Aleana Egan ‘The Sensitive Plant’

Below is a short review of Aleana Egan’s solo show at the Kerlin, which took place a few months back, and which I subsequently forgot to post here. The text was published in Paper Visual Art’s Dublin Edition.


Aleana Egan ‘The harbour is good company’ (2013)

There is a plant commonly known as ‘the sensitive plant’: all plants are sensitive, of course, but this one, the mimosa pudica, or ‘touch-me-not’, is explicitly and tangibly so. Following any contact with its leaves, they droop in turn; only reasserting themselves once the threat is perceived to have passed. It is a plain herb, yet what it lacks in colour and vibrancy, it makes up for through this curious trait. Humble by nature, it shirks back towards itself, very much a passive entity within the botanical realm.

The sensitive plant also lends its name to a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley[i]. In this lengthy anthropomorphic study, Shelley recounts the fable of a wondrous garden in which the sensitive plant inhabits a lowly secondary role, at least aesthetically. It observes the vitality and exuberance of the roses, narcissi and hyacinths, and never ceases to want what they have: ‘For the sensitive plant has no bright follower; Radiance and odour are not its dower; It loves, even like Love, its deep heart is full, It desires what it has not, the Beautiful[ii]. The sensitive plant clings to this possibility of beauty even in the seasonal demise of the others: he subsists, in the death throes of winter, awaiting their return.

Aleana Egan’s exhibition at the Kerlin Gallery title takes the same title as this aforementioned poem. This cannot be a coincidence: Egan’s titles are invariably drawn from the sphere of literature, acting out a kind of imagined translation between word and object. Egan knowingly alludes to Shelley, and seeks to translate his work into another corpus, much removed and finally unrecognisable. What remains for the critic is to read both versions alongside one another in an effort to gain traction on the work. Some titles of the individual works allude to a commonality between the poem and the overall thrust of the exhibition (‘The Garden Walls’, ‘The Mossy Roofs’), and yet others (‘Life Group A’, ‘The Sky looks down on almost as many things as the ceiling’) disrupt any sense of continuity: they prevent reconciliation between the work and text. The work may indeed allude to Shelley’s poem, but it exists at a diagonal to it, using it as a starting point for a poetic formulation of its own.

The exhibition comprises a mixture of two and three-dimensional work, of varying scale. The overall sense, though, is of a kind of overstatement: the works’ scale and use of colour appear almost like an amplification of her previous work. ‘Meanwhile’ (2013), by some length the largest work in the exhibition, is almost totemic in form: comprising a large steel frame on top of which a length of fabric haphazardly rests, the work functions like a kind of monumental absence. ‘The harbour is good company’ (2013) accedes also to this sense of amplification: this steel work, roughly human in height, has a sense of denseness that I do not normally attribute to Egan’s work. The upper section, a steel container atop four box-tubed legs, features a window through which folds of fabric are perceptible. The impression is one of straining: it speaks to the language of Egan’s corpus, but is somehow colder and more difficult to empathise with.

A substantial part of the exhibition comprises two-dimensional works: these involve a series of archival prints and a pair of found photographs, their source unknown. The series, ‘pips t-shirt 1-4’ (2013) and the diptych ‘clothes real sad here now world’ (2013) point to familiar clues of an interior, lived life, at once nostalgic and wistful. The framing of the prints, through which the scale of the objects and the surrounding context are foreclosed to the viewer, leads to a kind of myopic understanding: the images become painterly, abstracted somehow. So too with the pairing of found photographs ‘13/1 Sunnypark, Ballygunge, Calcutta, India, Circa 1957’, and ‘Untitled’ (both 2013). These vivid black and white images are abstracted to the point of imperceptibility by the disclosure of subject alone; without context, they amount to little more than visual non-sequiters.  

This is both the gain and the loss of Egan’s exhibition as a whole. On previous occasions wherein I have spent time with her work, most notably her thoughtful and finally illuminating exhibition at the Douglas Hyde Gallery last year[iii], the work slowly gained a poetry of its own the more time was spent with it. It was not simply done, but over time the objects and texts it spoke to came to speak in synchrony: there was a natural sympathy present that gave the work sense and meaning. This current exhibition appears to want the same thing, but fails: indeed, this failure might be perceived as thematically apt. The Sensitive Plant demands too much of its viewers; it asks them to fill in gaps between reference points too disparate and obscure. It retreats back towards itself, curling itself up unintelligibly like the plant it alludes to, precluding the viewer from gaining purchase on the work. The more time one spends here, the more perceptible the gaps between reference points become. It wants too much: desirous of sense and beauty and yet never quite accomplishing it.  

[i]  Composed in 1820, ‘The Sensitive Plant’ was published in the same year in the collection Prometheus Unbound and Other Poems.

[iii] Egan’s exhibition day wears ran at the DHG from 1 June – 18 July, 2012.


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