At The Frontier of Vision
Text by Dr. Declan Long, Dublin, 2016
One way to begin thinking about Michael John Whelan's Frontier (2016) - an elliptical cinematic travelogue, partly shot on the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, and informed by a rich mixture of natural science and local lore - could be to keep things simple. It might make sense, at first, to focus on what appears indisputable and fundamental about Whelan's work, on what is, in other words, objectively there. (In this regard, we might first of all follow the path taken by Simon Critchley in a discussion of Wallace Stevens, towards discovering, in its discrete particulars, "the hardness and plainness of reality itself".) Indeed the sleek, spare set-up of Whelan's work surely invites such a careful, clarifying approach, since the film is presented in an installation style that is, sculpturally, both assertive and restrained. The two sturdy, stand-alone projection screens Whelan has designed are imposing, minimalist blocks: bulky, clean-lined cuboids, taller than human height and fixed, with strategic specificity, at a slight angle to each other. They are not, or not quite, minimalist sculptures in themselves, but standing together they have a direct, three-dimensional authority and clarity that seems purposeful and potent: bringing to mind Robert Morris's comment that "simplicity of shape does not necessarily equate with simplicity of experience." In the deep darkness of the windowless gallery, these modestly commanding structures glow and flicker, displaying the sequential sections of a contemplative, slow-moving montage. The twin streams of imagery - partly featuring original footage from Svalbard, partly showing clips grabbed from assorted internet sources - sometimes correspond closely, mirroring each other, or offering comparable views of similar content. There's a considerable degree of understatement - and apparent simplicity - to these recordings. Roads, rocks and gently rolling waves are solemnly studied. The vision of nature that Whelan offers is both expansive and insistently pared-back to elemental basics. We gaze on open, uncluttered, barely populated places, staring into an extreme, skeletal kind of reality. We sense too the glacial slowness of time in this icy northern outpost. Frontier is, in total, only ten minutes and twenty-eight seconds long. But its gradual, patient movements through space and time are suggestive of infinitely longer stretches of earthly existence.
It surely makes sense to start in this way - reflecting on what is most simple and straightforward in Frontier, taking a moment to steady ourselves, to fix an initial position - given that much of what engages Whelan's artistic interest is fugitive and elusive. In the case of Frontier his interest was piqued by reports, in 2012, noting the appearance in the Arctic waters off Svalbard of an albino humpback whale - an extraordinarily rare phenomenon, given not only the small numbers of animals with this genetic distinction, but also the fact that few such creatures survive for long in their natural habitat. (Oddly, in an irony important to Whelan's thinking, these albino whales, so unusual to see above water, are imperiled in the seas as a result of their heightened visibility - they stand out too noticeably in the dark realm beneath). Only one documentary record of this memorable whale memorable sighting remains (digital footage taken by a maritime engineer) and in the absence of further substantial corroboration, Whelan has responded by, on the one hand, returning to the landscape - studying the terrain with his own camera, keeping his eyes open for further, freak occurrences - and, on the other, by returning to the extant footage: zooming in, examining the evidence. In Whelan's own, subjective surveys of the landscapes and seascapes, we occupy possible positions from which something remarkable was formerly seen, or might yet be seen again. These could be scenes of expectation or disappointment or remembering; as such, they point to the past and the future simultaneously. Moreover the camera's tracking of snowy coastlines and ocean surfaces seems to suggest a desire to map and record precisely, to assiduously analyse specific positions - seeing the world in its immediate thereness - while at the same time failing to capture any trace of the core out-of-the-ordinary natural 'force' that has inspired the expedition. Such efforts show Whelan's commitment to searching and documenting; but his resulting split-screen document necessarily has an air of inexorable loss. Maybe, in this instance, the means available to him cannot yet 'credit marvels' - to borrow a key poetic catchphrase of Seamus Heaney's - or maybe there is a recognition that art itself can arise in an acknowledgement of this incessant disappearance of the world - the perpetual, barely noticed, passing away of life at every second.
