Damage and Survival
By Caoimhín Mac Giolla LéIth

Cecily Brennan’s work, over the past decade or so, has addressed two related but distinct subjects, that of physical pain and affliction, on the one hand, and that of psychological trauma, on the other. The vulnerability of the human body and the fragile nature of the human psyche constitute different, if overlapping domains of specialist inquiry in the worlds of medicine and psychology. Brennan’s work as an artist, however, when taken as a whole, yokes them together in highly suggestive ways, which touch upon such disparate issues as the phenomenon of self-injury, the related conditions of depression and melancholia, and the association between suffering and creativity. Damage and fortitude are her abiding concerns, and the perennial search for those strategies of survival that allow ordinary human beings to endure and overcome the various afflictions by which they are beset.

Among the earliest of her works to deal with this complex of issues is Hinge-ons for Bad Days, 1999, a pair of weird shin-guards that extend above the knee, cast in stainless steel. The family resemblance to medieval armour may remind that what was once designed to protect is now largely prized for display. Yet this up-to-date armour is disfigured by a surgically stitched vertical wound, which extends the length of the right shin, while the left is scarred by a broad skin graft. While Brennan has stated that she sees these works as ‘portable samplers for healing and repair’, the work’s title also suggests a more psychologically motivated desire for a protective layer between the embodied self and the world around it. Suicidal or self-injurious behaviour is more explicitly invoked, but with similar mordant wit, in a related sculpture, Suicide Guards, 2001, a pair of cuff-sized wrist protectors, also in cast stainless steel, whose surface bears a welter of incisions suggestive of repeated wrist-slashings, accompanied by the legends ‘Don’t do it’ and ‘Not today anyway’. Bandaging, 2005, is a short video, just over two minutes, featuring a woman deep in concentration as she laboriously wraps a long length of bandage tightly around her undamaged right arm; whereas in a pendant video, Rubber Band, 2005, another person, of indeterminate gender and shot in close-up, stretches and re-stretches an elastic band around his or her forearm. These actions, seemingly pointless and mildly painful, hint at the ostensibly trivial but potentially crucial rituals through which destructive impulses toward self-harm might be effectively, or temporarily, sublimated. A more abstracted and theatricalised sense of ritual is presented in the video Collar, 2005, in which a woman in a white tee-shirt squeezes with both hands what appears to be a piece of bubble wrap around her neck, which has been laden with bright red paint. The eventual result is a minor splatterfest that is at once deliberately gruesome and comical.

Balancing, 2005, is a seven-minute video comprising three elements. The first is a life-size projection of a naked woman standing unsteadily on an inflated yellow ball, while her body casts a deep shadow on a nearby wall. A smaller projection on an adjacent gallery wall shows close-up footage of the woman’s right arm outstretched, occasionally brushing against the white wall, almost as if it were tentatively trying to make, or avoid solid contact with its own shadow, though in fact the woman’s unchoreographed movements are simply the result of her efforts to remain upright. Another projection of equal size on the opposite wall shows close-up imagery of the woman’s feet as she struggles to maintain a precarious balance on top of the rubber globe. The sense of general instability thematized in this work is elsewhere couched in more specific terms, i.e. that particular inability to cope which is categorised as clinical depression or melancholia. In the video Melancholia, 2005, a naked woman lies on her side on a white sheet in a white wooden box with an open front, which stands on two simple trestles. The sheet- hangs a few inches over the front lip of this her makeshift recess. Over the course of ten minutes a black liquid slowly bleeds out from behind her, saturating the sheet and spilling out onto the grey wooden floor beneath. This work is clearly an hommage to Hans Holbein’s The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, 1521. Yet unlike Holbein’s physically tortured dead Christ, stretched and supine in his ornately carved cask, the body of Brennan’s living woman, confined to her rudely constructed box, is cramped and slightly contorted, wracked by a less palpable torment. This traumatic state is, however, given palpable form in the physically inexplicable ooze symbolising black bile, an excess of which the ancients believed to be the cause of melancholia (from Ancient Greek melas, ‘black’, + kholé, ‘bile’). The ‘lethal flood’ or ‘oceanic death’ described by Julia Kristeva in her classic account of depression and melancholia, also features in Unstrung, 2007 ’[1]. Here a woman in loose white clothing stands in a pristine white room which, despite its manifestly flimsy construction, is equally reminiscent of a classic white cube gallery space and a padded cell. Suddenly a torrent of black fluid pours into the room from above knocking her off her feet. She repeatedly scrambles to her feet trying to steady herself against the wall only to be swept off her feet again by the next wave of liquid.

While gender is never neutral in Brennan’s work – Collar, for instance, obliquely evokes a modernist canon of violent expressionist excess (cf. Jackson Pollock, Hermann Nitsch etc), though crucially performed by a woman, and directed inward against herself – there is no suggestion that suffering is the unique preserve of woman. The related watercolour series features a succession of figures of both genders, or in some case of indeterminate gender, rendered in thin washes of paint, portrayed as prone or supine or lying on their sides.

These ghostly figures never meet the viewer’s gaze. They cover their faces in pain, distress or shame, or they stare vacantly into some middle distance beyond the viewer, as if to emphasise the viewer’s irrelevance to their plight. The suite of Heat paintings from 2003 is a series of small works executed in egg tempera on gessoed board depicting a selection of chronic skin infections, which might afflict any one of us through no fault of our own. These are decidedly secular paintings executed in a medium associated with the sacred, with the tradition of icon painting. Despite the mixed feelings of fascination and disgust such images might be expected to evoke in the ordinary viewer these pictures exude an unmistakable tenderness; a tenderness, one might add, that is largely alien to, if not entirely absent from the paintings of Francis Bacon, whose source material also included images of skin infections gleaned from medical textbooks.

While the human figure is central to Brennan’s work it is occasionally replaced by inanimate surrogates. The video Collapsing Can, 2005, lasts just under a minute and features a red tin can perched on a small three-legged stand on top of a white plinth. After a while the can begins to buckle, as the air is sucked out of its interior by a hidden bunsen burner, until it eventually keels over. This work, as Jaki Irvine has noted, is ‘vaguely comic, vaguely disturbing, at once comforting and disturbing ’[2]. As indeed is Hero’s Engine, 2005, a video which focuses on the antics of a suspended water-filled glass sphere with two opposing spouts. A flame is applied to this vessel until the water boils and it begins to rotate. A ‘Hero’s engine’ is the generic name given to any device which propels itself by shooting steam from one or more orifices, and is so-called in honour of its supposed inventor, the first-century Hero of Alexandria. Yet the title’s suggestion of mock-heroics, of comically compromised endeavour, of absurdly Sisyphean labour and of being fated to run around in endless circles, is unavoidable. Given the persistent focus in Cecily Brennan’s art on disability and affliction, any hope for an ultimate triumph over adversity must be grounded in her admirable ability to mix sadness with humour, to leaven disgust with tenderness, and to find in the suffocating languor of melancholia sufficient material for creative expression.

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith, September 2007.

1 Julia Kristeva, Black Sun, translated by Leon Rudiez (Columbia University Press, 1989). Kristeva is also invoked by Jaki Irvine in her discussion of Brennan’s work in ‘The Shadow of Despair: Cecily Brennan’s Unstrung’, Art Monthly, No. 306 (May 2007) pages 20 – 21.

2 Jaki Irvine, Art Monthly, No. 306 (May 2007), ‘The Shadow of Despair’, pages 20 – 21.