Interview with David O’Kane conducted by Francis McKee

10th January 2010

(English Version)

Francis McKee: You have a very broad practice – photography, animation, film, painting and drawing. Can you comment on the relationship between these media in your work – did animation, for instance, grow out of drawing and painting? There is a constant to-and-fro movement between these media where for example a painting may become animated and circle back into painting again.

David O’Kane: The media have a symbiotic relationship. Working through one medium influences and affects the other. It is a kind of practical dialogue. I was already painting and drawing at a very early age, and the origins of my fascination with animation can be traced back to two important events that took place when I was about six years old. My eldest brother Eamon had done a course in animation in Derry and he brought back a video camera. He demonstrated how to make animation and helped all his younger siblings to make several short pieces. I was instantly addicted to the whole process. Animation is a strange alchemy that still surprises me. It is also very akin to a game and I still think of the whole process in this way. Around the same time my father borrowed a video of Jan Švankmajer’s Something of Alice (Neco z Alenky). I was completely enthralled by this film, and seeing it at such a young age had the most profound effect on me. It is an incredibly accurate portrayal of how a child experiences and negotiates with the bizarre phenomenon of reality. In that film there was no shielding from the terrifying, uncanny aspects of this reality like there are in many films made for children. This darkness has had a very deep resonance for me. So much so that the uncanny is now present in nearly every artwork I make, as an authentication of the alternate reality I am creating. I consider animation to be a distillation of real time, which hints at film’s fundamental deceptive illusion. These animated sequences are fractured thoughts or reflections on the paintings. It is a process of appropriation, authentication and destruction. The animated paintings, such as the Doppelgänger series, are influenced by William Kentridge’s short films, however Kentridge animates charcoal drawings that leave a palimpsest history of every mark made on the paper. The way I animate my oil paintings actually achieves the opposite effect because it constantly erases its history. Animation enables me to go beyond the boundaries of painting, without negating painting itself. The paintings are no longer static; they move and become sculptural entities. After watching the animation the viewer’s relationship with the physical object of the painting is fundamentally altered. The act of looking becomes infused with an uncanny undercurrent.

FMK: What role does absurdity play in your work? (I notice you wrote a dissertation on Absurdity and the Game of Painting discussing both Michaël Borremans and Neo Rauch).

DOK: Albert Camus wrote that the most absurd character is the creator. So I think absurdity is present in a variety of ways in the art and the daily practice of being an artist. For instance, I understand the uncanny as a subsidiary of the absurd that is tinged with fear. The very fact that making art is treated as a game (by myself and many other artists, such as Rauch or Borremans) highlights its absurdity. Essentially, what interests me is the presence of absurdity in the perspective of the viewer when they encounter the work. Although they can perceive an underlying logic and structure in the work they do not know the exact intention of the artist. So in effect they are in the absurd position of interpretation, where the range possibilities are made manifold as they are generated by their own imagination. In this moment of interpretation or interaction a silent imperceptible exchange takes place that is saturated with absurdity, as images and ideas shift and mingle under the omnipotence of subjectivity.

FMK: There is a growing preoccupation in your work with figures such as Borges, Flann O’Brien and Kafka – all writers who play with ideas of the infinite, the circular and the labyrinthine – all thinkers interested in bending time… It seems that not only the ideas have importance in your work, but the presence of these writers too.

DOK: These concepts and writers have had an exponential fascination for me, particularly their ability to imbue fantastic surreal concepts with an everyday plausibility. I’m interested in the varied dimensions of temporality. There are vast differences in the stillness of the painting to the staccato movement of the animation or the apparent passage of time in reality. Condensing space and language temporally into a single discussion between these writers, as I did in Babble, was a way of formalizing the idea of how we unconsciously build something new from the multitude of influences we absorb. The film explores Roland Barthes theories about The Death of the Author and his postulation that literature and art are nothing but a spectrum of quotations. O’Brien preceded Barthes hypothesis, stating, “The entire corpus of existing literature should be regarded as a limbo from which discerning authors could draw their characters as required.” (O’Brien, At Swim Two Birds, p 25, 1939)

FMK: I’m interested in the emerging interest in theatre too. At times this is manifested as the Kino or cinema and at other times as the more traditional stage surrounded by theatre blacks. Is this the creation of a place beyond time (in Babble I think the protagonists debate their location, arguing for eternity, paradise or hell)?