The existing footage appropriated by Whelan in Frontier is a crucial kind of capturing: it tells a truth, even in small measure, of an actual occasion of seeing. But, as treated in the film, the shots of the whale become barely discernible. Whelan forces the material, through digital manipulation, to the limit of visibility, to the frontier of our vision. Close-up we see 'reality' become confusingly pixelated: the accurate, comprehensible picture breaks up, becoming a shifting mosaic of luminous blocks of image-information. These disorientating effects call to mind Slavoj Zizek's speculation that reality itself may be like a video game created by an incompetent, lazy designer - so that when we look at parts of the game environment not essential to our immediate progress, we see that the marginal settings have not been programmed, and the surrounding 'world' is thus found to be incomplete. The closer we get to reality as we commonly understand it, Zizek argues, the more it disintegrates. Maybe it is for related reasons that Whelan adds to the appropriated footage of the whale a series of shots showing other Albino animals: trying to visually capture the albino humpback, we are bounced backwards or sideways towards records of other rare beasts. We are sent away from the primary subject, just as we are seeking to edge nearer. As with other work by Whelan, such as Lupus (2014) - a photographic series concerned with mapping the known dwelling place of the last wolf in Ireland - the introduction of this parallel imagery of extraordinary, threatened or lost animals, seems to not only re-assert a sustaining artistic interest in nature itself, but also in how its elements are categorized and made meaningful. There is an evident back-and-forth between the elusive and the allusive. Again and again, from one frontier of knowledge and experience to another, Whelan moves between reflecting on features of the world that speak of natural immediacy, specificity and distinctiveness (apprehending these as unambiguously real things, as unique manifestations of life) and on those ways of seeing and representing and connecting up the world that we rely upon, but that, inevitably, keep us at a distance from any such forceful, vital realm of the real.
Born in Dublin, Ireland.
Selected Solo Exhibitions / Screenings
The Good Soil, Grey Noise, Dubai.
Yellow Amber Grey Amber, Rua Red, Dublin. - curated by Paul McAree.*
Darwin's Finches, Boetzelaer | Nispen, Amsterdam.
Only in, Vitrine Project Space, London - curated by Amanda Abi Khalil.
Lupus, Grey Noise, Dubai - curated by Eamonn Maxwell.
Foreign Sunrise, Boetzelaer | Nispen, Amsterdam.
The sun shone on the nothing new, Lismore Castle Arts, St. Carthage Hall, Lismore.*
A Petite Fair with Boetzelaer | Nispen, Amsterdam.
Understanding Magnetism, Grey Noise, Dubai.
The Birth and Death of Stars, Boetzelaer | Nispen, London.
Under the receding wave, Kunstverein Bochum.
Dirt. Geometry., Reimann le Begue, Düsseldorf.
The Meeting, video installation, Clifford Chance LLP, Canary Wharf, London.
Clifford Chance Contemporary Sculpture Programme, Canary Wharf, London.
Selected Group Exhibitions / Screenings
Visions of Nature (incl. Darren Almond, Andreas Gursky, Axel Hütte, Myoung Ho Lee & Simone Nieweg - curated by Verena Kaspar-Eisert), Kunst Haus Wien, Austria.* (Current)
Systema Naturae (with Ann Böttcher, Sanna Kannisto, Eva-Fiore Kovacovsky, Kustaa Saksi & Salla Tykkä - curated by Mirja Majevski), Kunsthall Stavanger, Norway.
SPRING 1883 Melbourne with Grey Noise, Dubai.
A Weed is a Plant out of Place, (incl. Pierpaolo Campanini, Susan Hartnett, Michael Landy & Pae White - curated by Allegra Pesenti), Lismore Castle Arts, Ireland.*
but even if I cannot see the sun, (with Charbel-joseph H. Boutros, Marco Godinho, Lala Rukh & Sail Into Night), Grey Noise, Dubai.
White Cube...Literally - On form and convention of display, (incl. Eduardo Abaroa, Wilfredo Prieto, Ilya & Emilia Kabakov - curated by Amanda Abi Khalil), Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Dubai.
TULCA Festival of Visual Arts, Ireland. - curated by Mary Cremin.*
KURZ / DUST (film program), Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw, Poland. - curated by Anna Ptak & Amanda Abi Khalil.*
when all seemingly stands still, Grey Noise, Dubai. - curated by Amanda Abi Khalil.
