Trisha Donnelly

The San Francisco-born artist is a virtuoso strategist, finessing the slow reveal (or, indeed, no reveal) to deliver work that is portentous, charged and enigmatic

By Martin Herbert

Trisha Donnelly © 2014 the artist

Late in 2007, I went repeatedly to Tate Modern’s exhibition The World as a Stage, primarily to see one small black-and-white photograph – or, rather, a series of 31 small black-and-white photographs presented one at a time and, as per the artist’s instructions, rotated daily: Trisha Donnelly’s The Redwood and the Raven (2004). The experience of this staggered, witchy display, which documents the headscarf-wearing dancer Frances Flannery performing, against a tree in a forest, a dance called ‘The Raven’, choreographed to Edgar Allen Poe’s eponymous 1845 poem, was borderline perverse: you couldn’t grasp the moves, hear the poem or precisely remember the previous images you saw, so that the additive melded continually with the subtractive. (The raven in the poem famously answers queries with ‘nevermore’.) You wanted more, aware that the more you got would equate to less. This, I already knew, was the American artist’s conceptual wheelhouse: earlier that year, in Manchester, I’d seen her deliver a drum-pounding, soprano-screaming, incantatory performance, The Second Saint, at Hans Ulrich Obrist’s and Philippe Parreno’s performance-art extravaganza Il Tempo del Postino, a fully confident yet, for all its noise, muted display, ending with the fall of four black obelisks, that resides in my memory as a roaring blank abstraction.

Hers is a chess-playing art, one of timing and artfully mobilised viewer psychology

But then methodically parsing the actions, objects and images proffered by the forty-year-old, San Francisco-born Donnelly, who has now returned to London with a solo exhibition at the Serpentine Galleries, is not really the point. Thinking about them as interacting systemic units and conjectures about shaped reality, the fungible nature of space and time, and the strictures of art reception is more fruitful. Hers is a chess-playing art, one of timing and artfully mobilised viewer psychology; or at least that’s where it starts. In her New York solo debut at Casey Kaplan in 2002, Donnelly rode into the opening on a white horse, dressed in Napoleonic garb, and, acting as ersatz courier, delivered the oration that the French emperor supposedly should have given at the Battle of Waterloo: ‘If it need be termed surrender, then let it be so, for he has surrendered in word, not will. He has said, “My fall will be great but it will be useful.” The emperor has fallen and he rests his weight upon your mind and mine and with this I am electric. I am electric.’ (Eyewitness critic Jerry Saltz wrote that here Donnelly ‘stole my aesthetic heart’, while reckoning that the performance rather outweighed the show itself.)

By 2005, Donnelly didn’t even require a real horse; stage-managed rumour was enough. At the opening of a show at the Kölnischer Kunstverein celebrating a major artist’s prize she’d won, word ‘got around’ that another steed was waiting somewhere in the institution, that Donnelly would perform – and the artist, curator Beatrix Ruf remembers, left the preview dinner a few times to reinforce the idea. It never happened, but the very possibility coloured the event. This, in microcosm, is what Suzanne Cotter has called Donnelly’s ideal of the ‘uncontrived encounter’, something Donnelly herself calls ‘natural use’ and which is the carefully controlled outcome of so much of her work (which, in a gesture of imperial defeat that is also a gift, then abdicates control): a process that, though the description may sound hyperbolic, comes closer to a suggestion of opening up space and time, with visibly disproportionate means, than almost any of Donnelly’s contemporaries. See, for example, Hand That Holds the Desert Down (2002), in which a black-and-white detail of one of the paws of the Great Sphinx at Giza flips, via titling, into a vertiginous recasting of gravitational reality, though a proposition whose supporting wires are blatantly evident.