DOK: Yes. They exist in eternity in a void of darkness in the recesses of the mind. It is quite literally a black box or chambre noire. Of course it is informed and influenced Samuel Beckett’s work, such as The Unnamable or Waiting for Godot, hence the theatrical space.

FMK: How does the theatrical space you’re creating relate to the basic issue of representation? In Babble, Flann O’Brien describes ‘the whole monster procession of life …as a sort of epiphenomenal magic lantern show, too dim, too dull, too intolerably indistinct… I am the shadow on the wall of the cave mentioned by Plato.’ This takes us back to one of the founding statements on the nature of representation with Plato’s Cave. Is the theatrical space surrounded by blacks a more contemporary version of this?

DOK: I actually made a short animation entitled Kino, which deals with Plato’s Allegory of the Cave explicitly, but where the film projector replaces the fire in the casting of shadows. This reference is subtler in Babble. In effect the actors are merely shadows or vestiges of the identities of the writers they represent exactly as elucidated by Flann O’Brien. The theatrical space communicates the distortion and illusion of any form of representation more honestly. The limits of understanding are hinted at through the structure of the conversation.

FMK: The focus on language in your most recent work and on the interaction of several languages (Babble) and the phenomenon of translation (Palabras). Is this another means of destabilizing a sense of self, as ideas and meaning move through various dialects? Another way of interrogating the accuracy or lack of it in representation?

DOK: Babble is structured as a verbal labyrinth that references that recurrent theme in all their literature. This is the precise reason why there are no subtitles. Although the conversation is complex and entirely coherent, to most viewers only one language is intelligible. The incomprehensibility of the other two languages highlights the fundamental musical beauty inherent in the structure and sound of each sentence. The film exposes the inherent confusions and limits to language. It emphasizes the fragility of self, or the illusion of self. Babble could be considered as a self-portrait generated from a multitude of extant appropriated material. A portrait built completely of influences, which have a particular resonance. Babble draws attention to the immortality of these writers through the infinite repetition and the consumption of their words.

FMK: Likewise it’s possible to trace a persistent questioning of personal identity in the work, particularly t Kino, 2008 (pg. 00) the animation and film work. At times, it seems as if the animation is employed as a means to destabilize the more settled identity in your portraits – of Beckett, Baudrillard, Borges and Wilde for instance.

DOK: I am interested in portraiture, not as a means of recording personality, but rather the opposite, the dissolution of personality through time and subjectivity. The people portrayed in the paintings are usually literary figures, who through the very act of writing have created a secondary persona running in tangent to the true personality but enduring for much longer. This series of installations take the form of stereoscopic mirror images each comprised of two oil paintings and one animation. The illusion of movement is created through the manipulation of wet oil paint until the painting becomes completely abstracted into a thick impasto. The animation highlights the fragility of the image and its constant metamorphosis through repeated viewing. It complicates the element of time in painting by merging it with the precepts of filmic time. This creates an interesting vacuum between movement and inertia, figuration and abstraction. I am especially interested in the idea of the doppelgänger because of its threat to the authenticity of the individual.1 In a sense, within the animation, there are hundreds of paintings layered over one original, like layers of identity seemingly obliterating one another over time but remaining subtly present. The portraits are a kind of homage to the figures they portray, but they also play on the sheer remoteness of these artists and their work. They are unknowable. The video literally reanimates the figures in a game of subjective projection, distorting and effacing the original image. I have taken this investigation of the failure of perception and representation further in the series of 24 paintings entitled, Stills (Carol Anne), which I developed over the last three months during a residency at the British School at Rome. The illusion of movement created through the animation imbues the paintings with a sculptural quality that generates a spatial depth, making the succession of images appear threedimensional. Therefore it is through the progression of time that the spatial element of the painting is revealed. I am interested in the failure inherent in any form of representation and the attempt to reconcile the discrepancies with a perceived reality. Again, the figure is shown represented in a void of darkness that links it more to a dream reality than any waking reality. I feel the difference between the animated video and the installation of paintings is similar to the contrast between a flat map of the world and a globe, in that, certain elements have been lost in translation so that other aspects can be distinguished with greater clarity. The linear display of the paintings inverts this inward gaze onto a single point. This transposes the reality depicted into a panoramic frieze, highlighting the impossibility of an overall view.

1. Doppelgänger describes the sensation of having glimpsed oneself in peripheral vision, where there is no chance that it was a reflection. In some traditions seeing one’s own doppelgänger is considered an omen of death.

Francis McKee, 2010