Aesthetica Short Film Festival (official selection), York, UK.*
MONO2, Courtyard Theatre, London.
Art Dubai with Grey Noise, Dubai.
Art Rotterdam with Boetzelaer | Nispen, Amsterdam.
The Language of Human Consciousness, (incl. Rasheed Araeen, Monir Fatimi, Sol LeWitt & Keith Tyson), Athr Gallery, Jeddah.
Notes from the Field, (incl. Dara Gill, Alexandre Singh & Nina Yuen - curated by Melissa Keys), Margaret Lawrence Gallery, Australia.*
Unseen Fair Amsterdam with Boetzelaer | Nispen, Amsterdam.
Geisterstädte - Utopie - Architektur, (incl. Gordon Matta-Clark, Cyprien Gaillard, Marina Abramovic and Ulay, Monica Bonvicini & John Smith), presented by Julia Stoschek Collection and KAI 10 | Arthena Foundation, Abraham Building, Neuss.
Past, Favourite, Recent, Boetzelaer | Nispen, Amsterdam.
Art Dubai with Grey Noise, Dubai.
LISTE 18 with Grey Noise, Dubai.
Art Dubai with Grey Noise, Dubai.
Backwards into Paradise, (with Seamus Harahan, Lorraine Neeson, Tom Smith & Nadim Vardag), Flood, Dublin.
Amsterdam Drawing 2012 with Boetzelaer | Nispen, Amsterdam.
Bis hier - 50 Jahre Kunstverein Bochum (incl. Stephan Balkenhol, Martin Brand, Katharina Grosse & Rolf Julius), Museum Bochum.*
Performing Transition curated by Necmi Sönmez, Kiasma Theatre, Helsinki.
vac.u.um (with Saira Ansari, Fahd Burki, Ayesha Jatoi, Nadia Khawaja, Basir Mahmood & Mehreen Murtaza), Grey Noise, Dubai.
KunstFestSpiele Herrenhausen (with Olaf Nicolai & Tamara Grcic), Hannover.*
Artissima 18 with Grey Noise, Dubai.
Taste my photons (incl. Ruth van Beek, Bert Dankaert, Eric Jan van de Geer, Sabrina Jung & Ingo Mittelstaedt - curated by Wim Bosch), Noorderlicht Gallery, Groningen.
Cinematic (with Laas Abenroth, Cyprien Gaillard & Clemens von Wedemeyer), Kunstverein Bremerhaven.
Caisson part 1 (collaboration with Aleana Egan), Tilsiter Lichtspiele Cinema, Berlin.*
Where Gravity Makes You Float (incl. Kristina Bengtsson, Henrik Menne, Josefine Lyche & Sinta Werner - curated by Silja Leifsdottir), Grimmuseum, Berlin.
Display: Videokunst im öffentlichen Raum (with Ulrich Polster, Vadim Schäffler, Thomas Lüer
& Juliane Ebner), Fassade der DEKA Bank, Frankfurt.
Void (with Thomas Dillmann & Benjamin Rubloff - curated by Christoph Kivelitz), Galerie Robert Drees, Hannover.
Equinox part 1: Speederbike primitive, Grimmuseum, Berlin.
Equinox part 2: Highlight what you love, Grimmuseum, Berlin.
Compound, Space Delawab, Belfast.
Trace (with Paul Jackson), The Arts Gallery, London.*
In Flagranti II: Schnittstellen von Fotografie, Video und Malerei (with Wim Bosch, Doris Frohnapfel & Marc Lüders - curated by Christoph Kivelitz), Dortmund Kunstverein, Dortmund.*
In Flagranti I: Schnittstellen von Fotografie, Video und Malerei (with Eric Jan van de Geer & Dirk Braeckman - curated by Christoph Kivelitz), Dortmund Kunstverein, Dortmund.*
Field (with Clodagh Emoe, Martina Mullaney & Michael Sheppard), Contemporary Art Projects, London.
Bathers (with Gary Coyle, AK Dolven & Justine Pearsall), Temple Bar Gallery & Studios, Dublin.
