Is Cian Donnelly's performance piece at the Golden Thread Gallery 'horrible and frightening' or downright hilarious?
'Everyone keeps telling me that (the show) is horrible and frightening. But I don’t know. It isn’t to me.' So says Cian Donnelly of his latest performance piece, 'Train Stop', at the Golden Thread Gallery in Belfast, part of the Russian Dolls exhibition, which runs until the August 3.
It isn’t hard to see why some people might be disturbed, however. The piece, which fills an entire room of the gallery, is presented in almost total darkness. At its centre is a burnt-out, fairy-lit car, scribbled with runic chalk markings. Surrounding it, papier mache figures twist from the ground like stalagmites, though there is little that’s natural about their broken faces; clown coloured and just as scary.
What is it about mannequins? Facsimile human beings; at once like us and horribly other, and stranger than the wildest fabulations of the deepest ocean. They represent versions of ourselves, Dorian Gray portraits with all of our venal proclivities written across their faces. They are honest, while we hide behind banal socially acceptable masks.
And what horrible little puppets they are, with their toffee-wrapper hair and dish cloth faces. One features a small bile green canary perching on its head, the bird long since deceased from some ill-advised subterranean sortie. A pin-headed clown sits in the driving seat or the car, while over-head Donnelly’s own moon crater face stares mournfully out from a torn sheet backdrop.
That the figures are children reminds you of the Chapman brothers' Disasters of War, but these are victims of some more virulent war. They are diseased, deformed and dripping, unlike Dinos and Jake's clean-limbed showroom dummies (and therefore more in keeping with the Goya originals). But then again, to quote Edward Tattsyrup, 'These are not children; they are monsters.'
For tonight’s performance, music rumbles from the speakers – distorting bass, big beats and analogue synths, reminiscent of Desmond Briscoe’s soundtracks for The Stone Tape. Donnelly appears, in his trout mask facsimile and jaunty hat, intoning into a Fisher Price microphone that he 'smells of god', repeating the line as an incantation in a voice halfway between Boris Karloff and Rockwell.
He creeps slowly around the stunted dummies, stroking their hair, interviewing, repeating his fragmentary speech. 'There is glass on your cheek and a song in your head,' he tells one and, placing the microphone to its lips, it answers him, singing back in a high, tremulous voice 'Is this what I am supposed to feel?'. The effect is oddly unsettling. We know nothing of these people's invented lives, how they came to be here, what has happened to them. These replies are cracks in a cloud, the chance discovery of a damaged diary.
Donnelly, or whoever he is now, in a surprise, mordant Brummie accent, launches into a warped soul song. He drops to one knee to serenade the crowd, many of whom look quietly terrified, his hand extended, entreating. We are lucky he has no rose to throw; he’ll surely have someone’s eye out.
Then he’s up on his feet for another song, initially hymnal over Nymanesque drones and then, suddenly, the bowler is off, and he’s grooving away to a pulsing electro beat. What does it mean? There seems to be a disconnection between the pared, precise prose and the rotting Vaudevillian backdrop. Is it meant to be funny? I laugh at the sight of Donnelly in his canvas smock gyrating like a podium dancer and singing his cracked pop songs in a helium falsetto, but I am in the minority.
in 'Train Stop', Donnelly has created his own world, his own narratives and peopled it with his own rotten characters. There are four of these performances during the Russian Dolls exhibition run. That’s an awful lot of time for these characters to stand alone and silent in the gallery without Donnelly there to pass them the mic, to allow them to tell their stories. Perhaps they will tell other stories behind his back.
Russian Dolls runs in the Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast until August 3.