Sandra Johnston – Wait it Out at Project Arts Centre

by Fergus Byrne

Johnston presents a formally rigorous show with  video works and text, the narratives of which  are in dialogue with each other.

The central piece, ‘That Apart’, is installed in a timber frame corridor. Johnston’s collaborator Richard Ashrowan filmed her performing to camera in the  gallery space.  Both have edited the same footage to produce this two screen work.


Sandra Johnston/Richard Ashrowan, That Apart, two-channel HD video projection, 2019 (installation view ‘Wait it Out’, Project Arts Centre, Dublin )
Camera: Richard Ashrowan; Editing: Sandra Johnston and Richard Ashrowan
Courtesy the artists
Photo: Ros Kavanagh. Photo courtesy: Project Arts Centre

A text written by Johnston on the gallery wall gives  a perspective  from which to view and hear the show.  As I read it  I was hearing the percussive sound track of Ashrowan’s edit, the sounds of which assume greater violence in relation to the accounts of bombings and paramilitary activites.  These interspersed with related sensory perceptions convey the embodied experience of violence.

In the film Johnston engages physically with objects – a brick, a stack of bowls, army boots. Her improvisation exceeds their prescribed use.   Drumsticks are clutched in the hand and rattled on the concrete floor. She wears a pair of Northern Ireland issue  British Army boots. The image of her standing still, her black clothes matching the boots, is heavily grounded in the floor where the thick soled boots… stamp and fall back against the wall, stamp, fall back against the wall. Back bounce off wall. Boots on hands catch her as outstretched  arms fall against the wall. This is the fast editing of  Ashrowan’s video, intercut  with cracking drumsticks, and ceramic bowls circling and scraping upon each other. The martial energy of the objects is conveyed in Ashrowan’s edit while  Johnston’s conveys more the pace of her actions and extended periods of waiting out characteristic of her performance.

A smaller blacked out space contains TV footage of a march by the Peace People in London in 1976 and documentation of a performance by  Johnston in Belfast from 2000.  This latter video is overdubbed with an interview with Mairead Maguire, founder of the Peace People, conducted by Johnston in 2003. Maguire describes her aversion to  ‘putting up monuments’ that are ‘locking people into the tragedy of what we’ve all suffered’. This viewpoint is  countered by the show’s return to the past in the form of objects and text that recall violence.  This oscillation is reflective of the persistent tension in Northern Ireland  despite a publicly lauded Peace Process. The wall text and an open discussion on the opening night both drew attention to smouldering aggressions in Northern Ireland.

Johnston’s collaboration with Ashrowan presents a fruitful dialogue whereby the film mediates performance actions usually made to a live audience. The process has produced a very strong film that does not reduce the intensity of Johnston’s actions. Ashrowan’s 16mm film of  Johnston in haptic dialogue with a tree resonates with a section of Maguire’s interview in which she cites the appreciation of natural beauty as  a counterpoint to living with trauma.   There are constant moments where the works inform each other sometimes through the smallest details.  This dialogue creates a tension wherby moments of balance and of light yield to rupture.   The proximity of these opposing states is well described when Johnston writes of the void left by an explosion – ‘Perhaps it is perverse to say it but I see here in its chaotic heart a piercing beauty, as if the air has become chrystal, its momentous darkness haemorrhaging with light’.


Photo Ros Kavanagh
Sandra Johnston, Overprint, Alternating two-channel video projection, colour, sound, 2019 (installation view)
Editing: Sandra Johnston
Courtesy the artist
News footage courtesy: UTV archive / PRONI (The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland)
Photo: Ros Kavanagh. Photo courtesy: Project Arts Centre.
Sandra Johnston: ‘Wait it Out’, Project Arts Centre, Dublin, 2019 (installation view with That Apart and poster text)
Photo: Ros Kavanagh. Photo courtesy: Project Arts Centre.
Commissioned and produced by Project Arts Centre, Dublin with support from the Irish Museum of Modern Art Production Residency and Arts Department, Northumbria University, Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK.

Sandra Johnston’s exhibition Wait it Out runs from 29 August until 19 October at the Project Arts Centre in Dublin.