Padraig Timoney went to Jerusalem and all we got were these lousy spider webs. Alright, so that’s not strictly true. But like the familiar phase scrawled across countless sad-sack tourist T-shirts, it does express the envy and expectation that characterises the relationship between Timoney and his viewers, as it does the tensions between all travellers and those they leave behind. Visitors to this curious and frequently good-humoured conceptual project might at first find themselves feeling like they didn’t get what they wanted, even if they’re not exactly sure what they would have preferred.
Timoney’s new show, ‘September,’ based on an excursion to Israel in early 1993, is actually an eclectic toss of found objects, painting, photography, publication, and drawing. Analysing notions of tourism and travel, the artist’s trips are made for a combination of both very specific reasons (spider web collection for this jaunt, drinking a pint of Guinness for an earlier sojourn to Ireland) and no real reason at all – just like most people’s vacations. The tangible evidence of his adventure for those of us who’ve stayed behind is fairly regular, too. It’s the rough equivalent of an after-dinner holiday slide-show – just as subjective and often as befuddling – except in this case, our narrator has left his post behind the projector and is nowhere to be found. As a result, viewers are left alone to navigate the snippets of images and objects he’s collected: never certain of the meaning or interest of be found in particular objects or scenes, lacking the interposition of the traveller’s personal point of view, forced to build their own version of events, their own picture of place and situation.
There is poetic elegance in the inspiration for the trip. Pitched in disused corners of dusty houses and tucked in the canopies of stalls amid the bustle of the souk, the spider webs Timoney went after provide a graceful metaphor for the secretive nature of creation, for the surreptitious quality of his endeavour. Similarly, the resonance of the spider web in a place like Jerusalem is no less striking for its obviousness – the tangled socio-political intrigue of the place is manifestly web-like in both its complexity and stickiness for those who engage it.
And the man did get his webs. The show includes one tucked inside a small glass box purchased by the artist in a market and three others, found, he tells us in an accompanying artist’s book most notable for its visual disorder and prohibitive textual loopiness, in a ‘hut by the Zion Gate in the south wall of the old city’; in a ‘doorway in the arched arcade leading to the Dome of the Rock’ and in the ‘front yard of a house that had been sealed by Israeli anti-terrorist soldiers, Al Jalazone refugee camp, North of Jerusalem.’
But like so much of this show, the physical reality of the artefacts doesn’t really live up to the potential promised by their conceptual inspirations. Packaged against simple white paper inside little cellophane envelopes, Timoney’s three loose webs have become mere brownish smears of texture: Although he’s obviously preserved the thing, he hasn’t managed to preserve much of the specific sensual quality which makes it resonant. Other physical manifestations of Timoney’s trip similarly fail to meet expectations. The pencil drawing A guy smoking (all works 1993), won’t do much for Timoney’s reputation as a draughtsman, and his two painting, the large March and a smaller untitled oil, are run-of-the-mill figurative works focusing on architectural elements of the city.
The continuous slide-show fares somewhat better as an artefact, if only because we’ve learned to expect so much less aesthetically from photos employed by conceptualists. It opens rather predictably with Timoney’s departure from soggy old February England (depicted in a few shots of brown landscape passing through the bleary windows of a train) and his touchdown in the rosy dusk of a Holy Land evening. The rest of the 80 slides look like vacation shots from the roll on the day when your slightly oddball cousin hogged the camera all afternoon- city streets full and deserted; army encampments on distant hills; kids in the street; birds in the sky; one big guy wearing a Washington Redskins sweatshirt; a different, slightly smaller guy with a lot of raw meat hanging on his front porch.
I was looking at the guy with the meat when it occurred to me that it was precisely the consistent failure of this stuff to meet expectations which – whether due to Timoney’s intentions or at his expense – really told the story of the show. The ‘informational world,’ as Timoney rightly pegs it in one to ht more lucid moments of his book, objectifies places, proposes an ultimately idealised view of regions and people. In contrast to this neatly packaged descriptive image of cities and sites, the reality of travel is ever one of exploded preconceptions. Yet it’s precisely this world of information – witness the text, images and objects of Timoney’s presentation – to which the traveller must necessarily return when it’s time to try to communicate their experience to those who’ve stayed put. By making the conscious decision to situate himself and his personal point of view well apart from the viewer’s assimilative process, he acknowledges the limitations of the individual narrator, but also denies himself his best opportunity to make contact with the viewers outside the communicative constraints of the informational world. Padraig Timoney does explore the ineffable qualities which give a place its character, but often to the detriment of the tangible artefacts which describe that character; he exposes the inadequacies of the traveller’s tale retold, but at the ultimate expense of his own story.