Dublin

Katrina Palmer, The Time-Travelling Circus: The Recent Return of Pablo Fanque and the Electrolier, 2018, ink-jet print on floor vinyl, Perspex, headphones, sound, sound baffles, printed matter. Installation view. Photo: Kasia Kaminska.

Katrina Palmer, The Time-Travelling Circus: The Recent Return of Pablo Fanque and the Electrolier, 2018, ink-jet print on floor vinyl, Perspex, headphones, sound, sound baffles, printed matter. Installation view. Photo: Kasia Kaminska.

Katrina Palmer

Temple Bar Gallery + Studios

Katrina Palmer, The Time-Travelling Circus: The Recent Return of Pablo Fanque and the Electrolier, 2018, ink-jet print on floor vinyl, Perspex, headphones, sound, sound baffles, printed matter. Installation view. Photo: Kasia Kaminska.

There isn’t always much to see in a Katrina Palmer installation, but there can be a lot to take in. Her artworks require attentive listening, patient reading, and a readiness to quickly and imaginatively cast one’s mind to another place and time. Though she studied sculpture at Central Saint Martin’s in London, her principal artistic medium is language: Writing, in a variety of voices, features prominently in her exhibitions, where it takes the form of wall texts, scripted soundtracks, or elliptical stories published in idiosyncratic artist’s books.

So, for instance, in “The three stories are flattened,” her 2016 exhibition at Void, a gallery in Derry, Northern Ireland, Palmer used the building’s generous main space to show the modest, Minimal work Now Landscape, 2016,a set of five sequentially shrinking blocks of text, handwritten directly onto the gallery wall. Each of these inscribed passages contains an identical fictional account of a gravedigger reflecting on the dense materiality of soil, ruminating on how everything that exists within the “sensuous complexity” of the present—from suntan lotion to circuit boards—will eventually, far in the distant future, become the same crushed, decomposed stuff of the earth’s surface. Gradually, Palmer’s side-by-side paragraphs become crushed, too. One after another, she crams these richly literary texts into increasingly compressed spaces so that, by the end, all that remains is a thick band of undifferentiated marks. What little there is to see in Now Landscape steadily diminishes and degrades into indecipherability.

On occasion, Palmer stages works that are more demonstratively visual and, indeed, sculptural. “The Necropolitan Line,” her 2015–16 exhibition at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, UK, contained, for example, an authentic reconstruction of a contemporary train platform. From there, gallery visitors could hear strange, ghoulish announcements—historical facts and narrative fragments relating to an actual nineteenth-century train service that delivered London’s recently deceased to cemeteries outside the overcrowded capital— relayed through a loudspeaker. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, this robustly physical platform was nonetheless most important as a site of psychic departure—projecting our thoughts into a historical past, or toward an inevitable human future, the mortal destiny described by Philip Larkin as “the sure extinction that we travel to.”

Palmer’s Temple Bar Gallery + Studios installation was, once again, visually austere. And yet, like her other works, it stimulated far-reaching mental drift, transporting us to more spectacular realms. Elaborately titled “The Time-Travelling Circus: The Recent Return of Pablo Fanque and the Electrolier,” the exhibition packed a lot in, while putting very little on display. The narrative core of the eponymous installation concerned the life and death of Susannah Darby, a high-wire performer (nicknamed “The Electrolier”) and wife of pioneering nineteenth-century circus proprietor William Darby, who, under his stage name Pablo Fanque, became the first nonwhite man to own a circus in Britain. In 1848, during a live performance, the building that housed Fanque’s circus collapsed. Six hundred of those present were injured in the accident, but the only person killed was Susannah. Reflecting on this calamity almost two centuries later, Palmer superimposes a ghostly version of the circus arena onto another grand circular space: the beautiful Brotherton Library at the University of Leeds, an elegant Beaux Arts building close to the graveyard where both Susannah and William are buried. So, within the darkened, mostly empty space of Temple Bar Gallery, Palmer had mapped out a floor-filling blueprint of this combined circus-library architecture, envisaging a speculative sphere in which, she proposed, Pablo might travel in time, seeking out Susannah in the past. On an accompanying audio track, multiple overlapping recordings of a whispering female voice represented the fitful melancholic musings of a spectral, never-quite-present Susannah, endlessly revisiting the routine risks of the high-wire act, and the horror of her final moments. In the background, clanging, echoing electric-guitar notes added a degree of mournful drama, but this forlorn music seemed an unnecessary adornment. It was a consoling distraction—weakened an otherwise powerful tension between the gallery’s unforgiving funereal atmosphere and the tender, barely there humanity of Palmer’s disjointed, sotto voce monologue.

Declan Long