The Silver Bridge (2003)
8 Channel Projected Installation
4:3 PAL DVD
The Silver Bridge
by Caomhin Mac Giolla Leith
Irvine's delicate and complex orchestrations of word and image draw on a range of resources that includes found photographs and freshly shot footage, oblique literary borrowings and arcane philosophical speculations, excavated archival material and newly-composed poetic ruminations. Yet the most formally elaborate treatment in her work of what Deleuze and Guatarri would call 'becoming-animal', crucially dispenses with language altogether.
The Silver Bridge (2003) is a carefully constructed configuration of eight interrelated films, which conducts the viewer on a journey that ends inconclusively halfway across the eponymous bridge. In reality this bridge spans the Liffey valley, at a point in the river not far from the artist's childhood home in Dublin, a city to which she returned in 2002, having spent many years abroad. In the first film we see a flock of birds swarming in the sky, their cacophonous cheeping and wild wheeling governed by a complex collective logic, which the viewer will find impossible to grasp; any attempt to focus on a solitary bird is soon frustrated, as its individual flight pattern is subsumed by the collective movement of the flock. In the second scene a man in an ill-fitting coat aimlessly circles a small stunted tree at the edge of a wind-blown meadow; he sits down briefly under its negligible shade before resuming his wanderings. The third scene is set in a shadowy dell, in which two deer graze under the shifting dappled light while, close by, four white doors rise up incongruously from the forest floor, like orphaned theatre props. In the fourth film, a man and a woman pass each other warily and wordlessly in the corridor of the bat-house in Dublin Zoo. In the fifth, dozens of bats negotiate their cage's artificial environment of branches, chains and ropes set against a painted backdrop. The sixth film features a young woman with long, brown hair standing motionless on the balcony that overlooks the crowded display of Dublin's Natural History Museum. In the penultimate film we are offered an initially confusing view from an unnaturally low vantage point, of a barefooted, black-clad human figure, slithering slowly away from us on its belly. The view is partially occluded by some twisted metal sheets, a makeshift barrier which has now been breached. The final film reveals the Silver Bridge of the title, from which a mysterious woman, also dressed in black, hangs bat-like in the embrace of another, similarly-clad young woman. The cautiously clasp and unclasp each other, like acrobats rehearsing a routine. Languorous and methodical, they go through the motions until, eventually, one of them loosens or loses her grip and drops dramatically from view.
In The Silver Bridge two fundamental characteristics that distinguish human beings from the rest of the animal world are radically compromised: the faculty of speech and the capacity for locomotion in an erect posture. The combined soundtracks of the eight looped films weave a dense aural tapestry of ambient sound in which one thread is notable by its absence. We hear the screeching of bats, the chirping of birds, the buzzing of insects and the whistling wind; but the sound of the human voice is missing. The individual human beings who move slowly through these scenes are conspicuous in their silence.
As we navigate our way through the work's complex configuration of screens and projections, we become aware of the gradual erosion of normative human movement as these figures become increasingly animal-like. The man wandering in the meadow wears a loose coat, his sleeves dangling down over his hands, incidentally obscuring the opposable thumbs that partly define him as human. The stationary young woman in the Natural History Museum blinks slowly and repeatedly like a lethargic reptile. Each human being seems isolated in his or her individuality, in contrast to the herd instinct of the animals, the multiplicities and intensities of the birds, the deer and the bats.
As so often in Irvine's work, people find it impossible to connect. The brief encounter in the bat-house echoes a scene in Another Difficult Sunset, where a man and a woman similarly fail to meet , in front of the tiger's enclosure in London Zoo. It seems that only in approximating the behaviour of animals, as in the suspended embrace of the women in the final scene, is there any hope of conviviality or communion. But even this coming together is merely temporary and ends abruptly.
The impulse to return to some primordial, pre-human condition is, in a way, a desire to return home, a desire constantly shadowed by the fear of failure and haunted by the notion of past or potential loss. Beginning with an image par excellence of untrammelled freedom - the birds in flight - the fractured narrative of The Silver Bridge gradually and inexorably tends towards incarceration or immobilization. Transitions are invariably troublesome, as the repeated use of the formal filmic device of the dissolve suggests. The bridge and portals that might facilitate such transitions are illusory, disabled or treacherous. The woodland doors clearly lead nowhere, their inexplicable presence a sly, surreal joke, perhaps, at the viewer's expense (a suspicion amplified by the easy glissando in the mind's ear from 'deer' to 'door' and back again, at least for the Anglophone viewer). Judging by the methods chosen to traverse it, the eponymous Silver Bridge is clearly damaged and unsafe (in fact it is only a skeleton, as the concrete walkway was ripped up and destroyed some ten years previously). The argent splendour suggested by its name has been tarnished by the passing of time. At the journey's end, we find there is no easy solace in regression, no ready comfort in reterritorialization. Ultimately, it seems that, as the clichés would have it, there is no going back and one can never go home.
Caomhin Mac Giolla Leith , April 2005