There’s nothing like exhibiting at one of the world’s largest contemporary art festivals to catapult you into the spotlight. Irish artist Mark Garry knows that well. In 2005, when he was still beginning his career as a full-time artist, he was one of six artists chosen to represent Ireland at the Venice Biennale, an event that regularly brings in more than 300,000 visitors to the Italian city.
Before the Biennale, he’d had only three exhibitions. “It came with a lot of pressure,” he says. “It transformed my life. Before it, I was working away in my studio in a small city on a small island, and it opened up the world for me.”
Garry created an installation using a rainbow spectrum of colored thread, resin rabbits, and a music box in the Scuola de San Pasquale, a historic monastery. However, due to the age and significance of the monastery, Garry faced lots of restrictions — for example, he couldn’t use the walls. So he had to get creative. “When I was building the thread piece, I had to use architectural features like beams and window surrounds, and this wood was very old and dry. It had no air conditioning, so being up on a scaffold in the summer in Venice was not fun,” he recalls.
His piece, “How soon is now,” made an impact, and Garry has stayed busy ever since.
His latest show, We Cast Shadows, opened two weeks ago at Charleston City Gallery at Waterfront Park. It’s a spare, contemplative exhibit with lots of white space and a huge variety of mediums, from paper montage to photography to beadwork. Guests are greeted by a baby grand piano covered with Spanish moss, a nod to Charleston’s landscape, and then wander by pieces like a ghostly smattering of pink pigment on a white sheet of paper and a detailed profile of a woman that’s made entirely out of beads. There’s “Long Habithands,” a collection of several piano hammers hung on satin strings, and “Afterflow,” a kaleidoscopic, colored pen drawing on the white wall.
These and many more of the works in We Cast Shadows leave you with the sense that you’re seeing just the outline of something much deeper. It’s as if Garry’s art exists somewhere in the ether, and the beaded profile, the piano hammers, and the pigment — not to mention the hanging, rectangular wooden frames that aren’t framing anything and the dried flowers that seem to grow out of walls or floors — are just the physical traces that have been left behind. This makes the exhibit a thoughtful, otherworldly experience.
Garry is a composer and musician as well, and has included a listening station with an iPod and earbuds so viewers can view the work while listening to one of the artist’s electronic compositions. The music is sophisticated and cosmopolitan — it wouldn’t be out of place in a high-class lounge in some future-forward city like Tokyo or Hong Kong. “Installation art as an activity tries to engage a number, or all, of the senses,” Garry says. “Sound is such a crucial characteristic of how we negotiate the world it would be remiss of me to ignore it.”
Garry has always worked in many different mediums, but he didn’t always integrate them as well as he as he does today. He took some time away from art-making after college, he says, working as a writer and curator before returning to art full-time. “I’ve never felt constrained by a particular medium. I did separate my activities for a long time, as in I didn’t build or recognize the connections between my work with sound, film, and collaborative works and my installations — this has only happened lately.”
One material that Garry works with frequently is thread. He’s become known for the subtle rainbows he creates by stringing a spectrum of colored thread across a room so that as light hits it, the colors become visible (there’s one such rainbow in the City Gallery exhibit). He’s drawn to thread because of its associative, or empathetic meaning, he says. “It’s the material we are wrapped in when we are first handed to our mothers and the material that will surround us when we pass from this life. As such we have an almost innate relationship with it. It doesn’t have the same historical baggage as other cultural elements, like painting or sculpture, and we don’t have the need to deconstruct it in the same way.”
We Cast Shadows is best seen on a quiet afternoon when the gallery is slow and you can move leisurely from one piece to the next. The works, as well as the ample white space that is built into the exhibit, are placed in such a way that they invite viewers to slow down and spend some time soaking them in. Even if you don’t delve into the nuances of Garry’s creations, which are many and fascinating, you’ll leave with a cool sense of zen-like peace. That alone is worth the trip to the gallery.