"Old Dust and Medical Gas"
installation by Sean Kirby
Sym Choon Gallery
19 May - 12 June 1995

Reviewed by Ingrid Day

It's hard to imagine a gallery more in harmony with Sean Kirby's "old dust and medical gas" installation than the Sym Choom.
The space is crisply white with clear, pleasing lines and spaces, complementing Sean Kirby's work and providing cohesion to the collage of images, objects and textures. The space is stylish and elegant; so is Kirby's installation.
Kirby is a sculptor, an installation artist, a lecturer and currently a Masters student at the RM1T. In this installation he challenges his audience to work together with his art; to undertake a shared journey. By this I mean that both work together and that both can be altered by the association. The 'meaning' evoked by each piece is not finite and neither is the audience uniform or 'finished'.
The list of titles listed in the notes deliberately links no titles to exhibits. At first this is disconcerting - I hunted to find numbers on the exhibits for some time, until realising that what I was looking for was a way of reading the work. I expected the artist to hand me his meaning. The disassociation between visual and written texts poses a riddle for the viewer, enigmatising the art and freeing it from 'ownership' by the artist. Kirby is challenging us to read the various pieces for ourselves. The exhibits are neither numbered nor overtly titled, therefore no singular explanation of the work is provided. Without the traditional overt links between verbal and visual texts, the audience is encouraged to bring themselves to the text -the artist values different realities and knowledges as equally 'real' to his own. The meaning which we bring to and take from "old dust and medical gas" is not filtered by the words of the artist - Kirby is not claiming creative primacy. Diverse readings are encouraged. Kirby's liberation of his work from textual comment frees us to read ourselves as much as the artist through the medium of his work.
Kirby uses many dissimilar substances and textures. He shifts between (relatively) explicit representation and more allusive comments. For example the silver cannon-firing carriage ('horror hotrod') driven by a thick-lipped man is just that - a silver cannon-firing carriage being driven by a thick-lipped etc etc. The figure is also fleshy, aggressive and oriental - and, to me, menacing. This is not to suggest that only one reading is possible; rather that the representation to a certain extent is more explicit. More explicit than, say, the folds of bubbly cream wallpaper which are also displayed. The carriage man is therefore able to stand alone in a way that is more difficult for some of the other works. Its significance does not derive from its contextual relations with the space, the program and the other pieces.
One of the most memorable pieces for me is the swathe of clear plastic draped over a frame, etched with an image of a crumpled, brown overcoat. It looks sad and disembodied. An empty white baby's jumpsuit, extended at arms length from the wall, achieves a similar effect of sadness and emptiness. Material without warmth, life. The jumpsuit is whitely innocent, yet somehow sinister without a baby inside it (Azaria springs to mind). Its embroidered words taunt:

I'm not a charlatan
He's a charlatan
He hates me

The trough-shaped "The Snake Carriage" to me was faintly repellent -1 kept seeing a baby's coffin. Or perhaps an operating table - the large phial of bloody-brown liquid resting on the protected glass based trough adding to the medical image. What is it in me that rejected other readings of these two exhibits? Try as I might I could not see this piece as other than distasteful, despite the virginal purity of the jumpsuit.
Kirby's work is visually pleasing and, to cite his notes, "you know where you are but don't necessarily feel as though you are where you find yourself".
I can't resist a final word on the Sym Choom space. The wall surrounding the doorway to the balcony is browning, decayed and peeling. Through the doorway is a red geranium-trimmed balcony - a nice juxtaposition against the rotting walls. The wall brings warmth to a cool space, enhancing the effect of Kirby's work.