Flock - Rachel Ballagh
'Flock' by Rachel Ballagh was at Dublin's Temple Bar Gallery and Studio, 1997
Review by Nicholas Allen
Flock is the name of Rachel Ballagh's first solo exhibition at Dublin's Temple Bar Gallery and Studio. It consists of an untitled series of seven triptychs with each individual set of three images containing a total of seven magpies within it. These birds in turn frame a series of background scenes, each of which is linked thematically within the triptych. There are for example three images of flowers, of the sky and of a city.
So much for the formal setting then. Immediately you look at the work you are aware of dissonance. The magpies of the first three images are suspended dead above the minute background of a city below. But they offer no bird's eye view (and more on this kind of punning later) as they rest flat upon the picture with the toy town below distant and one dimensional. We can guess from the seven magpies in the three images that a secret is being withheld from us. I only realised the potential complexity of the problem when I noticed that the magpies are randomly associated in groups of two or three throughout the triptych. Since 'two's for joy' and 'three's a girl' who's to know which one is being offered as either the key to the secret or as the secret itself?
The next triptych offers no further clue, focused as it is on a doll's house made to look massive. It occurred to me that it was foolish to look for meaning under such linear conditions, walking from one untitled triptych to the next, all the while conscious that I could see what looked like wires strung from the magpies as if to hold them in place. All of which made me wonder whose wire was being pulled. And if you'll forgive the Freudianisms there is a sexual undertone to all this, implicit in the word play which a discussion of these images generates. As Declan Long's excellent introduction to the exhibition suggests, there is a certain assonance between "Flock" and a word which, like the secret which haunts the show, cannot be divulged here. Indeed, without pulling your wire, Ballagh's very use of 'birds' has a certain ironic savour in a work so knowing.
Such punning is, I think, a central part of Ballagh's Flock. Word association can imply an attempt to disrupt boundaries, to test assumptions and to question what has been given to us as our own. The images in Flock are a visual form of this. Thus a picture of a child in utero appears before another triptych concerned with intercourse itself. Again the relationships between the two images (and indeed the entire series) are rich because they do not rely on binary oppositions. The child is no more offered to us as an act of love than the sex is portrayed as pornography. Ballagh, being more subtle, deals in equivalences, with one image being no more favoured or stable than any other (which is why the image of sex between black male and white female is so brilliantly deflationary). I think that such equivalence is the central theme of the work. You never quite know whether you're being wound up yourself (which, of course, you are): you ask yourself whether your reactions are generated by the cultural contexts of the work or predicated by the cultured responses you offer. The answer lies somewhere in between and that perhaps is the secret.
On leaving the gallery I turned around, puzzled by one last question. What exactly was the purpose of the shadowy figure that moves throughout the seven triptychs? It is identifiable as female and is presumably the artist herself. As I looked at the seven sets of images from the middle of the gallery I realised that this figure moved gradually from left to right through them. In the last triptych the figure edges out of the right hand side as if about to leave. Ah, I thought, a journey, a meaning, a resolution. I found out afterwards that this final triptych is framed against images of the Debtor's Prison, once a cholera hospital and always significant of death. And so resolution became dissolution. Which is I'm sure Ballagh's last laugh. An excellent show.