The voice of your unknown

(after Monsieur Teste, Paul Valery) Notes on the work of David O’Kane

(English Version)

In Georges Perec’s novel, A Man Asleep (1967), a sociology student spends several weeks in his studio flat under the roof of a Parisian apartment house without notifying his friends or family. He makes a radical break with the routines, which had hitherto dominated his life; he no longer opens the door and ignores all external obligations. Even though the entire time he is in the middle of the city – which from his perspective he perceives as no more than white noise – he seems to be absent, missing. However, he is present – in his flat. A reproduction of René Magritte’s painting The Forbidden Reproduction (La reproduction interdite 1937) hangs on the wall of the flat.

Without leaving the room he explores that other place, his imagination. In his self-imposed isolation he opens up to a stream of associations and imaginations, symbols, signs, and texts, which slowly but steadily float within his perception. He thus enters the spiral paths of thinking, winding their way further and further down into the depths of the alleged self, where once they have reached the bottom, they undergo a reversal. Now, in the mode of crystal-clear self-observation he touches again on those borderlines where ideas and imaginations are transformed into plastic spaces, which can be experienced by the body, only this time he does so from the outside. He becomes a speaking part of the scenery of himself.

In his work, David O’Kane frequently utilizes places similar to Perec’s protagonist’s place of retreat– attics, staircases and cellars. They are the domestic and heterotopic areas of civilisation, which are rarely changed and therefore remain more or less invisible throughout daily life. They serve as zones of transit where things or stories, which seem useless in everyday life, are kept or hidden – things or stories that may be a threat to the identities we desire, and for this very reason might be of particular value. A recent series of paintings produced by O’Kane in 2009 is set within such places (Dissection, Reflection Cut, 2009 (pg.00) and Cut). In Cut we see a huge, sparsely lit cellar vault filled with furniture, which is covered with white cloth. A male figure in military clothing is kneeling in front of a table on which a tropical monstera deliciosa is growing rampantly into the room. There is an air of tension in the figure and is holding an enormous pair of shears in his hands, the blades enclosing but not touching the plant’s branches. In the background a number of objects covered with white linen can be seen, some of them connected through the loosely draped fabric. A vanishing point is barely discernable, as the randomly furnished room narrows into the indeterminate, distant darkening background.

The room appears to be filled with everyday objects, which have been temporarily cast aside. However, the symbolic value of these objects is not apparent: in the author’s imagination their unveiling, could represent the basic cultural equipment of bourgeois society – chairs, tables, pianos, or paintings. The draped linen, as a classical motif in painting, symbolises the meaning of the objects. It therefore remains self-reflexive: it stands merely for the function of veiling something. In a similar fashion the implied cut, or rather the decision not to depict the cut: the act of violence against the plant – a symbol of the untamability, high adaptability and the extreme resistance of nature – remains concealed and if it takes place at all it is only in the observer’s imagination. O’Kane obviously presents the moment prior to a decision, but not the moment itself. The cut through the artery of the rampant plant remains no more than one of many possibilities and becomes contingent.

Cut is thus characterized by the aesthetics of an empty space. In its opulent composition the scenario remains enigmatic in the manner of the old masters. Further allusions by the artist which appear to provide access to a story are refuted by the painting itself: the melancholy atmosphere and the military-style clothes of the protagonist remind us of past times, possibly a war. However, such associations are negated by disparate signs such as the figure’s likeness to the artist or the bright plastic-like handles of the shears, which might set the painting in the present.

The theme of the impossibility of an unbroken and complete identity indicated in Cut is further explored in different directions in Dissection (2009). Dissection is set in a spacious attic and shows a naked male figure lying on a table and apparently undergoing an operation, his head being held still by another person. Several identically dressed men are observing the scenario from the background, all of them displaying a likeness to the artist. The children in the foreground are not aware of the apparently brutal operation and are either playing or looking at the painter with a surprised expression. Dissection was conceived intentionally as a counter-image to Cut where the person resembling the artist is now replaced by multiple such persons. The scene of the dissection – or of the potential nonaction, as in Cut – is transferred from downstairs to upstairs, into the daylight, which shines through large skylights.

Like many of O’Kane’s works, this scene explicitly contains aspects of theatricality in science. We see ritualised gestures of control, which always lead to conflict or excessive demands: this either becomes visible in the latent violence of the actions which are performed by and at the same on the alleged representations of the “self”, as in Cut or Dissection, or in the threatening streams of thought from the central figure in Cloud Chamber (2009), which are represented as ethereal and intangible clouds. So O’Kane’s work never shows concrete dissections or experiments. Rather life is presents itself as a series of performative tests, about the moments of collapse in a constant attempt at a control of communication – which permanently fails due to the impossibility of sharing certain experiences. The medium that serves us in this task, above all, is language.

