Russian Dolls
Sighle Bhreathnach-Cashell, Cian Donnelly and Matthew Walmsley

Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast
27 June – 3 August 2013

By Alissa Kleist


A man stands motionless on the roof of a burnt-out car, silhouetted in the darkened gallery. He has his back to us; his long arms hang limp and his bowler hat-clad head is bent down. Strange child-like figures stand around the space, lit by coloured spots. An eerie soundtrack – threatening pitches, long, low, distorted and lingering – accompanies the scene. A projection in the background shows silent footage of the face of the figure on the car roof, his melancholic eyes blinking behind a misshapen mask.

Thus begins ‘Russian Dolls’, a three-person group show at Belfast’s Golden Thread Gallery that includes an encounter with Cian Donnelly’s The Observatory. For the opening night, Donnelly performed Train Stop, an unsettling and at times nightmarish piece, donning the garb of the mannequin now atop the car. The artist conversed, sang, danced and, in a bizarre collaborative act, performed a duet with a creature vaguely resembling a human girl with a pointy nose, clown face and soiled robes.

Around a corner, mounted on a partition wall, a flat screen monitor plays footage of the performance – which doesn’t quite match experiencing Train Stop. Documenting the live event is an on-going challenge for performance artists. However, even without Donnelly’s presence, The Observatory installation functions effectively as an autonomous work.

Entering the next room, you’re invited to take a clipboard and sit down on a row of chairs lining a harshly lit white waiting room. Words are projected on the wall: ‘shadow’, ‘former’, ‘repeat’, ‘barren’, ‘slither’. Various signs warn of electric shocks and screens display instructions. Visitors are told to wait, then to enter an adjacent space behind the blinds at the next beep. At set times actors wearing doctors’ coats were present here to instruct and chide, but on this visit there were none.

Sighle Bhreathnach-Cashell’s YOU is an immersive, manipulative experiment. Visitors are impelled to participate in a series of unexplained psychological tests. Participants’ rebellion against this may be as much part of the artist’s expectations as their compliance.

Visitors are led through a maze of curtained spaces from one TV screen to the next, which hector: “Me or You?… Choose a face, (a), (b) or (c)?… Suicide? Yes or No? … The Death Penalty? Yes or No?” Answers are to be filled out on a clipboard. Footage from psychological experiments, TV shows and hysterical news bulletins flash alongside other disturbing images: a rotting bovine carcass, someone sleeping, pigeons eating vomit.

Proceeding down a curtained corridor, sounds coming from the various screens overlap with The Observatory‘s unsettling soundtrack, audible in the background. Visitors are confronted by a chair, with the warning ‘Danger, Electricity’ written on a sign above it.

It’s a beautiful object: simple, heavy and functional. Metal plates – electrical conductors – are set into the armrests. I’m told to flick the switch at the back on or off. I agonise – should I sit? I’ve followed all the other instructions so far, why not now? I really hate electric shocks…

Bhreathnach-Cashell creates an uncertain state in which visitors become (unwitting) guinea pigs in what may or may not be a malevolent exercise. What is enjoyable about YOU is the element of doubt, having to second-guess the artist’s intention, questioning the work’s ultimate aim and wondering about the futility of it all.

On the other hand, there is no ambiguity about Matthew Walmsley’s Boat Shed Gallery: a replica of an upturned fishing boat-turned-shed, complete with ropes and nets, functions as a quaint miniature gallery. It houses various works made by local artists on the theme of ‘boats’. It doesn’t quite succeed in exciting me, once the novelty of entering a tiny gallery has worn off. Others have felt differently, as one enthusiastic contributor to the comments book noted, “I’m on a boat! I’M. ON. A. BOAT!”

The exhibition press release text states that the works in this show explore “collaboration, exchange and ownership”. These issues are evident in differing measures in each of the works. Walmsley’s Boat Shed Gallery encompasses the work of others in an obvious way. Bhreathnach-Cashell’s YOU, besides inviting the visitors participation, includes works by Glasgow based artists Euan Ogilvie and Liam Fogerty – but they’re almost anonymously merged with the rest of the installation. Collaboration in Donnelly’s Observatory is a more obscure matter, taking place between the artist’s constructed persona and invented creatures, and what viewers read into his scenario.

Overall the works in ‘Russian Dolls’ are given their own individual space and thus function almost entirely independent of each other. The artists in ‘Russian Dolls’ have certainly presented work on their own terms, creating a distinct set of rules that invite the viewer to negotiate each of their unique, surreal and sometimes alarming worldviews.