Any exhibition by US artist Trisha Donnelly (born in 1974, lives and works in San Francisco) always confronts viewers with an experience of the potentiality and on occasion also with pure absence. She works in a whole gamut of media, ranging from drawing, video, photography, sound and text to performances (which Trisha Donnelly terms “demonstrations”). And when using them she is forever exploring the place from which “things” first become infused with existence and meaning. If Trisha Donnelly entitles a photo of a sphinx «Hands that hold the Desert Down» (2002), then she not only changes our perception of this all too familiar photo (if it were a reality that the desert, the sand of the desert were merely held down by the Sphinx’s massive paws, what happens if they stand up and head off, does the desert than disappear?), but also the meaning of images in general and the relation of language to images.
© Photo: Stefan Altenburger Photography
© Photo: Stefan Altenburger Photography
If Trisha Donnelly transforms sounds into physical presence in her sound piece «The Shield» (2004), by using a refined sound sequence of sonorous deep through metallically
high sounds and great technical precision in the sounds to create a non-material wall that divides a room, then she transforms sensory perception from one sense into the
other, and plays with the borderlines of this perception, with realities, with language, experience and signifying assignation.
Synesthesia, in other words the transposition or simultaneous perception of sensory impressions otherwise experienced separate from one another plays a major role in Donnelly’s oeuvre (see colors in letters or numbers, the perception of forms when hearing music, and much else besides). She does so not because of some excessively intense or exaggerated perceptual abilities on her own part (or among artists in general), but as a potential means of permeating and thus reconfiguring reality.
Her works are always geared to moments of absolute concentration – and they are likewise always focused on the simultaneity of magic, irr itation and a constructive blank space. Her works also always take us beyond what we think we have grasped at first glance, that first encounter, that initial experience, and trigger the interaction of physical and imagined, of real and fictitious in a different way in each individual viewer.
Trisha Donnelly’s performances are never documented: They exist as oral records by those who experienced them, in other words in countless individual versions. On the opening of one of her first solo shows, in 2000 at the Casey Kaplan Gallery in New York, she rode into the gallery rooms high on a horse, Napoleon’s messenger, announced the emperor’s capitulation (among other things with the words: «He capitulates, only by word not by will.») and intoning the words «I am electric, I am electric» rode off again. In another of her demonstrations she asked the audience to read out loud from the libretto of Alexander Scriabin’s unfinished symphony «Mysterium» - Scrjabin is said to have been a synesthetic and he planned this symphony as a seven-day spectacular of sensory sensations made up of music, text, dance, light, fire and smell. After the reading, Donnelly turned the lights off and played a recording of a piece of music while explaining that she had come across the recording during an eclipse of the sun. After her lecture, she informed the audience that she wished to seize the next morning of everybody present, thus took a place in the mind of every individual participant in the performance, not only appropriating their time, but also turning them into an artwork. She typically executes all her actions with great concentration and a fascinating intensity. She playfully engages with group phenomena, cultic practices and the creation of myths, and above all by logical advancing conceptual art practices, considering the work to first be realized in the viewer.
Ever more often, Trisha Donnelly delegates the “action” to the audience or a selected protagonist. For example, her photo-work «The Redwood and the Raven» (2004) consists of 31 small-format b&w photos: for each, Donnelly asked dancer Frances Flannery to perform a certain sequence of movements that she then photographed. However, the work is onlyever displayed in the form of one photograph, which the gallery, institution or collector has to change each day the presentation lasts. The picture itself does not succeed in documenting a movement in time; the absent piece, the transition becomes more important than the fixed image.
Many of the photo and sound pieces refer to events that were announced but did not take place – what will actually happens remains open or is the product of our imagination, our memory, our supposition. Her sound piece «Dark Wind» (2002) periodically reproduces the sound of the howling wind – an experience which we may know from early Westerns in which the «Dark Wind» was a preferred tool to announce an event. Her photo-piece «The Black Wave» (2002) shows the natural phenomenon of giant waves before or after a storm. Wind and water, sound and images point to an event, possible occurrence, change. And like all Trisha Donnelly’s works, the piece unfolds more through a system of different references than from the material. Positioned somewhere between experience, scientific analysis, an act of the will or the imagination, her works function in the ephemeral, at times coincidental, and raise profound questions about what art is, what reality we trust, and how we construct them in the interstices of material and spirit, abstraction and experience, belief and knowledge.
Special thanks for their generous support go to:
Präsidialdepartement der Stadt Zürich, Deutsche Bank Stiftung.