Jaki Irvine


at Frith Street


The power of music to inflect mood is the underlying subject of Jaki Irvine’s video Se compra: Sin é (2014), in which the artist conflates the musical traditions of her native Ireland with the sights and sounds of Mexico City, where she now spends much of her time. (The title comprises the Spanish for “purchased” and the Irish Gaelic for “that’s it.”) Projected onto a vast wall, it follows Mexican street vendors going about their daily rounds to the accompaniment of a plangent score composed by the artist that was inspired by Irish sean-nós, or “old style” singing. Occasionally, the action shifts from the bustling streets to a softly lit recording studio, where we encounter the musicians generating these emotive strains.

By contrast, in the second video on view, Guanajuato 14 (2010), we encounter a near-noiseless, static shot of a garden. It centers on a bird feeder, viewed through a fragment of wrought-iron gate. Irvine’s deft framing and variation in focus evoke something of the contrived insouciance of a novel’s cover. Except that here, no narrative lies beneath the picture: a delivery man glides past on a motorbike; a hummingbird flutters around the feeder. 

What united these pointedly dissimilar pieces was their stylized portrayal of banal scraps of life—those forgettable vistas and Sisyphean routines that get rolled round, and rapidly forgotten, in earth’s diurnal course. Irvine brings to such material a filmmaker’s flair for imbuing mundane reality with theatrical ebbs and flows. The melancholic music of Se compra: Sin é impregnates the action with the ambience of high ritual. A rickety ice cream truck spurts smoke or vapor in a vaguely infernal vein; the wing mirror of a vendor’s bike offers a sequence of fleeting spectacles and specular flashes. The fixed frame in Guanajuato 14 meanwhile recalls filmmaker Michael Haneke’s masterful use of a lingering view of a suburban house in Caché (Hidden, 2005) to imply an unseen menace. The longer the shot endures, the further it elicits a faint sense of tension, as when a sung note is improbably sustained.

Irvine moreover appears to be willing us to question how far the atmosphere of the videos is a function of their style of filming. Se compra: Sin é is, in essence, a dramatization of the very concept of setting moving images to music. By jolting us periodically into the recording studio, she readily reminds us of the mechanics of the video’s construction. In this way, the work perhaps comes to seem a self-professed cheat. The stirring melody, the elegantly (apparently effortlessly) filmed sequences, the minutely observed details—all leave us with nothing more to admire than their own adroit execution, as with an exquisitely made advertisement. Reality takes on a stagey quality, and the unnamed “characters” of the street-marching onward, calling incessantly—ultimately suggest a chorus in search of a libretto.

A similar tension between style and substance was to be found in 20 new photographs downstairs, in which images of monarch butterflies in the mountains were arrayed against a wallpapered expanse of foliage. The natural wonder of the subject matter was subsumed into a theatrical tableau, and the contrasting focus within each image only heightened this sense of a staged spectacle.

Like an echo, Irvine’s art produces the impression of a counterfeit duplicate of the world, and yet one that is rather too artful in its artlessness. But an emotional punch is nonetheless delivered by the sonorous vignettes of Se compra: Sin é and the silence and stasis of Guanajuato 14. Her works manage to wear their own artifice openly, even awkwardly, without becoming reductively trite or archly postmodern. They seduce us even as they reveal the tricks of their seduction. This is the beguiling—and redeeming—paradox of her art.