The Untold Want: Thoughts on the Exhibition

Art, Culture, Literature, Opinion, Review

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“The untold want by life and land ne’er granted,

Now, Voyager sail thou forth to seek and find.”

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1871-1872)

This concisely written couplet forms the basis for a wonderfully curated exhibition currently housed at the Royal Hibernian Academy. Running until April 26th, The Untold Want takes a captivating look at a common theme that likens the physical, life-affirming mettle of Whitman’s revolutionary poetry to Irish and international artists’ own perspectives. Even if you have never read a verse penned by the poet, you’ll probably still enjoy it.

From my experience, modern art can sometimes seem obscure or gloom-ridden, while classical works often need historic and cultural grounding. Leaning more towards the conceptual than the contextual, and close enough to our time to remain relevant, this art isn’t only for historians or art aficionados to extract meaning from: it really is for anyone to enjoy.

Taking on positive significance in an information-rich era where we can sometimes feel lost and devoid of purpose, it reminds us to refocus our lens on the good stuff.


One of my favourites was Cuban artist Felix Gonzalez-Torrez, who caught my imagination with his unusually placed sculptures. With work created from commonplace objects, he undertook to occupy the unwanted gallery space. That is, corners and skirting boards rather than coveted walls. Walking around the gallery, my eye was drawn to these converted areas.

Just as life changes, and we let go of people and things we love, Gonzalez-Torrez challenged himself to let go of his own work. His quote denotes a sense of generosity, of excitement at the possibility of the audience plucking a piece of his work to take away. And physically it can be taken, even consumed — as evidenced by the empty wrappers lying at the foot of one piece composed entirely of individually wrapped mints.

Another series that caught my eye both visually and in terms of the artist’s approach to her work was Nan Goldin’s photo series The Other Side. This selection of about ten images documents drag performers over twenty year period. Although perhaps less remarkable now than when they were taken, these raw portraits give us a peek into lives lived in the exotic glamour of an underground subculture that is only recently coming to the fore.

As highlighted in her artist’s statement, Goldin’s practice of capturing a moment in time in order to leave it behind is a compelling thought. Often we record our lives to spend undue emotional energy grappling with memories, be they nostalgic or unsavoury. Goldin freezes milliseconds in time so she doesn’t have to conjure and recall, and deal with moments already lived. These images exist tangibly so the “now” can be fully enjoyed.


Like any exhibition, there were a few bum notes for me. My powers of artistic understanding are limited, and, try as I might to extract meaning, I never succeed on all counts. One work in particular by Donegal native Vivienne Dick was mystifying.

Located in a small wooden cabin in the centre of the room, the overarching message behind its dissonant music coupled with smooth pans of rural Irish countryside remained firmly out of my grasp. Though I found it hard to connect with this piece or to pin it to the collection in general, I did take pleasure in the attempt. (On a side note, comment and let me know if I missed something!)

As The Untold Want only runs for one more week, here are a few words of advice. Wander over to the RHA any time until 5pm, or until 8pm on Wednesday. Pick up the laminated leaflet just inside the door and give yourself at least an hour to fully appreciate the well-spaced art and bright, airy surroundings. Read the artists’ statements. Look closely at the leaves of the plant sculpture. And don’t forget to pop a mint in your pocket before they’re all gone.

Photo credits: Gavin Hartigan


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