Daphne Wright: Setting the intention straight (1999)

R.J. Preece (ADP)
artdesigncafé - art | 23 August 2011
This article was previously published in Sculpture, 18(5), June 1999, pp. 14-5.

Daphne Wright: Setting the intention straight

Differences between intention and interpretation can be a concern for many artists, particularly when art writing doesn’t always distinguish between the two. And it can sometimes be a source of frustration. Such is the case for installation artist Daphne Wright, who feels that political and identity-oriented references have “hijacked” the writing about her work. “Ultimately, it ends up diminishing my art,” says Wright heatedly. “I think it is a way for people to deal with my work when they can’t place it in art language.” Wright— Irish-born and English-resident— has mostly shown her work in the UK and Ireland; the question now becomes whether the “out of control” interpretations will set sail to America this summer, when New York hosts three Irish shows at the Drawing Center, at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery, and at the P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center.

Entitled “0044,” the P.S.1 show will feature 21 Irish, English-resident artists, including Wright. Are Daphne Wright’s concerns about political/identity issues seeping into the interpretation of her work unfounded? Not necessarily. At her fall 1998 solo show at Frith Street Gallery in London, Wright presented four visual-and-spoken text installations, which she describes as “dealing with issues about humanity, old age, and differences between appearance/ reality and that ambiguity. I consciously shift the visual relationships— with the sound, and I think my work is about seeing beneath the surface and questioning underlying meaning— and seeing those ambiguities.” Yet Wright particularly avoids talking about the political/ identity pairing and “Irishness.” So did the Frith Street staff, who went to great lengths to downplay those previously published references. According to Wright, “I asked them to do this. This was a new body of work, and I didn’t want the same ghosts coming up to haunt it.” Despite these efforts, the ghosts crept in anyway— via recognition of the recorded voices’ Irish accents, reference to her Protestant upbringing in Ireland, or the sensibilities of the writers.

The political readings may indeed be problematic. In her Frith Street Gallery selection, the intricately detailed plaster forms of Domestic shrubbery (1994) recalled nostalgic floral wallpaper, with diamond shapes and voids. Hauntingly, interspersed human heart-shapes hang and cast shadows echo in the white-on-white interior. A rooster-imitating voice “cuckoos” in an increasingly strained manner. For Wright, “the work is about interiors, the domestic with the reference to the wallpaper form, and the crumbling of hierarchies with a Georgian architecture reference, and the nostalgia that plaster contains.”

Meanwhile, with the other three installations, Daphne Wright switched materials to metal and tinfoil, in what she claims was a conscious attempt to take her work in a new direction. “I stopped using plaster and its associations with nostalgia. Irish artists are caught in a box, they either are typecast as romantic/nostalgic or political.” For Lot’s wife (1995), which Wright describes as an “anti-nostalgia piece,” she set up a fairy-tale tinfoil orchard (about five and a half feet tall) where perspectives twist— impossible, grotesque fruit forms are suspended from thin trunks, set in cement, yet bending precariously. The spoken text asserts “You’re an April Fool” in different tones. Curiously, one writer found a “real coincidence” and makes a creative two-point move, from one of the material’s practical functions— bomb-making—to “political”— which moves the work into the explosive terms related to Northern Ireland politics. Meanwhile, Wright insists upon the material’s references to visual, emotive, and physical properties. Is this fair game in the land of interpretation?

Set to Edward Lear’s nonsense poems, Nonsense and death (1998) also features tree-like forms (this time in metal) bearing jewel-like peppers and flowers, and contrasts these with what look like dead or dormant trees. Closely positioned, we can only skirt the surface. In contrast, Indeed indeed (1998)— to be included in the New York-bound “0044” show— appears as an open, cartoon, stage set landscape in which our sense of scale increases dramatically. As we walk through, tiny, flying birdlike forms are frozen in motion, and reflections lightly lick and bounce off the tinfoil. Meanwhile, the sound repeats a circular, playground rhyme “which traps the listener and the speaker.”

Ironically, Daphne Wright feels that the political angles are to some extent her own doing. With her earlier batch of work, she admits pushing a political / identity-oriented statement, yet asserts that this was only one thread. “You couldn’t help but deal with the politics raging in Ireland as an artist in the ’80s and early ’90s,” says Daphne Wright. But, did the language fit the work? “No, and that’s always been the case,” says Wright. “I used that language because it was easy to use and I was given it. That’s why in the later work I used the voice, and the image and the voice don’t meet. The work is subdiffused and decoyed. People listened to the articulation about the work in the beginning, but didn’t actually look at it.”

Was there concern about being in the “0044” show— whose title refers to the international dialing code for Britain? Daphne Wright explains, “In the beginning, I was concerned about why the artists were selected the way they were, rather than something running through the work that maybe joined together. What joined us together was nationality— and that supposed nationality within Britain. From that point of view, it seemed problematic,” says Wright. “But then, why not? The Brit pack is linked together and shows abroad and it creates a sense of empowerment. Why should we be any more critical? Why can’t we just go with the opportunity to show our work?”

In the end, Daphne Wright hopes “that people see the work visually, and then look at all of the juxtapositions and meshing of meanings. I think the work is very visual, and slowly the references and layers in the work will come out— I hope.” So, while Skunk Anansie’s lead singer Skin may screech “Everything’s political,” Wright might have a bone to pick with her as well.