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Balzac, when he moved into Les Jardins-which became one of his most famous residences-was in no position to furnish it the way he wanted as this was beyond his means. As always he was weighed down by unserviceable debts. A couple of rooms and hallways were entirely bare except for Balzac's charcoal inscriptions that read almost triumphantly, 'Here an Aubusson tapestry'; 'Here some doors in the Trianon style'; 'Here a ceiling painting by Eugene Delacroix'; and so on. These were wishes, but also ghosts of his mental projections.
In her installation, Magnetic Island, Jane Gallagher gave the spectator even fewer guides than Balzac did. Since it was about the ghosts of art in the gallery, there is no, there can be no, nor should there be an illustration accompanying this review. Magnetic Island was an exercise in what might be called pure conceptualism for it verged on being not there, preferring the immateriality of ideas over the materiality of objects. It was almost an exhibition about the absence of an exhibition but was far from being anti-art in intent.
More than an exhibition about a single exhibition, Magnetic Island was an exhibition about exhibitions. The two small spaces that until relatively recently comprised what was the Regent Street Gallery were, on the first lazy viewing, bare. Closer inspection revealed a galaxy of small, penciled crosses. They were everywhere and did not seem to conform to any code or pattern. Like the experience of pure conceptualism, one's sensory pleasure in viewing waned-or was never there from the start. The exhibition was about all the remnants of all the exhibitions in the space hereto. By drawing attention to what was left of the covered nails and pin marks, Gallagher showed the space to be a dense repository of experiences, efforts and ideas. The artist's mark, in this case, was the mark made by every other artist in the space before her: a pointing to the skeletons of the past that remained, and would always remain, on the walls.
This was an exhibition, then, that did not call for a long contemplation before the work proper mainly because the work(s) existed elsewhere. But the lack of a direct sensory experience did not exclude the possibility of sensory experience at all. These were to be, once again, found elsewhere. Through the removal and loss of works of art, Gallagher reminded us that art may never exist in the same way again, but continues to exist in traces that we seldom take the time to observe, and as memories which we seldom call upon. Art has more than one incarnation. Even a conceptual work can have a material presence.
Through the context of the gallery Gallagher was also able to alert us to the latent presences in rooms we take to be unpeopled and inert. A room is not just a shelter or a receptacle for bodies, it is the shell for all the emotions that have been transacted within it. It is as if an interior pulsates with its past, communicating it only to the most vigilant and sensitive. Magnetic Island was born from this instinct. Each little mark was an island on which an artwork had been supported and where its meaning had once been encountered. In this exhibition, the crosses were surrogate marks to which one's imagination and memory were urged to gravitate.
The exhibition even had a conclusion, of sorts. Walking up the road to Gallagher's installation, visitors would not have made too much of what looked to have been a fairly dignified and spacious commercial gallery, now in disguise. The whiteness of the photocopy in the window which announced the last exhibition held there suggested that the abandonment or relocation of the gallery was quite recent. Walking back from Gallagher's exhibition, the melancholy of the wreckage was sweetened by the knowledge that this gallery still pulsated with a thousand whispers.