refusal to paint clouds on account of their vaporous drift. Can video prevail over  painting’s fixity? Weir scrutinizes her  own preoccupation with overcoming representational limits as a filmmaker in conversation with Ruth Byrne, a professor of cognitive science, in If Only Something Else Had Happened (2011). ‘Creative cognition’, Byrne confirms, is not a mysterious unfolding but something that arises from the same processes and constraints as logic, where ‘the building blocks are just arranged differently’. The sound piece is lucid and engaging, and accents Weir’s agile thinking and articulacy.

But none of these offerings prepares the viewer for the clout of Weir’s Dark Room, a dual-screen video shot in the remains of a 19th-century dark room in Birr Castle, belonging to pioneering Irish photographer Mary Rosse. Weir discovered the room accidentally just before it was dismantled and shoots it at various stages of its undress. One screen shows Weir at her camera pulling focus on the room’s dark nooks, light shafts and crumbling surfaces; the other presents her camera’s yield. Using only natural lighting, this silent work achieves the palette and austerity of a northern Renaissance  interior. In one shot, these two women’s practices, divided by centuries, touch,  as Weir captures her own photograph of the dark room developing in Rosse’s porcelain developing tray. This clever mise en abyme contributes to a work of enormous structural intelligence and sublime visual appeal. It is Weir at the height of her powers.

In a final, single-screen video, A Reflection on Light, Weir focuses on Mainie Jellett’s modernist painting Let There Be Light (1944), tracking through  the various architectures it has inhabited, from Jellett’s Dublin studio to IMMA’s  galleries to its current residence in the physics department of Trinity College. The painting depicts a hand that ‘breaks a ray of light into a spectrum of colour’ and Weir’s close-ups of its internal arcs and bold colouration create transitions between these locations. Jellet’s composition connects to theories of light and relativity developed by her grandfather and uncle respectively. The video is rich with symbolic imagery, silhouettes or ‘shadows’ of Jellet’s ancestors, windows and mirrors allowing and reflecting light, glass cabinets containing instruments of vision. Weir’s narrated script moves between excerpts from cubist art criticism and quantum physics so smoothly that the shifts are imperceptible and, combined with a delicately handled score, make fluid and lyrical what would otherwise be an exercise in comparative literature. The work demonstrates Weir’s long-time interest in theories of relativity, in how we locate ourselves  if space and time are both dynamic. And what elevates this piece above a handsome tribute to Jellett is how Weir’s interest is communicated in the work’s internal dynamic. The video revolves around a  painting that itself relinquishes its focus  on the object in favour of light’s process of dispersal. Just as, we’re told, ‘time is a circle, it makes an arc and creates a return’, Jellet’s picture remains ‘a mobile thing itself’, not reified but rather orbited by Weir’s new work. 

Weir’s recent output is staggeringly good and the exhibition, to its credit,  recognizes this. It avoids the evenly paced retrospective as curatorial form and, instead, foregrounds a body of works alive in the present. Weir’s time is now.

Isobel Harbison is an art critic based in London. Her book, Performing Image, will be published by the MIT Press later this year.