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Michelle Deignan

"As the two actors came to the end of their fight scene, the drone camera suddenly stopped circling the tower, held it’sposition for about a second, then began flying directly towards them. They screamed, and one pushed the other out of the way. The drone crashed into the tower wall, bouncing off it as it fell and landed into a small back garden nearby. Thankfully it missed the toddlers playing in the adjacent space. We retrieved the drone. Its propeller blades were broken but the footage was intact. It took me eight weeks to get the drone operator to hand over the footage. He had wiped all the footage of the crash." — Michelle Deignan on filming 'A Glimpse of Common Territory'.

Michelle Deignan is another artist shown in True North whose practice embraces various roles across academia and making work, often operating in ways and circuits more traditionally used my filmmakers, but producing her films from a position of an artist. These are sometimes accompanied by exhibited photographic and print works. Her work examines the production and dissemination of culture, now and historically, touching on subjects such as local and international identity, nationalism, feminism, class politics and aesthetics.


When scanning any of the films from her body of work, it is clear how her approach to film is an appropriate strategy. Much of her work uses and draws upon the skills she gained working in the commercial sector—such as working as an editor on news programmes for broadcast television—and, at first glance, her works appear to be—sometimes are—de facto formats that we all recognise, such as documentaries. But, in most cases, they soon reveal the "spaces in between", whether interrogating the filmic medium itself by breaking with convention or content that heads off in an entirely different direction than the one the viewer may initially expect.

Michelle started her education in Dublin in her native Ireland, followed by studies in Scotland (Duncan of Jordanstone, Dundee) and later at Goldsmiths, London. As an academic and lecturer, she has held positions at Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, Oxford University, University of Greenwich and MetFilm School and also teaches regularly at NCAD Dublin, University of Sussex, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design and Winchester School of Art in addition to participating in seminars and conferences internationally.  Michelle is currently working towards a practice-led PhD at University of the Creative Arts, UK, researching new possibilities of landscape thinking through film.


Her work has been shown internationally in institutional contexts including the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin; Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh; Metropolitan Arts Centre, Belfast; Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin; Camden Arts Centre, London; and Vzigalica Gallery, Ljubljana, among others. Her films have also been screened on festival programmes internationally in Austria, France, India, Spain, Cuba, Mexico, Germany, Croatia and Serbia, among many other locations.

The works selected for True North effectively constitute a partial retrospective and are drawn from a reasonably long period of Deignan's work making film. The selection also intentionally reflects the breadth of scope in her content and style. They are shown in juxtaposition to prints she created to accompany a particular film work.

Taken individually or as a body of work, it's easy to recognise certain preoccupations and themes that run through her oeuvre: the depiction and comprehension of public space and landscape; factual and fictional narratives that present alternative experiences of land, place and identity; and a filmic language that deploys the visual style of recognised documentary tropes, if only to later subvert them.

But, there are also aspects to Deignan's work, arguably less discussed, that are particularly relevant to True North. For example, her work circumvents visual and content clichés that are too easily associated with Irish art by those looking in from the outside. Here there are no cod indicators of "Celtic culture". You're more likely to spot something of a preoccupation with the Enlightenment or 19th-century obscure writers than a Celtic cross in one of her landscapes.

Rather, there are considerations of Europe as a concept, something highly resonant for the Irish of Deignan's generation with its staunch commitment to the EU; a political and economic framework that promises almost Utopian benefits on one hand but also demands embracing new economic ideologies not prevalent in the Ireland of Deignan's childhood. This "brave new world" is quizzical to navigate for a nation on the northwestern edges of the continent. This is perhaps most evident in her work Ways to Speculate, a short single-channel video in which the audio track variously quotes lyrics by Kraftwerk and the introduction to the sci-fi novel, The Mummy: A Tale of the Twenty Second Century by Jane Webb Loudon (1827). It is for this film work that she later produced a series of silk screen prints on Madrid paper also included in the show.

Conversely, there is something that locates and is located in her work as a contemporary Irish artist that circles back to what can and should be considered enduring values shared across Celtic cultures. This is perhaps most poignantly present in The Ruin of Bob, at once lyrical and rather bittersweet. In this work, as in others, there is a strong glimpse of the preeminence of the place of literature and the spoken word in Celtic cultures.


It's somewhat sad that today the world today more readily consumes its understanding of Celtic culture through the experience of the "Irish theme pub"—and, yes, Deignan has made a work about that—rather than the literary achievements of Yeats, Wilde or Joyce. In Ireland, as in Scotland with its own strong literary tradition, the pioneering achievements of writers working in English largely outside of the closed-door institutional circles of London, retains huge popular respect even though, outside of these regions and cultures, it has sadly become the domain of literature students and academics to remember the towering literary achievements born of cultures so often in opposition to the diktats of Westminster.


Deignan's work frequently endorses the culture of the literary, even when working in unexpected ways such as a more recent work included in the exhibition, A Glimpse of Common Territory that features two fictional 19th-century characters trapped in a modernist tower built to test lifts (elevators) that sits incongruously in the middle of a housing estate in the English Midlands.

Then, of course, there is her work that much more directly raises political questions of the Irish experience. Sometimes this is relatively overt, such as in her 2013 documentary Breaking Ground that explores the long legacy of the London Irish Women's Centre, a NGO that provided services and support to Irish women in London as well undertaking activism to raise awareness of the female Irish experience, including that of women involved in the struggles in Northern Ireland. At other times, such as in Red Cheeks (2006), included in the exhibition, the more lateral artist's approach engages with such political issues in a far more tangential way.

Since 2020 Michelle has been contributing to The Crown Letter, a group of 30 international women artists who collaborate to publish their art works as well as produce work for print publications, exhibitions, commissions and residencies.

Michelle Deignan website

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