Jesse Jones, Mahogany, 2009, 16 mm, color, sound, 35 minutes.

Jesse Jones, Mahogany, 2009, 16 mm, color, sound, 35 minutes.

Jesse Jones

Hugh Lane Gallery

Jesse Jones, Mahogany, 2009, 16 mm, color, sound, 35 minutes.

An offbeat curatorial conceit—sleepwalking—formed the programming context for Dublin-based artist Jesse Jones’s recent exhibition “The Trilogy of Dust.”Aiming to provide audiences with what the gallery termed a “stretched-out” encounter with artists’ work, “Sleepwalkers: Production as Process,” a series of solo exhibitions and site-specific commissions at The Hugh Lane, has thus promoted projects in progress by creating space for inchoate, early-stage creative propositions as well as for presentations that have reached a much more evolved, gallery-ready state. (Follow-up installments will include contributions from such Irish artists as Clodagh Emoe, Sean Lynch, and Linda Quinlan.)

Somnambulant drift is pitched here as a metaphor for creative momentum—perhaps a hazily reductive analogy in relation to the complex, critically self-conscious processes underpinning Jones’s work. But the sleepwalking trope nevertheless conjures a spirit of restless resistance to habitual patterns of activity and attention, and it is in this regard that she can best be seen as fitting into the gallery’s determinedly open-ended curatorial schema. Jones’s primary focus is film, but her works are best viewed not just as films: She maintains an aptly expanded relation to the medium’s forms and conventions. Among her previous works, for instance, there have been attempts to encourage acute attention to specific varieties of cinematic display, with Jones often seeking out estranging alternatives to current models. The early (but highly ambitious) public project 12 Angry Films, 2006, appropriated the drive-in cinema as a screening situation, relocating a distinctively American pop cultural form of the 1950s to a site of present-day post-industrial decay in Dublin’s docklands. A similar tactic informed her film installation The Spectre and the Sphere, 2008, which took a former radical theater in the Belgian city of Ghent as one of its subjects, presenting elegant Steadicam shots of this historically resonant performance space before jolting viewers out of their relaxed spectatorial detachment by enlivening the gallery with alarming pulses of bright light.

If site is one continuing fascination of Jones’s film work, continuity might be considered another. The films composing “The Trilogy of Dust,” 2009–11, which were sequentially screened for the eponymous Hugh Lane exhibition, all draw on relatively obscure historical ideas in order to shape unlikely but arresting speculations about the future. Each film attempts to find fresh ways of situating, testing, and so continuing once provocative (but now neglected) means of dramatizing or explaining the conditions of contemporary life. Mahogany, 2009, transports scenes from Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s 1930 satirical opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny to the forbidding open spaces of the Australian outback. The Predicament of Man, 2010, taking its title from an essay in the 1972 Club of Rome report on The Limits to Growth, overlays a flickering slide show of media images onto another desolate Australian landscape, this time the environs of an opal mine. Against the Realm of the Absolute, 2011, adapts passages from Joanna Russ’s 1975 feminist sci-fi fantasy The Female Man, repositioning the novel’s argument for a post-patriarchal society in relation to the economic, military, and environmental calamities of today. In all these works, Jones creates circumstances of viewing and comprehension that are undeniably demanding, with arcane source materials arranged into incongruous, disconcerting configurations. And yet this difficulty, this struggle with the work, is vital. These imaginative worlds and gathered references are not easily recognizable, but Jones urgently challenges us to find in them new meanings for our own troubled times.

Declan Long