Isobel Philip paid a visit to Dara Gill’s Unwish at Firstdraft and left feeling anxious…
Placing ‘anxiety’ under the microscope in Unwish at Firstdraft Gallery, Dara Gill played quiet games with absence and inversion. The show’s cohesion even as it stretched between photography, sculpture and video, was understated yet palpable. It all just kind of works. I recognized this quite quickly, and without much hesitation.
Dara Gill, Self Help Pulping, detail. 2010.
Having teased out an astutely articulated theoretical framework, both within the works themselves and in the heavily researched accompanying catalogue essay, Gill also delivers aesthetically.
His appropriation of the term ‘unwish’ neatly fits into his treatise on anxiety – a state of mind disseminated, as he states in his essay, from an absence or a lacking. Anxiety is, he postulates (with the help of Ernest Bloch, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger among others), indelibly tied to the future. We are made anxious out of lacking something and anticipating its arrival. Prefixing the term ‘wish’ with ‘un’, Gill compactly articulates this phenomenon; to talk of an ‘unwish’ is to talk of an inverted desire. It is a desire predicated on absence, as opposed to possession.
This thematic premise is encoded in the structural and aesthetic infrastructure of each of Gill’s works. To fully appreciate these works, simply ‘getting’ the concept is not sufficient. Instead, one must be sensitive to the subtle ways in which Gill’s conceptual narrative was threaded within (not merely around) the pieces themselves.
And so it was that I found myself looking for the ‘un’ – for the presence of an absence, or, as in Gill’s own words, “something that is nothing.” And while this may seem an impossible task, if you looked closely enough, it was possible to discern how crucial this paradox was. For it is through an absent element that each work coyly revealed itself.
It was while looking at Untitled (Self-Help Pulping) that I first made aware of this absent element. Here, on rows of bookshelves, the front covers of various self-help books have been placed on display. Beneath each cover, on the next shelf, are the pages that make up the book – each cover’s corresponding innards. These pages look like they have been chewed up and spat out by a monster with OCD. They were no longer resemble books, but pulped and shaped into cubes. Gill very neatly disfigured the grand narratives of the ‘self-help’ phenomenon, but in the process articulates something else. These books – the cubes – had imploded. Their pages have turned in on themselves, as if recoiling away from something. This something is never defined.
Dara Gill, Untitled [Rubber Band Portraits], 2010.
This situation, the implosion, is echoed in Untitled (Rubber Band Portraits), the series of photographic portraits opposite the books (or what is left of them). Against uniform blue backgrounds the figures in these photographs recoil away from the camera, as if they were having rubber bands flung at their faces. Crucially, we never see the rubber bands, only imagine them. These figures, like the pages of the books, turn in on themselves. They shy away from our look, and just like the books they have become unreadable.
In the video that greets you as you enter the gallery, Untitled (Sisyphus triptych No.2), a similar phenomenon is played out, only much less overtly. It is Gill, split into three selves, that performs the myth of Sisyphus. He performs various ‘impossible’ tasks – the Gill in the centre holds his breath while the Gill on the left tries to touch his elbow with his tongue, and the Gill on the right tries to roll his tongue. When the middle Gill collapses, folding forward before taking another gulp of air, the other two Gills react and look at one another. In this instant, the tension that had been stretched across the surface of the image breaks. This break, the moment in which the division between the three figures dissipates, is introspective. In this sense, it articulates another implosion.
Once again, the agency that precipitates this implosion – air (or the lack there of) – is invisible and intangible. It is precisely this notion of the ‘absent agent’ that is teased out in Gill’s final work, Untitled (Blinding Light Box). In this work, we become the subjects. Opening the doors of a wooden box we were met by a stream of blinding light. Here, we are the ones that recoil. Yet, what we are recoiling from – light – has no fixed material presence. It is intangible.
Searching for these ungraspable agents I had been coerced into an ‘unwishful’ state. I was looking to obtain something with no corporeal presence, only a corporeal absence. I had become anxious myself, and as such, became a conduit for – and thus fully realised – the very premise Gill had set about dissecting.