FIONA LARKIN, BACKSTORY, Catalyst Arts, Belfast, 6 December 2012 -17 January 2014

Installation view/opening night/Photo Jordan Hutchings

The idea that something commonplace can be transfigured into exceptional has been habitually compulsorily twinned with reason and consent. Both appear at the preparatory stages of this  exhibition.

Backstory poster and names96061_770920979590018_247875654_n

The black and white image above has been posted on Facebook several months ago. Larkin invited writers to respond, eleven of them did (see names on the above poster). Their texts added to the intention and inspiration are seamlessly included in the video called Her Translation.  Some of the verbal layers descended more visibly as Larkin’s embroidery on the secondhand head scarfs in an installation First Person You (the many I’s):

Fiona Larkin, Backstory, 2013

It is a scattered around installation – the above group claiming central position, while a scarf hangs on its own on another wall, or folded rests on the floor. The motif of a headscarf thus received two contrasting treatments: as a tacit object with embroidered tacit words, and as a prop of actions performed by the protagonist in the video. Both signify it as an object.A found object, a real object. It is not an anxious object, symbolic object or emotionally incontinent one.  The artist limits manipulation to that necessary to hold a viewer’s attention – to do what? To note the familiarity of the scarfs design, the ordinariness of the colours, patterns, size?  The answer is hidden in a relationship between one of the scarfs  and a small screen with animation  If you could name it (for BM)



The invitation, the consent, the appropriation and transformation  weave a  inventive mode of virtual network of fragmented observations and thoughts. By this I mean it is not just a document of that this installation and videos came to be and how.   Larkin starts with an idea, and a rule, and discipline, letting the imagination to take care of the particular, of details.  The Backstory is grounded in empathy that lead to responses that were directed back to the artist.   The eleven writings are autonomous – that’s perhaps one of the reasons for binding them in a book on a shelf.

in the far corner two visitors are browsing the book on the shelf

Larkin is the author of Backstory in all its layers and parts not just because she had the first intention and concept but also because she gave significance to all it is made of, the objects and materials including their own (even if unknown)histories.

She enters into another mode of following an object from  her previous performance/installations, like Wolf Den exhibited as a part of Vicinity, a group exhibition at Catalyst Arts 23 March -1st April 2012. That work started with a lonely image of a stranger on an escalator in New York ( a randomly selected stranger echoing Acconci)

Fiona - man i jacket back

On her return, Larkin collected used denim jackets and embroidered verbal messages on their dorso. This is where the singular motivation for the collaborative responses was channelled into visible(wearable) parts of a work of art.

Fiona Larkin Jackets Wolfs Den

Displayed in the gallery they were offered to people to wear and walk in the street while Larkin took photographs. She followed them  curious whether wearing the jacket changes their behaviour.

Fiona Larkin Wolfs den

The first artist using this paradigm in 20th C Western culture is Vito Acconci (b 1940).  In the Following Piece, executed daily over one month (October 3-25, 1969)  Acconci  followed one randomly chosen stranger through the streets of New York until he or she entered a private location-an activity where, as the artist described it, “I am almost not an ‘I’ anymore; I put myself in the service of this scheme.(accessed on

Vito Acconci, detail from the Following Piece, 1969

Acconci’s reflection on the Self  receives a parallel in Larkin’s choice of the title for the  scarf installation  First Person You (the many “I”s) .  Yes, it is puzzling, nevertheless it ascribes a bind between the presumed history of the object ( including a presumed wearer) and the appropriation of it by the artist. Larkin obviously prefers tighter control of the determinators of meaning. I hasten to add that she then leaves the meaning to attract other meanings, like a magnet in the field of iron dust.

Three decades ago Sophie Calle (1953) needed no reason nor consent to follow Henri B for thirteen days in Venice (Suite Venitienne, 1979, as a book in 1980). The diary in words and photographs feels authentic, yet, Calle may be an unreliable narrator.

Calle S Suite Venitienne

J Baudrillard commenting on the work claimed that we do not need solidarity, contracts and exchange, that we are willing to consent to anything providing it be absurd.

(her take on Acconci’s paradigm  and Baudrillard’s comments are accessible on  Sophie Calle. Suite venitienne. Jean Baudrillard. Please follow me.‎)

During her Master of Fine Art Studies Fiona Larkin gave a paper on  Calle’s work confessing deep admiration.  On the surface, close parallels may be found. Calle followed secretly Henri B,  Larkin photographed a man on an escalator. However,  Larkin added a collaboration with the wearers of the jackets inspired by that photograph. The shift is significant both in relation to Calle’s “following the truth”  and her claim that she cannot invent anything. Larkin can.


