Trisha Donnelly, Untitled, 2018, digital projection, 16' 8 3⁄4“ × 10' 4”.

Trisha Donnelly, Untitled, 2018, digital projection, 16' 8 3⁄4“ × 10' 4”.

Trisha Donnelly

The invitation Trisha Donnelly designed for her show exemplified what her art is about: One side was taken up by an image showing a composition of colorful splotches with a yellow bar at its center, looking like a piece of masking paper streaked with splotches of watercolor. The other side was black, with red bundles of rays in the upper half; a luminous pink emblem near the bottom-right corner resembled an intricate neon logo that compressed the details of the exhibition to the verge of illegibility. The card’s aesthetic was undeniably cool, but it demonstratively didn’t cater to our curiosity. Disclosing next to nothing, it was nonetheless arresting.

Such nimble and aesthetically sophisticated reticence is the defining charm of Donnelly’s work in a range of media: photographs, drawings, objects, projections, texts, even sound. Her first solo show at Galerie Buchholz in Cologne featured three digital projections—each occupying a separate room—and a small drawing, all Untitled, 2018. One floor-to-ceiling projection showed a throbbing object amid a sea of Yves Klein–style blue. What was it? Hard to say, as the gallery had acceded to the artist’s usual request that a press release not be provided. It might have been an archaeological find, perhaps a shard of a broken vase or a water pipe caked with deposits. The second projection might have been a heavily magnified glimpse of the world of microbes. And the third raised even more questions: A red shape that brought to mind a nocturnal photograph of Cologne Cathedral was projected onto a printout of the same image pinned to the wall. An image projected onto another image—two pictures fusing into one. Like the exhibition announcement and the other two projections, the superimposition captivated the gaze, literally drew it in, even as—or, more likely, because—it defied the attempt to identify its purport. Yet when words fail, the effects of magic come into play.

That’s right: magic! To speak of magic today is to risk sounding absurd. Was not one of the central objectives of the Enlightenment to root it out? For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Europe was positively obsessed with demystifying the world. In a thoroughly disenchanted era, however, all objects, insights, and sensations are equally valid. And when everything is of equal value and nothing deserves our attention more than anything else, indifference and speechlessness spread.

The great merit of Donnelly’s art is that it casts a spell that retrains our perception of objects and their arrangement, and reconfigures the experiences these vouchsafe. There is no need to be afraid—we can entrust ourselves to their charms. Contrary to the teachings of the Enlightenment, her art demonstrates that magic, adeptly handled, can sharpen our wits and make us see more clearly, and thus can salvage the world around us from pervasive indifference.

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.