Review of David Noonan’s ‘Mnemosyne’

still from the film

Review of David Noonan ‘Mnemosyne’ at Stuart Shave’s Modern Art gallery March 1-April 2 2022

Digging away in the graveyard of history, exhuming various remains and displaying them seems to be the method of David Noonan in this exhibition. Seeing the past through a fog seems to be a pervading concern, which is fitting as the show’s title is derived from the name of the goddess of memory in ancient Greece.

As you enter Modern Art’s central London outpost, you spy a bench on which to sit and watch a twenty-minute video on a loop. It starts with an illustration like you would find in a cartoon of what seems to be nobility from the British isles from centuries ago. Then you get gliding by decontextualized images of: kabuki performers on stage; a suburban house; a woman with a hairstyle reminiscent of Farrah Fawcett in her Charlie’s Angel days with two girls clutching dolls, all smiling, all enveloped in a yellow haze and black swirls descending, lending an air of nostalgia to what is being depicted. The music, an ambient drone type of sound with what seems like an accordion cutting through intermittently, is provided by Noonan’s friend and a Nick Cave collaborator, Warren Ellis. It is sinister and forbidding like the majority of Cave’s lyrics. All three are Australian. Is this project an attempt to reach into Australia’s short history and obliquely remind us a lot’s hidden?

Splicing images from archives and other sources and re=presenting them allows the artist to escape concrete interpretations and enables the viewer to make up narratives to wrap around the images. Noonan’s work brings to mind young Nigerian-American Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s. Some of her paintings that I encountered in the UK’s National Portrait Gallery in 2019 have Nigerian pop stars and politicians, family members and ads for groceries juxtaposed and jostling for space. Could such artists be attempting to ward off our collective amnesia? Might being cultural hybrids – Noonan migrating from Australia to the UK, Crosby moving from Nigeria to the US- have something to do with the way they construct complex works with various layers?

I was inspired, after my second visit, to look up the introduction to Radstone’s anthology Memory: Histories, Theories and Debates. She asserts, ‘The idea of memory runs through contemporary public life at high voltage, generating polemic and passionate debate in the media, in the spheres of politics and the academy.’ She talks about possible reasons for this: from postmodernism with its notion that organic memory has disappeared due to the advent of digital forms of storage, or that capitalism’s commodification of histories renders memories obsolete; to the politicisation of what should be kept in the public’s memory as the public arena buzzes with debate about what we should put up and what should come down. It seems we can expect to see more artists creating notable work that mine the past, that hold things up to the light for our delight or horror.

I was glad I was by myself when I first visited as I could allow myself to be immersed in the video, especially as the gallery attendant was the only other person around. Downstairs I was also alone as I looked at stills from the video. I left the gallery having been mesmerised by Noonan’s spell and his adeptness at drawing on the shared memory of humanity. I’m still haunted by the wyrd weaving he’s done.