The sun shone on the nothing new

Courtesy David Mattin
The sun shone on the nothing new Courtesy David Mattin

Forces of nature direct Michael John Whelan's new art show

In 2004, the Australian art critic Robert Hughes, who died last month, addressed the Royal Academy in London with his vision for a restitution of the art world. "What we need more of is slow art," he told the assembled artists, critics, academicians and collectors. "Art that holds time as a vase holds water."

Slowing time, or at least making it a material in itself to be moulded, is at the centre of the Irish artist Michael John Whelan's process. He has his debut solo show in the Arabian Gulf tonight at Grey Noise.

Whelan's work is unashamedly "durational"; the centrepiece of the Understanding Magnetism exhibition is an 88-minute video of an airplane on a runway in Waterford Airport, rural Ireland, slowly materialising in dawn light.

It begins in darkness and the space is flooded with ambient sounds from an airport to create an airy, slightly menacing wash.

The plane only becomes visible with the first rays of symphonic pink light, which gives way to a radiant blue. Eventually, the plane fades back into nothingness. Very little happens.

"The concept is two-pronged," says Whelan, when we meet in the gallery amid a rather complex-looking installation process. "One part of the work is about duration and as much about the sunrise as it is about the plane.

"But then there's the actual experience of it," he continues. "The viewer is in this blacked-out tunnel, surrounded by sound. I hope they can let themselves go in this space."

Understanding Magnetism is Whelan's paean to physicality. The works range from a black-and-white test Polaroid taken on a Hasselblad camera, which captures the transit of Venus in front of the sun as a circular and deep-black burn in the film, through to an obsessively detailed ballpoint drawing of the sun's magnetic fields.

Beneath all these works is an attempt to show how all things are subject to forces, and that this can be a reason for wonderment.

The Sun Shone on the Nothing New, Whelan's 88-minute video of a grounded plane, reflects on the retreating story of air travel itself - lumbering ocean-liners-with-wings from the early 20th century to the slimmed down, detached experience of airport lounges and departure gates today. The work seems to be an attempt to make us really examine the physicality of flying again, the dream of soaring, and the aesthetic of the human tools that make that possible.

Time, as the ultimate subjecting force, remains Whelan's medium here. Even on his bicep, he has a tattoo of a tesseract; a mathematical shape showing the fourth-dimension of a cube, commonly regarded as time.

By slowing time to a crawl, he wants to lay bare those many forces and make us acknowledge them again. The same stands for the Hasselblad Polaroids: "The mechanism of the camera plays its own language," says Whelan of this stark image of Venus against the sun. "It's about appropriating these stellar moments and allowing for there to be errors to take place in capturing it." The physical response of the camera (burning this black spot into the film on a long exposure) is exactly that. "A flawed humanity that I wanted to be there in the process," he says.

With that in mind, a lot of what Whelan does is about creating various situations, setting up his camera and letting the forces that govern the world do the rest (he spent 52 hours filming that plane, sleeping for only four hours). These forces, time included, are embossed into the work.

Despite the cerebral side of Understanding Magnetism, there's still some romanticism here. "Over a five-hour exposure, you learn to feel time and capture time," says Whelan. "Like Andrei Tarkovsky said - you are sculpting in time."

The success of this show remains to be seen after it opens this evening. But Grey Noise moved from Lahore to Dubai only at the start of the year, and presenting work as challenging as this (with artists from outside of its once-perceived Pakistani focus) sets some precedent for the season of art ahead.

Understanding Magnetism is on show from 7pm tonight until October 20 at Grey Noise, Unit 24 Alserkal Avenue, Street 8, Al Quoz 1, Dubai. Visit


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