2004_MA Fine Art, Chelsea College of Art and Design, London, England.
2002_BA Fine Art, Institute of Art, Design and Technology Dun Laoghaire, Ireland.
Yellow Amber Grey Amber − English, 32 pages, 21 x 14.8 cm, with an A2 dust jacket poster folded to A5. Including a text by by Declan Long. Published by Rua Red, Dublin (2016)
The sun shone on the nothing new − English, 44 pages, 21 x 14.8 cm, published by Grey Noise/Lismore Castle Arts, Dubai/Waterford (2013)
Caisson (part 1) − English, 20 pages, 21 x 14.8 (2010)
Red Sky Morning − English/German, 144 pages, 21 x 14,8 cm, published by Argobooks, Berlin (2009)
Feint, guest edited by Aleana Egan, Issue 12, (2009)
Trace: Film and Video by Paul Jackson and Michael John Whelan − English (2007)
In Flagranti: Schnittstellen von Fotografie, Video und Malerei − English/German,
published by Kunstverein Dortmund (2006/07)
Alserkal Residency, Dubai, UAE. (Upcoming)
TAJ Residency & SKE Projects, Bangalore, India.
ART PAPERS, dossier on Svalbard edited by Stephanie Bailey, November/December 2016
A remote part of Norway where life is kept frozen, Aidan Dunne, The Irish Times, 09.08.2016 - view
Darwin's Finches featured on Art Viewer (Online) 11.06.2016 - view
Darwin's Finches reviewed by Lucette ter Borg in NRC Handelsblad (Dutch National newspaper), 12.05.2016
Darwin's Finches reviewed by Sophia Zuercher in Het Parool (Amsterdam newspaper) - 21.05.2016
but even if I cannot see the sun reviewed by Ipek Ulusoy Akgül, Art Asia Pacific, March-April 2016
Only In, Art Monthly No.384, p29 & 30, March 2015
Michael John Whelans Lupus, Rachel Bennett, FAD (Online), 29.11.2014
A show in Dubai is an ode to Irelands extinct wolves, Jyoti Kalsi, Gulf News, 27.11.2014
Galerierondje Amsterdam West, Kunstbeeld.nl (Online), 11.2013
Dust Magazine (Online), 06.2013
Fatal Attraction: Artist Michael John Whelans Ongoing Show Explores the Science of Magnetism, Blouin ARTINFO (Online), 01.10.2012
Forces of nature direct Michael John Whelan's new art show, The National (Print), 10.09.2012
Sexy Langsamkeit, Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung, 30.01.2010 (Print)
Gleißendes Licht Über dem See, Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung (Print), 21.03.2009
Michael J. Whelan und die Kunst der Entschleunigung, Ruhr Nachrichten (Print), 07.03.2009
Paul Jackson & MJ Whelan, Martin Coomer, Time Out London (Print), 08.2007
Balance-Akte mit der Realität, Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung (Print), 20.10.2006
'in flagranti' beim Kunstverein, Westfälische Rundschau (Print), 20.10.2006
Fascinating bodies of Work, Aidan Dunne, The Irish Times (Print), 06.07.2005
Swimming against the Tide, Cristin Leach, The Sunday Times (Print), 10.07.2005
2017 - Senate of Berlin Research Grant for The Fire Ant and Other Constellations
2017 - Culture Ireland Exhibition Award
2016 - Arts Council of Ireland - Project Award for Darkness had no need
2015 - Arts Council of Ireland - Travel and Training Award
2014 - Culture Ireland Exhibition Award
2012 - Culture Ireland Exhibition Award
2011 - Culture Ireland Exhibition Award
2009 - Arts Council of Ireland - Bursary Award
2008 - Arts Council of Ireland - Bursary Award
2008 - Arts Council of Ireland - Projects: New Work Award
2007 - Culture Ireland Exhibition Award
2006 - Culture Ireland Exhibition Award
2005 - Culture Ireland Exhibition Award
2005 - Clifford Chance/University of the Arts Sculpture Award
University of the Arts, London Collection
MLP Collection, London
Institute of Art, Design and Technology Dun Laoghaire Collection
Multiple private collections
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