Place(s) Without Place
Cliodhna Shaffrey
September '07

Felicity Clear's large-scale works - graphite drawing and acrylic on paper - of high-rise modernist building schemes and open spaces of suburban parking lots with their expanse of low-rise trailer town sprawl, seem at once familiar, immediately recognisable, and yet, at the same time unfamiliar. They are of real buildings made strange. Isolated, distorted, distant. It is as if we have found ourselves in the midst of a dream, overing at its rim, a feeling of uneasiness pervades as of a jolted shock at sudden unexpected recognition. Before us lies the unreachable city - outcrops of buildings, some still in the process of development - building sites with ghost-cranes, cut off behind hoardings, or walls; masonry islands surrounded by water, or barely visible in the distance through endless rows of regimented trees. The skies above always large, open, vivid - soiled yellowy sunsets, muddied clouds drenched through purple water-filled skies, or startling blues and greens, or where clouds are swept forth like alien spaceships emphasising a romantic torrid, a certain playfulness. Felicity's works possess a fictional quality of the fairytale but are imbued with a contemporary haunting, the possibility that here we are not on certain ground.

The picturesque of formal rows of dainty trees, enchanted forests and buildings that look like castles, and the perfect, detailed, drawing, so finely precise, so beautifully scaled, are thrown off kilter by warped perspectives, panoramic views, twisted and extended elements that lure and frighten. That odd flight of stairs that runs on the outside and halfway up the middle of a building in Fingal is here extended to the building's rooftop. Those 'endless' stairs, where do they lead? To the other side, into a void, to the nothing? The tilted island-building like a stranded cruise ship that cannot sail, its concrete base has anchored its position firm - yet, by what pathway can we reach it, how can its residents leave? Are we trapped somewhere between the romantic nightmarish painting of de Chirico's Mystery and Melancholy of a Street and Etienne-Louis Boullée's gigantic hollow sphere - his proposal for a Memorial to Isaac Newton envisaging the majestic as ideal. Felicity's, though, is a subtler hand, for within the slippage between a dystopia and a utopia, a failed world of sorts, remains an idiosyncratic charm, and a sense of cheery homeliness pervades. Only slowly do we sense any unease, the possibility that we have been catapulted into a nowhere - into Augés 'non-lieux' or Garreau's 'nowherevilles', or loaded into Michel Foucault's 'Narrenschiffen'. A drifting 'place without a place, that exists by itself and is closed in on itself.' 1

Felicity Clear's tightly conceived compositions - spare and perfectly structured are always dislodged, always left as if incomplete, unresolved, dirtied up - the messing up [is] in order to make mysterious again. Bravely she makes room for failure. Large expanses are left seemingly unfinished - acrylic onto unprimed paper, smudges and runs forming its own blotchy pattern and makes for a more fragile, transient scene, exposing the chaos behind ordering, the impossibility of perfection; the falseness in transparency. For here what might be transparent becomes opaque, impenetrable, untouchable, unknowable. Felicity's plan is to mystify, to touch into an impossible knowing - those invisible lines that keep the uncanny resurfacing. In a series of small paintings reproduced as multiples, each one the same as the next but different, a sense of déja vu is intentionally triggered. Focusing on a single scene played over and over - an isolated tree in geometric concrete space, or of the solitary immigrant trapped in the interior of her new found home, a glass prison of sorts; and the lone swimmer who clings ominously to the edge of the pool. What is happening? Repetition, the going over something again and again, which normally helps us work things out, won't make any difference here, for Felicity leaves us on the outside, on the edge of these worlds - contained, alienating, spatially misaligned, emptied - and we cannot enter. Her capacity is to gently plug us into a dark sense of unease, to bring us close to the uncanny. A fundamental insecurity with our world, a radical rootlessness as Heidegger calls it, and one in which every one feels fundamentally unsettled (unheimlich), that is, that human beings can never be at home in the world.'

Anthony Vidler in his introduction to The Architectural Uncanny suggests that there is no such thing as uncanny architecture but rather that architecture at certain times is invested with uncanny qualities that give rise to a sense of déja vu or what Freud called the 'compulsion to repeat'. The problem with today's architecture for Vidler is that while it reuses the motifs and language of modernism, the appearance of a fulfilled aesthetic revolution is devoid of their originating ideological impulses. Stripped of a promise of social redemption and the repression of the political, contemporary architecture presents an ostensibly nihilistic and self gratifying formalism. With the repression of the political there still lurks the ghost of the avant-garde politics, and one that for Vidler is proving difficult to exorcise entirely. 4

For Clear, as for Vidler, architecture may not be uncanny but rather is invested with such un-homely qualities, a capacity to mirror states of our being, to bring things up again for us. Choosing to focus on the new apartment blocks of the current building boom, Felicity is not directly commenting on the alienating forces of contemporary urban building - often bland and phobic - but rather is attempting to touch on more general ideas of aspirations and failures. If behind the current building boom is a nihilistic and self-gratifying drive, it also might be understood as an expression of a being out of control; the suggestion here is that these are doomed building schemes, they are simply not going to work. In their attempt to fill the void they somehow succeed in achieving the reverse so that these hollow spaces of capitalism 5, bring us closer to the more shadowy paths of existence, a failing at the source. Felicity's work opens to states of unknowing, feelings of uncertainty, that are aligned to the not belonging, the unhomely, to being out of place. But they also, in their playful un-resolvedness suggest the Sartrian idea 'that we can never hope to understand', we can never be on certain ground. Thus the acceptance that some comfort may be found in the impossibility of solving the mystery behind this uncertainty, is at the crux of the making of this work.

1. Michel Foucault, Of Other Spaces, 1967 Heterotopias, The reference
here is taken from Zygmunt Bauman's Liquid Life, Living in an Age of Uncertainty. Polity Press, 2005
2. In Conversation with Felicity Clear
3. Heidegger's Discourse on Thinking NY: Harper and Row, 1959, pp 55 ,as referenced in Anthony Vidler's
The Architectural Uncanny, Essays in the Modern Unhomely, MIT 1992, pp 7-8
4. Ibid 13-14
5. Ernest Bloch, Building in Empty Spaces, 1959 in the Utopian Function of Art and Literature pp 186-1999