Trisha Donnelly is a multimedia artist who finds expression through sculpture, video, sketches, sound, and performance. Her art has often challenged traditional genre definitions and when it is under discussion, terms like “metaphorical phenomena,” “gravitational force,” “energy fields” “visionary projects” are frequently brought into play.
Such terminology indicates that we are dealing with an expanded understanding of works of art in time and space. Donnelly has an interest in the preternatural, believing that just because one cannot see a thing it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. For this reason she is often compared to other artists with an interest in spiritualism and occult phenomena such as Marcel Duchamp, Alfred Jarry and Joan Miró.
A work that is often referred to in attempting to define Donnelly’s oeuvre is the fabled performance that took place at Casey Kaplan Gallery in New York in 2002. During the opening of the exhibition she rode into the gallery on a white horse and gave a speech about Napoleon’s retreat and defeat. At the request of the artist, the event was neither filmed nor photographed, yet it has survived in the form of retellings and has been interpreted as a humanization of this aloof emperor. By allowing Napoleon to concede his defeat, she has added a new dimension to our experience of him as a historical person. And thus this widely discussed event has become a comment on history writing and understanding, akin to a magical time machine.
A similar sensibility regarding the conceptual perception of time and the physical comprehension of space is necessary in approaching Donnelly’s art. Where are the boundaries between sculpture and space? Can sound be experienced in sculptural form? Different sounds – a bell ringing, the boom from a cannon, or the words ‘Oh Egypt’ spoken at a slow tempo – have a physical presence in space despite their immateriality. Simultaneously with proposing the concept that sound can be sculpture, Donnelly also challenges the delineation between sound and text. For example, a series of sketches from 2002 have titles that exist only as sound files – sounds that, appropriately, cannot be described in words.
Donnelly has a true talent for exploiting the potential inherent in a given medium in new ways. She demands that the photograph or drawing must go beyond its expected parameters, and she expects us to be ready to experience all its facets. One example is her work entitled The Redwood and the Raven (2004), which comprises thirty-one black and white photographs of dancer Frances Flannery performing her own choreography to the famous poem by Edgar Allan Poe. Each of the pictures in the series was shown separately for a day at a time. In this way, they can be experienced as an extremely slow animation film in which each moment of movement lasts for twenty-four hours.
In 2001 Donnelly created the black and white photograph Blind Friends. The artist gathered a group of blind people on the beach and asked them to begin walking in the direction of the wind. At the instant when the picture was taken, they had all begun going off in different directions. The piece is a good summation of Donnelly’s art, which is about the multiplicity of ways there are to reach any given goal.
Curator Laura Hoptman considers that the general challenge of explaining Donnelly’s art is what makes it so important to the present time. Today, art is typified by the unequivocally readable and Donnelly’s work finds itself, as we have seen, outside the specifying domain of language. Like so many of her contemporaries, she is inspired by the Dutch artist Bas Jan Ader and his successful formula of anti-communication, self-mystification and anti-documentation. Her work is highly contemporary, a radical reactualization of the concept of art as an embodiment of the absolute. Hoptman points out that Barnett Newman was the first to draw the line between to make and to create, emphasizing the opportunity to contribute to reality as a goal for art. Donnelly’s art enters into this realm. Both artists believe that something that is, is so by virtue of itself and cannot be attained through, for example, language. Thus we can say that Donnelly’s use of different media determines the depth of the field where, with the help of resolve, fantasy and imagination, one gives life to “things.” It is therefore important for her to reduce her use of accepted codes or linguistic structures in favor of intuition, memory and free association.