This edition of aemi online showcases two works by Jaki Irvine, both made in the 1990s and featuring the same charismatic, off-screen protagonist. One of Ireland’s most highly regarded artists working in video installation, photography, music composition and writing, this screening presentation draws attention to an early phase of Irvine’s career when she was making single channel work on analogue film.
Star and Sweettooth are screening here in a single playlist, running from one into the other, thereby emphasising the similarities between them and the ways in which they reveal overarching concerns in Irvine’s work, relating to the significance of chance encounter and the pathos inherent to the human condition.
These two works, and the stories that unfold within them, are generously discussed in Gwen Burlington’s accompanying introductory text.
The banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the habitual? […] How are we to speak of these common things, how to track them down, how to flush them out, wrest them from the dross in which they are mired, how to give them meaning, a tongue, to let them, finally, speak of what it is, who we are.
– Georges Perec, Species of Spaces
A hazy and unsteady camera pans across blue cut-glass of ornate crystal. The jaunty bars of Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev’s ‘Dance of the Girls with Lilies’ from Romeo and Juliet chime in. An off-camera narrator begins; “This is a dry story with a lot of vodka”, spoken in a female, German accent. Star, the first of Irvine’s works, reminds me of the oft observed conversation in a restaurant, café or pub; an overheard exchange takes place and you get a glimpse into the intimate lives of others; a conversation that can amuse, annoy or bewilder but you sit glued to your seat; perhaps averting your eyes to the chandelier above as the conversation unfolds. “Hey handicap…would you like to have another vodka?” is repeatedly asked until the woman falls down drunkenly “like a star”. Irvine illustrates this story indirectly by employing a zoomed-in camera lens, which establishes a different kind of encounter closer to the way the eye wanders on a canvas to progressively piece together a story. In this case, registering the ways we look at the people around us – or how we look away from this strange romance; a failed intimacy.
Sweettooth begins with shaky footage of classical sculpture in a workshop. This time, Prokofiev’s Waltz from ‘The Stone Flower’ backgrounds the same German-accented voice heard in Star, but telling a different story; “When I met her she was nineteen and had no teeth.” As the camera lingers on appendages of figurative sculptures and the tools that form them, we hear the story of a young girl with no teeth who refuses to wear the false ones she had made. “Somehow, she said, she felt free-er without them.” The white sculptures on-screen and the imagined enamel teeth conflate to set up a relative symmetry in material. It also directs us to consider traditional ideas of iconic beauty – as the camera hones in on the chiseled figures, we hear the story of a girl who purposefully defies standardised notions of beauty and feels empowered in the process. The image of the smiling toothless girl, in my mind, borders on the carnivalesque. Her face approaches the sublime, but also the uncanny insofar as she is both homely but unnerving and we, in our shared conjured image of her, become complicit in partaking in a certain pleasure in her freakish smile.
Made in the early nineties, these films have re-emerged over the trajectory of Irvine’s career and have become indicative of the themes the artist is most concerned with; how we communicate and relate to each other and the filmic storytelling techniques that make a story come together or fall apart. Both films consist of three components – image, script and music – and each element is one-step removed from its origin, filtering the material like a prism. For instance, the narration, English spoken in a mellifluous German accent, is not the narrator’s mother tongue. There’s a question over who the stories belong to or whence they came. The images on screen relate to the stories we hear but not directly and only through conjunctions and connections we inflect. The classical music lends both a lyric intensity; at times ominous or slightly comedic. In Star, your sight feels scattered, as though you’ve suddenly gained the compound eye of a dragonfly. This dispersive quality demonstrates Irvine’s refusal to privilege a single perspective.
Both films are concerned with the stuff of ordinary lives, the everyday, the vernacular, focusing on the epic dimensions of recounting individual experience. However unusual the stories sound, they bring to mind what Georges Perec called ‘the Infra-ordinary,’ a term that describes the everyday as ‘neither ordinary nor extraordinary, neither banal nor exotic.’ They demonstrate Irvine’s proclivity for looking closely and attentively at the minutiae of a host of lives that aren’t reducible to mere ‘ordinary.’ Hearing these stories from friends and employing the formal means of film-making, Irvine slows these moments down. In doing so, she produces strange symmetries, capturing the strangeness of living and being next to each other, arbitrarily, in the world.
Shot on Super 8 film, Star and Sweettooth are historically analogue films both in content and form. Appearing here for the first time as online works, their digital screening offers a different experience to one that includes the whirring of a projector; the chugging of sprockets slotting quickly in-line; the clunky clicking sounds of its apparatus, and the palpable risk of the film scrambling into an unrecoverable scrunched-up mass. Disregarding the perceptual difference between looking at a surface and into an electronic moving image, it is Irvine’s fascination with finding adequate means to describe our interior lives that resonate in these films and define their aesthetic. After the recent periods of lockdown-induced withdrawal, Star and Sweettooth don’t offer nostalgic hope or reductive nostalgia, but instead celebrate the idiosyncratic ways people connect and the triumph in our attempt.
 Perec, Georges (1997) Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, translated by John Sturrock, Harmondsworth: Penguin, p. 205
Gwen Burlington for aemi, 2021
View the works at the link below.