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Exhibition Review: Lost Stories at Surface Gallery

7 October 20 words: Kelly Palfrey

Kelly Palfrey headed down to Surface Gallery to check out their latest exhibition, Lost Stories...

I Wonder How to Fly, Szilvia Ponyiczki

Who are we? What shapes us? These are the fundamental questions bringing together four female artists in Surface Gallery’s latest exhibition Lost Stories. The four artists, Szilvia Ponyiczki, Arit Emmanuela Etukudo, Ivana Puskas and Una Nic Samhradháin, draw on their diverse and unique backgrounds to tackle issues of identity, belonging, oppression and the unconscious in a series of deeply personal art works.

As I entered the exhibition, I was immediately struck by the stark contrast between Samhradháin’s greyscale works and Ponyiczki’s bold and colourful paintings. Samhradháin’s work uses myth and folklore to tell the story of her younger years in Northern Ireland during the 1970s and 1980s. It is immediately apparent that Samhradháin’s work draws on the deeply divisive and oppressive religious belief systems present in Northern Ireland during her youth. Her work is grouped in threes, which is symbolic of the Holy Trinity, and is purposefully devoid of colour. Perhaps my favourite work of the exhibition is Samhradháin’s sculpture of two chairs facing apart but bound together by yarn (a motif that features across the work as a reminder of Samhradháin’s childhood). I was initially drawn to this sculpture because of its imposing nature in the entrance of the exhibition, but the more I looked upon it, the more I saw conflict and oppression in every inch of the work. The opposing chairs are covered in a paper made from yew trees, a plant which can be both medicine and poison. I can’t help but think that Samhradháin’s work serves as a timely reminder of the impact of divisive belief systems.

The curation of the exhibition is particularly powerful, especially the positioning of Serbo-Croation artist Puska’s work after Samhradháin’s. Puska uses sculpture and collage to narrate her experience as a Serbo-Croation who lived through the civil war in ex-Yugoslavia. I felt as though I was now seeing the impact of conflicting beliefs play out before me in the collection of sculpture and collage, and I like how the work of these two artists came together to create a narrative that serves almost as a warning. In growing up in a country plagued by civil war and that no longer exists, Puska’s work explores her memories of this traumatic period and her sense of loss of national identity. The collection of sculptures is focused around the central figure of Puska’s younger self, stood traumatised and weeping at the devastation that the civil war brought to the ex-Yugoslavia. I found the contrast between the seemingly angelic figure sculpted in white and the dismembered bodies and decimated buildings sculpted in terracotta particularly chilling. Was I witnessing the death of Puska’s innocence amid the chaos and conflict of war?

Lost Stories successfully brings together the work of the four artists, from seemingly disparate backgrounds, into a cohesive exhibition that challenges us to think about the impact of socio-political beliefs on the lives and identities of individuals

Opposite the intentionally oppressed colours of Samhradháin’s work and the poignant installation by Puska, is the intense colour of Hungarian-born Ponyiczki’s paintings. Ponyiczki’s work explores the relationship between the conscious, unconscious and dreams, seamlessly blurring the lines between the internal and the external world. In several paintings Ponyiczki layers a single colour on top of her original art work, leaving small windows of the original exposed. I found these paintings intriguing, but the lack of any labelling of the works left me feeling unable to access the meanings of the paintings fully, though perhaps that’s the point. I was left wondering, am I seeing a glimpse of the chaotic world through the eyes of Ponyiczki? Or are these windows into the deepest realms of Ponyiczki’s subconscious? It’s unclear, but I quite liked the sense of conflict that the work left me feeling; it was productive and allowed for a greater appreciation of the exhibition as a whole.

Tucked away in a quiet corner of the exhibition is Nigerian-American artist Etukudo’s short film which explores the physical and incorporeal moments of birth. The clip is narrated by on-screen text rather than speech. As I sat and watched the video play on an old television set, I was struck by one particular phrase that flashed up on the glass screen surrounded by my own reflection, “the demon of birth does not end”. I find this one tormented phrase to be possibly the best description of the exhibition as a whole. Etukudo’s work brings together the all of the conflict both seen and felt throughout the exhibition and offers a moment for quiet reflection whilst continuing to challenge modern ideas of “how the black body can exist.”

Lost Stories successfully brings together the work of the four artists, from seemingly disparate backgrounds, into a cohesive exhibition that challenges us to think about the impact of socio-political beliefs on the lives and identities of individuals. It is a truly thought-provoking exhibition that feels very in tune with the ever increasing chaos and conflict of this particular moment in time. Perhaps what is most striking about Lost Stories, is the overwhelming sense created by the work that, despite our differing backgrounds, we are all human, we are all shaped by the world around us and we all have our own story to tell.

Lost Stories: A Cross-Cultural Visual Response to Identity is at Surface Gallery until Saturday 10 October

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