Trial and Error Ciaran Begley & Anna McMahon
Dedspace Gallery, Sydney College of the Arts 6 October 2015
Trial and Error at Dedspace, Sydney College of the Arts features two Australian artists, Ciaran Begley and Anna McMahon, who have actively claimed the space of failure. Failure is reconsidered as a point of enquiry rather than a dead end. Trial and error is characterized by experimentation and spontaneity. In embracing uncertainty, fragility and the in-between, one can find more room to explore.
The Repetition of Difference: curating contemporary spaces of infinite reflection and rupture
Repetition is intrinsic to the act of curating through process and reflection. This forms part of a living, creative practice where questions and ideas transform over time. Curators continuously correspond with artists to discuss, revisit and revise ideas which are accumulated and then refined. This essay will unpack key curatorial decisions made by myself, Geraldine Kelly, Russell Arnold and Jerico Tracy during the development of the Trial and Error an exhibition which explored notions of experimentation and failure. Reflecting on the two exhibiting artists, Ciaran Begley and Anna McMahon, I will uncover the thread of repetition and points of difference between them and within the space.
Phenomenological considerations about the exhibition space can generate both reflection and aesthetic judgements. By breaking away from the modernist ‘white cube’ and immersing the audience within an enclosed and ambiguous black space Trial and Error transformed the traditionally visual space of the gallery into a space of introspection and contemplation. McMahon’s sound work 18 Failed Meditations repeated across the exhibition. The work plays on the contemporary anxiety for ‘wellbeing’ by prescribing to alternative lifestyles which, as the title suggests, are ultimately unattainable. The sound work slowed the exhibition space down, heightening the atmosphere of uncertainty and ambiguity.
Begley’s Limelight Experiment continued the play with notions of ambiguity through the incorporeal nature of the projection it produced which destabilised its materiality to become intangible, creating the image while simultaneously eluding it. This tension was intensified through the display of the ‘failed’ ceramic objects and vessels which we meticulously placed atop two adjoining tables. The curatorial process of setting these tables up, selecting the artworks and deciding how to display them was a complex cooperation. The display w as loosely organised by function, highlighting the importance of process and experimentation.
The repetition of these objects both asserts their materiality ‘just as it threatens to cancel out its significance.’1 If the result of the artwork is the limelight projection, rather than the attempted ceramic pieces, then it could be argued that once the experiment is finished the artwork ‘ceases to exist.’2 This evokes Boris Groys’ argument that contemporary art is becoming increasingly intangible as it ‘begins to document a repetitive, indefinite, maybe even infinite present.’3 As Jean Lyotard’s Les Immatériaux exhibition was a ‘presentation of ideas’4 Trial and Error was a presentation of a void. The space of the exhibition was less interested in the act of viewing than in creating an impression or experience.
Gilles Deleuze in his book Difference and Repetition discusses the reductive power of repetition through the excess of time as it unravels with no end. Repetition is not stable but is constantly looking back whilst attempting to project into the future.5 Through the process of dialectics, Deleuze argues that repetition becomes ruptured through moments of difference. 6 McMahon’s post-minimal work Untitled #34 was the point of difference within this exhibition. It hung from the ceiling, cutting down the wall to create an architectural intervention into space. The light from the fluorescent reflected and spread across the black wall, echoing the way Begley’s ceramic pieces reflected on the surface of the table. The sculpture could only be experienced once the audience was already in the gallery and it drew their attention towards the space surrounding it. While this work was a last minute addition as McMahon spontaneously created it during installation, it managed to rupture the easy balance of the rest of the exhibition.
To practise, study, try, fail and repeat is the creative condition of process. A curator performs this process throughout the act of exhibition making. Succeeding and failing are uncertain and ambiguous states within contemporary art which can be both critical and artificial. It is through the tension between the infinite repetition and the rupture of difference which opens up dynamic spaces of artistic, curatorial discourse and production.
1 Nick Kaye, “Performing the Gallery,” Site specific art, (New York: Routledge, 2000), 188.
2 Groys, “Comrades of Time.”
3 Boris Groys, “Comrades of Time,” e-flux journal, last modified 2009,
4 John Rajchman, “Les Immatériaux or How to Construct the History of Exhibitions,” TATE, last modified August 2009,
5 Brian Dillon, “Eternal Return,” Failure, ed Lisa Le Feuvre et.al., (MIT Press: London, 2010), 122. 6 Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, (Bloomsbury: London, 2014), 10.