Daphne Wright is an Irish artist, born in 1963 in Longford, now based between Dublin and Bristol. She studied art at NCAD and Newcastle-Upon-Tyne Polytechnic and is represented by the Frith Street Gallery in London. Wright works in sculpture, film, print and installation, considering ideas of communication, faith, ageing and death. Wright had a major solo exhibition at the RHA gallery in Dublin in collaboration with Arnolfini arts centre in Bristol, entitled Emotional Archaeology, from 20 January 2017 to 26 February 2017. That exhibition featured works spanning 25 years of her career.
A quiet mutiny was a large-scale exhibition of all new works commissioned by the Crawford Art Gallery, running from 15 November 2019- 16 February 2020. I was lucky enough to work as a tour guide at the Crawford Art Gallery at the time of this exhibition, for children and teens. I also volunteered with the Lonradh group, an artist-run gallery initiative for those experiencing memory loss or dementia and their carers.
In the exhibition, Wright worked almost exclusively with a fragile unfired clay as her chosen material. Cracks were visible in many pieces, and it was clear to the viewer that these works were not built to last. This was a conscious artistic choice by Wright. Throughout art history, most artistic output was created with durability in mind. The idea was to leave a legacy behind after the death of the artist. Wright plays with this idea, turning it on its head, calling into question the commodification and commercialisation of contemporary art. The fragility of the material, in turn, reflected the ephemerality of life in all of its various stages.
No plinth or protective glass covered the pieces, with minimal labelling. There was a self-guided tour pamphlet which visitors could avail of, with information on each piece. The viewer travelled through the space at their own pace.In A quiet mutiny, familiar objects from everyday life came under Wright’s scrutiny. Plates, a rug, a zimmer frame, and a stand-alone, near-empty fridge door were among the works on display. A frail, unfired clay zimmer frame; so fragile it is hardly fit for its purpose, added to the melancholy of the environment. For whom is such an object intended? The frailty of the material enacted a mutiny against its purpose. Wright seemed to focus mostly on extreme ends of the age spectrum, childhood and old age, though the exhibition was recognisable and familiar to a person at any life stage.
A stand-alone, near-empty fridge door was almost shocking in its suggestion of loneliness. The fridge is a common focal point in a home: opened many times a day, providing nourishment and sustenance to inhabitants. Here, like the zimmer frame, the object rebelled against its purpose – made of dust with nothing to offer but its empty shelves. The piece was quietly evocative and even upsetting, symbolic as it was of undernourishment, both physical and emotional.
Unidentifiable clay objects on a clay shelf were based on collectible toys her own children used to covet. She is interested in how children collect objects, and how as we get older we learn how to categorize and become part of the systems and institutions which are a part of growing up. Our roles change as we go through life, as do our relationships with organisational systems. Wright observes the social mores of our time, the conventions and the objects with which we surround ourselves.
This same preoccupation with categorisation was found nearby with her collection of small woodland creatures attached to the wall: credited to the Guardian newspaper, these pieces evoked the educational posters that national newspapers often include with their publications. Such posters adorn many a childhood bedroom, and are an example of the social and political world filtering into the personal. Wright is keen to show how the personal is not divorced from these spheres.
A stand-alone piece, not rendered in clay, were the small watercolour sketches of children’s faces in an array of different emotional states; mostly tearful, unhappy expressions. Wright has said that these were inspired by her old child’s emotional state, crying and not wanting to go to school, and how difficult that is to experience and navigate as a parent. The images also bore a resemblance to ‘emojis’ on phones, which perhaps help children to navigate emotions and learn how to express themselves.
Wright also created two new video works for the exhibition. The first, Song of Songs, depicted an elderly woman and her carer, their body language symbolic of a lover’s embrace in tragedy. The second video, Is Everything Ok? depicted an older man with his face painted as a lion. The video portrayed him using team-building language common in middle management, as well as responses to his wife’s health. The effect was jarring, as the meaning was not immediately clear. However, the artist draws attention to the liminal space occupied by one who has moved from a career in middle management to retirement, from the public sphere to the private, personal post-work stage of life.
The show was not without humour: downstairs, a thin, branchless Christmas tree, presumably thrown away after the holidays, was nonetheless adorned with a big clay star. A child’s buggy and clay football stood directly on the floor, in front of a female nude: a female body created by a woman for women: here Wright attempts to reclaim the female nude from centuries of male desire and eroticism, and ultimately the male gaze. A faint suggestion of arms crossed against the abdomen was visible rendered in the clay, a protective, often female, gesture.
Upstairs in the millennium wing, giant sunflowers marked a part of the exhibition where the influence of the natural world was strongly felt. They were imposing and massive, seeming almost anthropomorphic, like a Greek chorus. We were reminded of the natural world that surrounds and envelopes us throughout our lives. According to Wright, neighbours of hers gave her their cut sunflowers to aid her in creating the clay models. Creating an unfired clay that would nonetheless hold up the structures took years.
While A quiet Mutiny often felt melancholy: an eerie, colourless world created by the artist, there was also the suggestion that if we look, really look at our lives, its structures and the objects we surround ourselves with, we can better understand what it means to be human. It is indeed possible to find beauty and comfort in the quotidian and in the temporary.
The responsibility we have as care-givers to both children and the elderly was a major concern, and the ways in which the social and political is filtered from the outside into the home. Wright walked us through an entire lifetime on two floors.
Like its title, the exhibition spoke quietly, but for those who chose to listen, it said volumes about the full human experience. Wright showed us that powerful contemporary art does not need to shout to be heard.
Wright may not have given us physical objects to last a lifetime and beyond, but instead created works as fallible as human life itself. There is something reassuringly full-circle about that.