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A physical quandary beats a digital swipe: James Merrigan reviews Tanad Aaron’s ‘We’ll See You Now’ at Pallas Projects Dublin

In the 1990s, artists working in diverse mediums, from painting to installation, redescribed the world in the image of the “non-place”. Coined by French anthropologist Marc Augé, non-places are transitional spaces (motorways, airports, hotel rooms) found between places that are more culturally established and static. In such non-places the socially constructed identity of the individual is less certain, groups cannot form, and loneliness permeates. As Gertrude Stein said, “there is no there in a non-place”.

Art, in one sense, is the display of the parts of the world we don’t notice or value, but discover anew in the work of art

For the contemporary artist, these non-places are a perfect metaphor for a distracted body politic, whose members go about their workaday lives without paying attention to the liminal nooks and crannies of society. In a sense, the transitional non-place is a marvellous foil and opportunity for the artist to exhibit what is in plain sight, something both familiar but ignored by society at large. Art, in one sense, is the display of the parts of the world we don’t notice or value, but discover anew in the work of art. 

The most common non-places redescribed by the contemporary artist have an uncanny quality that evince a Freudian influence. Installation artists such as Mike Nelson, Mark Manders, Miroslaw Balka, Gregor Schneider, and photographers Thomas Demand and Jeff Wall, construct strange yet familiar spaces dotted with objects and props, that unsettle their architecture’s normalcy with the theatre of the absurd and the psychology of fear. 

In the same uncanny vein, the conceptual and minimalist artists of the 1970s presented the viewer with almost empty gallery spaces, such as Michael Asher’s removal of a gallery partition to reveal the machinations of the gallery administration and nothing more; or the masturbatory mechanics of desire performed in Vito Acconci’s Seedbed, where the artist jerked off under a solitary timber ramp in an otherwise empty gallery. Closer to the mainstream, Lars von Trier’s Dogville (2003) starring Nicole Kidman, is a good example of how stripping back a film stage to chalk-outlines can haunt the viewer with their own imagination and desires, like the inkblot Rorschach dramatised in the psychological TV drama. 

Why the long preface to a review (my first review for Village Magazine) of the solo exhibition We’ll See You Now by Tanad Aaron at Pallas-Projects Dublin? Well, I want to begin this critical venture by making explicit the importance of context and setting in the appreciation — what Christoph Menke calls more appropriately “apprehension” — of contemporary art. If we are dealing with subjectivities and ideologies over truths and facts in the apprehension of art, it helps if you are armed with a little context.

The context (or ghost) that haunts Tanad Aaron’s work at Pallas Projects Dublin is collaboration. For close to a decade the artist has been instrumental in building timber displays and gallery furniture for exhibitions in the Irish art scene. Curators, art institutions and artists have commissioned Aaron’s artisan sensibility to consistent effect. In the early days, Aaron was known as part of a trio of artists (with Andreas von Knobloch and Tom Watt), who made exhibitions on their own terms, not under the aegis of curators and art institutions, who wanted yet another piece of shelving or table to decorate their administrative settings. In these curated contexts Aaron, von Knobloch and Watt became artist-technicians, commissioned for their carpentry skills to fabricate settings for exhibitions, which was at first novel, but then became convention.

Going it alone at Pallas Projects is both an intriguing and challenging prospect for Aaron. Pallas Projects is a small gallery space, divided by a hinged partition that facilitates one large gallery space or two smaller ones. Aaron has gone for the latter configuration, using the larger entrance room to display some wall- and floor-bound objects, including tentative oil paintings that redescribe the shape of the curved ramp that arcs into the smaller room of the gallery. 

The gallery is dark, with the alien vibration of blue and green light emanating from argon tube lights that form illegible doodles in plain sight, or in-hiding under the platform. The lighting, which some might refer to as obsolescent neon without referring to the list of artworks, sets the mood, the feeling, that this is a space that tries to evade easy description. Empty speech bubbles, in their glass and refracted-light manifestations, testify wordlessly throughout the gallery.

For those who aren’t equipped with context, whether historical or local, I can only imagine that Aaron’s exhibition presents a conceptual stumbling block, even though the timber platform is accessible via a smoothly crafted ramp. Craft is a big thing in Aaron’s toolbox. Even in his use of cheap plywood, MDF and paper bags, every corner and edge is finely bevelled and pleated in a dutiful alchemy. So much so that my attention is repeatedly drawn to the corners and edges of his timber fabrications, at the expense of digging deeper into the elusive content. 

You might say that this is to Aaron’s credit, that he is not interested in presenting the theories or issues of the day, rather they exist here as sublimation, not a headline. In the user-friendly press release the artist casually signposts to “waiting rooms” and sites of permanence and impermanence. And yet without other signposts, whether philosophical, journalistic, or literary, the installation slip-slides away, always going with the grain, without any breaks in the uniformly tanned language of MDF. If you refer to the gallery map, as I did, it does help to divide and conquer the wholeness of this exhibition into bit-parts, named and orphaned from their maternal MDF embrace. 

Socially primed for pronoun usage, the use of the pronoun we, as in the exhibition title We’ll See You Now, does (or doesn’t) do one of two things: it points to the obvious fascination the art world (and every other institutional bubble) has these days with the we of inclusion and community; or two, it presents the substitution or absence of some agent (doctor) who is introduced with the words, ‘The doctor will see you now’. But, more interestingly, in the context of Aaron’s collaborative history, he has used the pronoun we to introduce a solo exhibition. After years of being instrumental in the exhibitions of others as a scene-setter and stage maker, we presents the ghost of collaboration. Making this a far lonelier and vulnerable exhibition than it would be without context. 

Aaron’s installation satisfies the visceral memories I have of previous installations, but fails to conjure new ones

Many visitors who frequent visual art exhibitions scapegoat taste, which infers class, in their embrace or rejection of contemporary art. To my mind, a better word to ascribe to the experience of art is ‘predilection’. My predilection when it comes to installation art is that the artist presents the viewer with a physical quandary that taps into the desires and anxieties already inherent in contemporary culture. Aaron’s installation satisfies the visceral memories I have of previous installations, but fails to conjure new ones. That said, it is a significant exhibition to conceive and realise today, not twenty years ago, when installation art of this type was more commonplace. 

Today, art objects and art experiences have been substituted and commodified as digital images on Instagram. Installation art is the domain of boredom and anxiety, where you bear your frustrations and escape with a haunted sense of self and society. During the pandemic this haunted sense of self-manifested online as the internet aesthetic “liminal spaces”, which pictured eerie non-spaces devoid of people but illuminated by a mood not far off what is installed at Pallas Projects right now. Aaron’s exhibition points towards those feelings, even hints at their radical possibilities for art. I just hope a new generation of artists experience this exhibition as a present and future possibility in their work. We need more exhibitions that test our capacity to experience art as a physical quandary rather than a digital swipe.

Tanad Aaron’s We’ll See You Now continues through 15 July at Pallas Projects Dublin.