A response to Joseph Heffernan’s exhibition A Thousand Years by Aideen Quirke
When you grow up as a child in the countryside, you find yourself entangled in trees, probing things with sticks, building, making and breaking natural and manmade objects and structures. Rambling through backyards, fields and sheds either alone or with siblings, cousins or neighbours either out of boredom or curiosity lead to all sorts of formative discoveries. Certain trees are sticky and unpleasant to climb – others are perfect viewing or hiding spots and become monumental fortresses for observing and pondering in. The child’s mind is an indomitable well of creativity with the imagination sometimes going to dark places – whether ghosts or fairies, or in my case alien abductions inspired by The X-Files and sci-fi shows and books. If I was born twenty years later it would probably be Slenderman. Once I told my Dad I was afraid to go up the field in the evening to feed the calves alone because of a very embarrassing and irrational fear of UFOs. He told me he was the same when he was little, but it was the fairies he was afraid of. I was reassured that it seemed quite normal to him to have fears of unseen things, and soon after I moved onto more tangible worries. (We all know now a fear of the fairies isn’t irrational, it is a healthy logical well-placed fear and you should never fuck with the fairies). I later read that Jung referred to experiences of UFO phenomena as an example of resurfacing images from the collective unconscious or a “living myth”.
Moving indoors, perhaps of a rainy Sunday at home or at a relative’s house, a bored mind might enquire about the delicate objects on a shelf or in a locked cabinet. Porcelain figures that look like they should be played with would remain out of reach, peering out, smiling and glazed and rosy-cheeked. Who are these little people and what are they doing, holding flowers or a basket or dressed in odd garments and hats? They appear again in other places, in other homes, dancing or playing on teacups, wallpaper, bed linen and curtains. Their tiny worlds are surrounded by trees, rivers, bridges and buildings, accompanied by dogs and horses. A few seconds’ glance might only be given to these figures and their worlds, but over decades the seconds and minutes culminate into a pictorial narrative of the French Pastoral etched into many generations’ memories, which had itself arisen from notions of aristocratic décor, influenced by the fête champêtre, derived from earlier pastoral depictions in Greco-Roman wall paintings revived by Renaissance, and so on, back through time.
As with the now much-replicated Pastoral in drapery and household objects, our minds are imprinted with iconography from films and television. The constant reimagining and regurgitation of the “classic” or “legendary”, either as homage or derivative, is firmly ingrained in the collective Western pop culture consciousness. The vast expanse of wilderness, or the complicated playing-out of domestic relationships can all be presented on a screen as fodder for the mind to digest. Our comprehension of often unimaginable worlds is made palatable through the skill of film makers who capture the essence of dreaming or imagining through visual-narrative cinematography. The exterior world or fantasies that are realistically out of reach can be experienced by consumers through cinematographers – artists – capturing the effects of photons on film, presenting pixels on a screen. In Powell and Pressberger’s 1948 film The Red Shoes, we are transported into a dizzying world of spectacle and drama, based around the Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytale of the same name. The treatment of space and time in classical cinema have more in common with dream-worlds than reality, with lingering shots on facial expressions or symbolic objects.
“And how should one receive an exaggerated image, if not by exaggerating it a little more, by personalizing the exaggeration? The phenomenological gain appears right away: in prolonging exaggeration, we may have the good fortune to avoid the habits of reduction. With space images, we are in a region where reduction is easy, commonplace. …But if reduction is easy, exaggeration is all the more interesting.”
Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
The staying power of childhood imagination remains live in adult day-dreaming, and if one can actively capture the mind’s wanderings and render them into words, music, art or other outputs, then the idea of the objective psyche or collective unconscious is made material. Bouchelard, in The Poetics of Space, knits together the experience of the interior and exterior worlds through his descriptions of the dwelling space – the interior – and the necessity of dreaming: “Sometimes the house grows and spreads so that, in order to live in it, greater elasticity of daydreaming, a daydream that is less clearly outlined, are needed.”
Central to the work of an artist then, is the requirement to dream and to spread out, harnessing the objective psyche and making it material. Or rather than take something so broad and incalculable as the collective unconscious, the artist here takes objects gathered and collected over time as “totems” through which create speculative narratives and interpretations.
Many objects collected by Joseph Heffernan make it into his paintings, which render micro-cosmos in oil on linen with layers of colour and repainting often peeking through, much like the porcelain figures peering out of the cabinet in Nanny’s sitting room. Reverse and curtailed views of the objects reduce us to tiny viewers of their worlds playing out a story we only receive glimpses of. Not content to be contained on a two-dimensional surface, the objects and figures return to our physical plane in the form of The Offering, The Ballet of the Red Shoes and Midnight Flowers.
Throughout A Thousand Years, we are given images that may be projections from our own memories or dreams – faces we must have seen before but we can’t be certain of. A part of a building or a house that we passed by once, maybe as a child or perhaps more recently in a sleepy state. Joseph Heffernan offers us manifestations of half-remembered things, vaguely familiar lyrics or lines of poetry, through sharing these totems that might help you snap out of that dream or mis-remembering, or perhaps more happily – embrace it to grow and spread the interior dwelling space that we need no invitation to be part of, because it already exists within us.
“Those three words ‘I get it’. It’s that moment when other people give you the confidence to trust and let go. Permission to let go. Often it is unspoken. It is understood telepathically. In the studio I’ve experienced this throughout my whole life, those moments when people reassured you with the confidence that allowed you to work to your greatest potential. Everyone getting it.”
Warren Ellis, Nina Simone’s Gum
Sounds, objects and images may not hold immediately recognisable meaning for you, but by witnessing them and partaking in their presence, you have no choice but to receive them. It may be through visual means, by soundwaves, or by any other means which transfer electrical impulses through your neurological pathways. These become memories, which may be stored or discarded through remembering or un-remembering. Depending on where you are from, be it Irish countryside or a city estate, the Outback or a futuristic metropolis, this shared experience expresses itself in whatever format is acceptable to your lived experience. While no invitation is required, in this case, Joseph Heffernan is inviting you to participate in this experience and this visual narrative, here and now.