Essay: Ben Reilly’s Graft

This is the introductory text to the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition Graft by Cork-based artist Ben Reilly, at the Backwater Artists Studios, Wandesford Quay Cork in April 2019.

Ben Reilly’s studio is an onslaught of memory. Bodiless heads, amputated stumps of things that once lived, maybe, reside alongside remnants of weaponry, begging to speak from the past. The whole suggests, to my mind, the aftermath of catastrophe. My initial reaction was to go back to W. G. Sebald’s Air War and Literature to affirm the relationship I immediately formed between the studio and Sebald’s attempt to work out the repression of Germany’s memorialising after the Allied bombings of Germany during World War II. Sebald dwelt on the charred natural and manmade scapes, the remnants of land touched by human life, the remnants of human bodies, present but past. Like Sebald’s gathering of memory fragments in words and photographs, Reilly gathers them in drawings, prints, photographs and most of all, sculpture. His studio is a sophisticated space, a memory bank where memory emanates not from death, specifically, but from some deep-rooted fascination with manmade detritus, of things touched, shaped, destroyed and remade by human intervention. They are, as Aleida Assmann put it, ‘agents of haunting’.[1]

This mnemonic character, seen most recently in works such as Islands (GlogauAIR, Berlin, 2017) continues in Graft. The seed of Graft, made of wax dyed near-black, took physical shape by making a number of casts of a trumpet bell which placed bell-end down, initially resembled for the artist a thicket of sorts. Elements of the trumpet have found their way into Graft, where its sensuously smooth tubular form is married to delicate, brittle, tree-like bodies whose surfaces alternate between deeply pitted and subtly gleaming smoothness that demands touch. With fascination, I watched as the artist hatched one of Graft’s components, carefully cutting through the cocoon of plaster and shiny pink latex that encased it. Closer inspection revealed textures of tree bark mingled with striated scars – but moulded rather than inflicted.

Graft references a tree photographed by Reilly in Sougia, Crete, a former Roman site near where Allied soldiers were taken prisoner after German paratroopers overran the island during World War II. That the tree indicates a site of Axis destruction and Cretan resistance invoked the special significance of trees in former war zones as carriers of memory – numerous trees on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey were grown from the solitary Turkish pine that marked the site of the Battle of Lone Pine in 1915, and amputated trees symbolised the human toll in Paul Nash’s images of the World War I battlefield. The use of the trumpet is not merely playful, either. The artist recalled the plaintive beauty of sounds played from damaged wind instruments found on centuries-old battlefields. Together, the elements of Graft become sentinels of the past, at once playful and mournful, an uneasy site of memory.

This is but one reading. Graft, part of the artist’s ongoing interrogation, is open and organic, even humorous in meaning.  Resistant to easy interpretation, the power of Ben Reilly’s work is the artist’s deep awareness and sensitivity to objects, the individual relationships formed with them and the myriad connotations stirred by them. A self-confessed magpie, he is fascinated by surface, texture and form and, it would seem a primary concern, how objects and people, and our relationship to them, are affected by time. Sometimes, silence is smarter than the urge to pin meanings onto art.

[1] Aleida Assmann, Cultural Memory and Western Civilisation: Arts of Memory (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 215.

Reilly, Ben-Graft

Reilly, Ben-Graft detail