Given Ian Burns’ desire to display his ingenuity at a level that’s ‘not too clever’, the simplest way of describing his work is as precarious contraptions from which rudimentary and compelling experiences of the cinematic emerge. The humming circuits of wires, fans, lights, motors and other more familiar, but for that reason unexpected, materials – such as plastic utensils, stepladders, buckets, chopping boards and so on – reward prolonged study of their interrelationships with a display of compositional, colour-coded necessity. But for all the intricacy of their supporting apparatus, it is the dumb attraction of the screen images themselves that one returns to repeatedly.
Burns invites the viewer to indulge in the pleasure of knowingly being duped. This was clearly stated in A Poor Excuse (all works 2008), part of which was set up in the entrance foyer to Mother’s Tankstation. Burns’ opening gambit was a Barbie-and-Ken couple suspended in front of a mounted camera, focusing all their attention on a live feed of a redbrick wall in front of which a plastic bag and some leaves are caught in the eddies of a passing breeze. Inside the gallery was the wall itself, made up with red paint and masking tape, along with an audience of free-standing and reclining fans, all turned towards the bag and leaves, which they keep en scène with their combined wind. Further on, at the back of the gallery, there is another live feed filmed from behind Barbie and Ken, who now function as repoussoirs to the scene of the wall and the bag. This alignment produces a doubling that turns the viewer’s fascinated gaze back on them, implicating them within the scenes viewed and thereby refusing the desire that cinema, in particular, permits us: that of viewing the world without being seen. Burns treats this commonplace of viewing with a mix of curiosity, empathy and ridicule.
The other works in the show are generally more self-contained. Spirit exhibits a circularity that, like A Poor Excuse, describes the cinematic experience: the complex interaction of elements and parts oriented towards the production of something that exceeds them at the level of the screen. What occurs on this screen – in the case of Spirit, a landscape of rolling green hills beneath a springtime Oirish sky – is quite banal, often sickly in its repetition of basic patterns and light effects, uninteresting except for the knowledge of the means of its construction and seemingly quite indifferent to the desires of its audience, yet utterly fascinating for all that.
This fascination is, however, different from that encouraged by A Poor Excuse as, despite its kitschy references, it tends more towards a rather conventional aesthetic formalism. And it is in light of this formalism that we might consider the suggestion that Burns’ work shares some of its concerns with the expanded cinema of artists such as Anthony McCall and Ken Jacobs, where the conditions of the cinematic illusion are explored beyond the confines of medium-specificity. While Burns’ use of open assemblage and a dispersed and often incomplete cinematic apparatus shows similarities to McCall and Jacobs’ paracinema, there is nothing comparable to their critique of aestheticism. What is more, the apparent disclosure of apparatus does little to dispel the illusion of the fictions it creates. To know how we are fooled is not sufficient reason not to be fooled again.
But there is another reading: to interpret the complex supporting structures not as the truth of the illusion but as a modelling of alternatives. When a crumpled plastic bag is transformed into an iceberg under the unnatural glow of a superheated sky (Snowshoe), or one looks out from the interior of Air Force 1 on to turbulent clouds rushing past (The Blank Slate), allegory and political comment are hard to ignore. Given the association by the historical avant-garde of collage with future models of living it is tempting to read in Burns’ assemblages a further reiteration of this modelling, working as a counterpart to his withering criticisms of our situation of economic and environmental crisis, suggesting, ultimately, the possibility that we might move from assemblage to assembly, to gathering around a matter of concern.