Out There, Thataway

Derry's Centre for Contemporary Art blurs the line between the physical and mental and the difficult and playful in Star Trek-inspired group show

In the closing scene of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Captain Kirk gives instructions for the ship’s new course: 'Out there, thataway.' It’s jokey, colloquial, full of boldness, bravado, and a naive desire for adventure and exploration of the unknown, but it ends a troubling story in which a quest for human advancement turns threatening and dark.

That sense is there in the first exhibit – Rana Hamadeh’s The Big Board. The large, rectangular board sits on a table, and is crossed in a grid pattern. It bears markings as if showing routes, territories, and compounds. Labels on the board locate permanent places, such as the Migrant Detention Boat, Mining Town, The Sea, The Plague, Extra-Planetary Space. 

Coins used in lieu of real money from plantations and factories are placed on the board, along with meteorite fragments, wooden blocks, and tin models. There are images of the Reichstag Fire enquiry, postcards, collectors’ cards, a sheet from an 1884 paper about an authority on quarantine and public hygiene.  And the entire board and accompanying audio is stalked by the figure of Dr Beak, the plague doctor.

It is reminiscent of those boards you see in films like Sink the Bismarck, with Wrens pushing model ships around the map. You feel you recognise where you are, and you sort of do, but then you’re wrong-footed. It’s a deadly, sinister Risk, a game of exploration and exploitation, with territories, people, and resources taken and used, examined and prodded by malign, disturbing figures with dubious powers.

The Big Board

The show is nicely structured. Complication is mixed with apparent simplicity. The Sea (Fergus Feehily) is a glass jar full of sea water sitting on a wooden box. It’s a specimen for analysis, examination, use. Two more of Feehily’s pieces feature, also: Halfpast and Past Perfect – spare and bare paintings suggesting points lost in time, emerging worlds, potent and undecided.

Merlin James’ Unenclosure sits alongside these. It is a painting of indistinct images, of a city and a distant figure, either developing or disappearing. Shapeless Brown Tent Like Dress by Aleana Egan has strips of cardboard on a wall, creating a loose form with a sagging lower edge, alongside a stepladder with no steps. 

Fence (Merlin James) is beautiful, I think – blocks of colour in rough strokes, seemingly carelessly spotted, creating a barrier, without you knowing which side you’re on. Above all these glares Nathan Coley’s work, words picked out in bright bulbs, declaring 'You Will What You Imagine'.

In Our Stranded Friends in Distant Lands, in Korean with English subtitles, Kevin Gaffney shows a man lying on the ground, looking upwards, considering, reflecting, exploring, unsure of what he’s seeing and losing his grip on his location. We see bubbles like little planets, created, drifting, disappearing.

There’s this same idea of nearly knowing in Stephen Brandes’ The Last Travelogue of Albert Sitzfleisch. It’s a journey to places previously explored and now seen again. There are familiar flashes, subtle shifts, echoes, complete changes. We hear of a 'factory supplying sub-Saharan Africa with pizza and cake-mix'. It’s absurd, ridiculous, bizarre, normal.

That the Centre for Contemporary Arts should take Kirk’s line as the title of its latest exhibition is typical. Their shows are serious, provocative, and difficult, and pretty much always come with a playful glint. The wink that comes with this title doesn’t undermine the exhibition. It just throws you a bit, so you’re not quite sure of your ground.

Which is just the thing for an exhibition that deals with territory, imagination, navigation, exploration, and physical and mental geography. The points of reference you were so sure of become hazy on examination. It’s a show about creativity and discovery, but also dislocation and usurpation. You never know what you’re going to find, and you don’t quite remember where you’ve come from. 

Out There, Thataway runs at the Centre for Contemporary Arts until September 26.