In his film Babble (2008) O’Kane exposes the restrictions within the possibilities of verbal communication, on which our culture is definitively based. This one-act play is an imaginary dialogue between the authors Jorge Luis Borges, Flann O’Brien and Franz Kafka. Despite the differing subject matter of their literary work and different motives, they share a deep interest in demonstrating the absurdity of the limits to our existence, so arbitrarily defined through science, by creating fantastic escapes into parallel universes. In Borges’ case it is an almost pataphysical science, as in his ideas of infinite and indivisible worlds in The Library of Babel. In his short novel, The Castle, Kafka describes a laborious path towards a goal, but the goal disappears the moment before it is reached. Flann O’Brien plays satirically with ideas of “true” authorship, which he contradicts in his novel At Swim Two Birds by using only characters, and motifs from existing stories and legends – and therefore exposes the absurdity of concepts relating to artistic genius and authenticity. The conversation is held in the authors’ respective mother tongues, thus the allusion already inherent in the title, the legend of the Tower of Babel, is humorously repeated in this bourgeois back room. Since the performers quote only from original work by the authors they portray, the performance contains but a few short moments of formal conformity and corresponding gestures, before the languages in O’Kane’s time and sound sculpture of endless self-quotations dissolve once again.

O’Kane’s one-hour animated film, Monument (2009), starts with the view of a male statue which stands in the middle of a deserted idyllic landscape. In spite of its gigantic dimensions innumerable, fragile wooden supports surround it. The foundation of the statue is reflected in a lake in the foreground of the painting, yet the full figure cannot be seen within this reflection. Over the course of the animation the scaffolding slowly constructs itself around the statue. Once it is completely engulfed by the scaffolding, the sedimentation and fragmentation of the monument commences bit by bit, and t Babble, 2008 (pg.00) he scaffolding begins to Cloud chamber, 2009 (pg.00) disappear simultaneously. In the middle of the film an empty space with nothing but unspoilt nature is visible for a few minutes. The process is then repeated in reverse: slowly the statue and the scaffolding are rebuilt, followed by the disappearance of the latter. The initial situation is restored. The reflection of the figure in the water, however, remains static and unaffected by the above processes of construction and deconstruction – all the while it shows the same blurred motif of the statue’s torso.

What seems to be an illusion thus becomes the only “true” moment in this whole scenario of construction and deconstruction. The reason behind this is O’Kane’s deep reflection on the act of painting which, by presenting visual signs (just like the textual language) is nothing but an instrumental system used to refer to something, yet it can never depict the signified as such – ‘Ceci n’est pas un monument’ to paraphrase Magritte. But what is the meaning of the reflection? The monument is modelled on the figure of David O’Kane’s father. A father is an authority which forms the contours of self-reflection for a life-time: nobody can ever evade their father’s ideas and attitudes regarding the world, even though the images of these might be completely absent or disappear for a time. Certain (artistic) processes of deconstructing and re-establishing the world may create periods during which one has a clearer perception of the world, but even then one’s view is always configured by underlying motives and patterns. In an accelerated culture full of powerful ideas, styles and signs it seems impossible to conceive a way of evading what has already been thought, what already exists and is, therefore present. Literally caught in this network or web of quotations and their repetitions, it appears that, for O’Kane as an artist, it makes the most sense to simply accept the eternal multilevel clashes between appropriation and utter objectivity, as he represents them.

David O’Kane’s pictorial worlds are places of “hypnagogy” – a description of those border areas of our perception where only fragments of our surrounding reality are indicated; yet visual traces of reality remain present and they mingle in a bizarre way with our internal activities. At the beginning of his Search for Lost Time Marcel Proust elaborately describes the slow passage into sleep on a temporally linear plane and the transitory stages through such states of consciousness that are described above. The external reality merges with the gentle flow of inner images and motifs. So an increasingly uncontrollable plateau of unpredictable image language – and linguistic imagery – is established. Yet, while Marcel Proust’s narrator subsequently falls into a deep sleep, it is at precisely these moments that David O’Kane stays awake, moments that might allegorically stand for his existence as an artist: persevering in the self-observation before making a definitive cut, which would kill the artistic flow of images.

Martin Germann, 2010