Whose body got trapped by a camera in public? Whose I?

Calle’s behaves like a stalker/detective – asking others for clues where and when she, unseen,  may see her object of desire, although it is not the expected kind of desire.  Her art process is visceral  even if its rules are conceptual, she keeps them in close togetherness.   Acconci works more like John Cage – devising rules for a chance to appear and let to rule all.  Larkin reaches to Acconci with whom she shares respect for a poetic force, a force of poetry, in that she uses often her body, her “I”  to cross over from private to public realm, still seen from the back only(in her street performances).  The current exhibition is not saying:  the woman on the bench may be the same as the photographer in She is camera, which is the second video of the lake. Or not. After all, it is not the same body  that appears later in the video.Backsrory first image1454767_773451042670345_1732727394_n

Larkin differs from both Calle and Acconci by openly, consciously  inviting others to participate in her art process and by actively embodying their offers into her own art.

Backstoryfi3 Backstoryfi2

That collaboration is at the same time another  cross- over between private (artist’s intention) and public (collaboration and exhibition). Notwithstanding the privacy of the participants’  thoughts, those not communicated to the artist.  I suppose these are just like zero – sitting on the casp between being and knowing.

The Backstory strengthened collaborative layer without shrinking the imaginative silent absorption  of the participants.  The autonomy of both the world of writing and the world of visual force were protected by Larkin faithfulness to the principle of imaginative imitation.


A feeling is reflected without knowing its meaning, the secret must not be broken to avoid it to descend into banality. The scarfs are traces of time before, of other wearers, now absent. What existence(s) Larking cancelled by layering scarf over a scarf over a scarf? What association each of them triggered then and now?  The clever answer is given in lively tempo: once all eleven scarfs are layered on her head, the person on the bench watching (? I cannot be sure, she may have closed her eyes) the lake, starts take them off one by one, until a head of dark hair, cut short, briefly appears. Enough to read her gender and age – not more.  And yet more in comparison with the second video of just the lake wit a prominently present duck. The slow deliberate movement of the bird instills a relaxing calm as a visual background to the story of eleven scarfs.  In both duck story and scarf story  nurturing and protection  effortlessly complement the other narrative. And it is a modern narrative full of gaps and puzzles. A welcome attack on simple assumption that all that appears together  is a causal relationship.

The image of the duck leaving traces on water  re-appears in a photograph next to the book of essays:


Another smaller black and white projection of a lake  titled Where it is written is placed away from the still life and two large projections. When I turned my back to them  there it was, tiny, flickering near the floor, and very reluctant to reveal its meaning  other than insisting on the place being somehow sacred, thus not fully known.

The constellation of the three videos  shares water  in a particular state: calm, clean, unpolluted by humans. Just seen by one of them. This seeing suddenly jumps up as  significant. Seeing is thinking in visual  means – they are tacit and slippery, capable of harvesting bits of knowledge and secreting away some other bits. It feels playful here. No threat.  Maybe celebration?  There is an image of straightforward jazzy clashes of pattern and colour in  If you could name it (for BM) – like intoxicated fanfare for vision.  Light, playful, humourous. Every part of the design rotates individually –  dancing.

If you could name it (for BM)

A comparison with the main video illustrates the difference:


The first video with scarfs is titled  Translation, the second video with the lake is called She is camera, the title of the black and white video is Where it is written (Frivolously, I add here  my playful  interference of an association with the Arabic  mekhtoub = what is written). Pretty enigmatic titles imbued with power to keep their secrets. What is meant is known only through empathy with the images, when they fuse with my world, when I can let them to translate the feeling for me.  Remarkably, Larkin does not need to say more. This exhibition is a major reworking of the paradigm that fired Acconci and intoxicated Calle.

An afterthought: to translate  is not a simple process. A translator has to know both  systems in question. Then there is the question of fidelity – must the translation be faithfull or can it be free to follow its own goals?   Traduttore – traditore/traduire c’est trahir/translate is to betray   – the unidentified woman at the lake disorients me , I respond privately(secretly) to all that is left  untranslated. Joy of the feast!  I take a refuge in Charles Baudelaire’s belief that imagination is the queen of all the faculties.

Slavka Sverakova, 16 December 2013

Images by Jordan Hutchings, courtesy of Fiona Larkin and Catalyst Arts


About Slavka Sverakova

writer on art
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