A dozen or so sheets of mirror-polished steel lie scattered across the gallery floor. Like the earth’s tectonic plates they overlap; lying partially on top of one another, they form an irregular undulating terrain of reflective ground. At various points on the landscape of mirrors are several objects: a lump of concrete, some polystyrene, a small pile of sand, a twig, and a tank with a pipe of trickling water. Strangely though, this water feature is the least flowing of the elements – it feels solid and static set in such a fluid and lake-like installation. The work, entitled Straight Lines Are Curves From Very Large Circles compels us to take a leap of faith and invest life in lifeless matter. Even the gallery spotlights reflected in the mirrors start to appear as duckweed floating on the surface of a make-believe pond.
James Ireland began the installation by posing the question: ‘if the world was a picture what would be in it?’ By stripping the earth down to its most formal components such as waterfalls, oceans, cliff faces, caves or rocks he was able to conceive of a microcosmic world consisting solely of man-made equivalents of those phenomena. Ireland is interested in questioning how we think about nature, and exploring how ideas of landscape are defined by mass culture. His use of simple domestic and mass produced objects is an attempt, he says, to create a kind of sublime from the mundane. His imagined landscape is always generalised and unspecific, acknowledging that most of our experience of nature comes second hand through representations, and most tellingly through the already loaded language of advertising and mass media.
Why it is as it is is a series of 500 images rapidly projected onto a wall in a large and otherwise empty room. The images flicker past so speedily that it is difficult at first to fully register what they are. Ireland has lined them up, resized and cropped them so that each image has a sun appearing in exactly the same spot on the wall. We are told that they are all found images: cliched scenes of sunsets on beaches, idyllic images of the picturesque sold to us through holiday brochures, adverts and magazines. Though at first the piece is oddly unaffecting – it’s difficult to contemplate the sublime in a fraction of a second – the persistence of the imagery does eventually pull you in. Perhaps it’s a primeval experience, a primordial sense of being drawn to the sun that serves to undercut our boredom and over-familiarity with the images. It’s as if in the middle of some crazed bout of channel-hopping, witnessing a rapid jumping from beach scenes with palm trees, to the savannah, to aircraft landings, to vineyards in France, to mountain sunsets, you experience a moment of clarity – you’re suddenly able to see through the endless throwaway imagery and grasp in its entirety nature itself.
The third and final room is populated with a series of Donald Judd-esque geometric constructions in metal and glass. Except that the glass is almost always set at an angle to the metal frames, and furthermore is tinted in a gradation from red to yellow, or from blue to clear. Judd would never have allowed such impurities. And he would certainly never have let direct referents to reality enter his work. So when, in Reaching Out From Here for instance, Ireland has used a twig to puncture the abstract purity of his constructions, and skillfully positioned a spotlight so that a shadow of the twig is cast against the red-to-yellow graded light on the wall – he is subtly subverting all our safe minimalist assumptions. Ireland talks of the importance of his rectangular constructions in terms of their ‘framing’ ability, which he utilises with humour in Leisure and Industry. Again he quotes minimalism: the piece is floor-based, human scaled, with an industrially manufactured steel frame, and a nod towards John McCracken in his use of the off-vertical leaning plane (in this case of tinted glass). But again our expectations are shattered; while the classic minimalist work might act to “frame” our own phenomenological presence in space and time, the only thing Ireland frames is a rock stuck rather inelegantly to the side of the structure. By melding the rock with the grid-like structure, the work is effectively forcing a collision between the romance of nature and an austere mechanisation.
Heidegger observed that when, from the renaissance onwards, the world became external to man, it also became a set of “stuff” for which man could utilise. The world no longer simply existed, it began to exist “for us”. But do we have to have this relationship with the stuff that furnishes our everyday lives? What if that stuff could be liberated from its use-value, especially since in the logic of capitalism seemingly everything exists solely to maximise efficiency? Why not turn this on its head? Why not put all this stuff to a more inefficient use? Ireland’s work is ultimately about how the world we “do” live in produces a desire for a world we “don’t” live in. In employing these everyday things in such a way that they conjure up in our mind somewhere far away, somewhere beautiful, somewhere sublime – he is daring to suggest that maybe we might quite like to live somewhere a little less efficient after all.