Donnelly’s art has prowled, avoiding resolution, around stormy transcendence from the outset: the first work of hers I remember seeing (and not being particularly struck by: her work has to accrete in the mind) was Untitled (Jumping) (1999), made before she graduated from Yale in 2000, in which she imitates, while moving in and out of the video frame, a variety of musicians in states of musical rapture. Her art since, which encompasses soundworks, actions, lectures, drawings, sculpture, photography and more video, continually stresses the possibility of – to quote the Bard – there being more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our philosophy. Or in our artworld, which has a schizoid relationship nowadays to the esoteric and occult, liking it when historical – Hilma af Klint, say – but not so much when offered without irony or a sense that certain ancient fires haven’t yet gone out. The thematic framework Donnelly has set up charges even her most outwardly slim works with electricity and expansive portent. The Napoleon theme, for example, continued in The Vortex (2003), which featured a recording of the Slavyanka Russian Men’s Chorus singing Lermontov’s poem ‘Borodino’ (1837), named after a gruesome battle of the Napoleonic wars. What this added was perhaps just another line of code, though it also aimed at an experience of synaesthesia (see the anticipatory text ‘The Vortex Notes’, 2002, which advised following the highest male voice and feeling it ‘compress like a photograph’) and dragged a vast historical event into the artwork’s orbit, resituating it in the twenty-first century as a question that is particular and also diffuse. Her sculptures involving carving into quartzite, she’s said, relate to ‘the enacting of processes of loss in geological time’: entertain that, and millennia fall away as you look.

The thematic framework Donnelly has set up charges even her most outwardly slim works with electricity and expansive portent

Or, rather, they might. Again, it’s characteristic of Donnelly’s art that one simultaneously falls under the spell and has a sense, related to critique, of how the spell is cast. What’s likely is that no spell at all, or at best a pale shadow of a spell, is cast if this art is received secondhand, and here her work twists uncharacteristically polemical. In an age where so much art is experienced – if that’s even the word – through online aggregators and through documentation, Donnelly’s art insists on being taken in real time and real space, so that it can ask what those things even are. It’s presumably to this end that she has given up doing interviews – we asked, and were politely rebuffed; a 2010 in-gallery interview she did with Anthony Huberman apparently most often featured the response ‘pass’, with Donnelly playing tracks from her iPod in lieu of other answers – while her catalogues don’t usually feature essays and her press releases can veer strongly away from the interpretative. When a visitor attending her 2002 Kaplan show requested more info, he or she would be played some electronic beats. The PR handout for her poised, codified-feeling 2010 exhibition at Portikus, Frankfurt, with its sequence of leaning incised marble reliefs, drawings and video, purports to be a press text but is a list of titles and media.

Art today comes with an accompanying explanation that actively disarms the viewing experience, rationalising appears to be the last thing Donnelly wants

This matters: one might wish it to be exemplary, except that it is turf that Donnelly almost owns and that, to mix metaphors, would become hackneyed fast. So much art today, as we’re all aware, comes with an accompanying explanation that actively disarms the viewing experience, rationalises it, and rationalising appears to be the last thing Donnelly wants: her art, in its myriad margin-directed speculations, says there’s too much of that already, and not enough that, to paraphrase that horseriding ensign, really rests its weight upon your mind and mine. Think for a second about how few artists actually sustain this quality of tactical, shape-changing surprise and risk. David Hammons would be one, Lutz Bacher another; there are not that many others. Meanwhile galleries and fairs clog with frictionless production lines. Donnelly operates, conversely, a continual transitive process, new works adjusting old ones, the full picture held back: Black Wave, a 2002 photograph of a wave about to crest, feels like it might be metonymic both in its minimal ominousness and its forceful incompletion.

The last time Trisha Donnelly stole this viewer’s aesthetic heart was in Berlin, at KW Institute’s 2012–3 exhibition One on One, in which viewers were permitted solo encounters with works of art. Commandeering a high floor, Donnelly presented a suspended sculpture, a big, steel-framed, partly cracked tray held up with aeroplane cables, like a perpetual enigmatic experiment. I remember low lighting, I remember the variable tilting of the oblique tray and water in it, but mostly I remember that characteristic quality of insistent wordless proposition: disbelief suspended, the author as artist erased and replaced, prospectively, with someone or something arcane and anxiety-making, and then the figure of Donnelly, manipulating the murky theatrics, returning to mind. As I write, several weeks before the Serpentine show’s opening, the gallery website is displaying a press release for the forthcoming show that features, unsurprisingly, no mention of any work; the press office informs us that Donnelly ‘will transform the Serpentine’s spaces through the use of objects and interventions, with newly conceived sculptural and performative pieces’. More than that? Pass. Nevermore. Cue beats.

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue