Distant Future/Near Past by Jacqueline Flint
“Time is what stops history happening at once; time is the speed at which the past disappears.” ? David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
For the last few years, Norman O’Flynn’s output has been dominated by the Timekeepers, an ongoing series of larger-than-life, layered portraits on acrylic glass. The subjects populate O’Flynn’s reality, from people on the street that strike him as interesting, to close friends and family. The figures are for the most part covered in frenetic and portentous tattoo-like markings containing information and imagery also culled from O’Flynn’s milieu – glimpses of the news and current events, social media, conversation, fiction in print and film, music, poetry, binary code, the artist’s own imagination. As a tribe of unshakable observers, they offer up a palimpsest of documentation filtered through O’Flynn’s experience and intuition.
O’Flynn’s use of acrylic in these works – as both medium and substrate – ups the ante of his palette of super-brights and high-octane acidic hues. It lends the work a slickness that also accentuates his style, which is most often understood through the lens of Pop Art à la the Americans – think Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns. O’Flynn does quote stylistic tendencies of the genre, and one way to look at the Timekeepers is as a lament of the all-pervasive contemporary cult of consumerism. They have come to play an admonitory role in O’Flynn’s oeuvre – they hold a mirror to the present moment. They insinuate Baudrillard’s proposition that it is “the map that precedes the territory”; the representation that governs the real: the American Pop artist’s worst nightmare and wet dream. However, recent departures in his practice complicate O’Flynn’s relation to the Pop Art genre, shifting his gaze to include both past and future in his commentary on the current.
The title of his most recent body of work, Gnomon, currently showing at WORLDART Gallery, refers to the arm of the sundial that casts a shadow, thereby making it possible to tell the time. It also refers to a novel by Nick Harkaway, set in a future of distributed surveillance democracy, which ultimately goes awry. The reference fittingly propels O’Flynn’s work past pop and settles it in the company of cultural near-future imagineers. From the Greek gnomon, translating as ‘one that knows or examines’ – Gnomon sums up O’Flynn’s perceptive anxiety about our collective fast-pace toward catastrophe and grapples with existence beyond it.
The mouths of the Timekeepers remain covered in this body of work, but where O’Flynn previously chose a generic African motif for their bandit face-masks, here he leaves them blank, allowing whatever exists in the layers of the work behind the figure to come through into the foreground. This robs the Timekeepers of their individuality and of their voice, and simultaneously sets them apart from the rest of their community that, according to the contextual body art, is hell-bent on consumption regardless of consequence. The ultimate expression of this anxious chaos comes through in explosive works which O’Flynn refers to as “re-pop”. The iterations included in Gnomon – It Matters and It’s Possible – are detonations of simulacra. They reference a world beyond the Timekeepers – although these characters can see it coming. Perhaps they’ve even seen it before, but they’re keeping mum anyway.
Existing in opposing tension to these are two works, in which O’Flynn takes a few moments to pause. Reset, reload, replay and Reflect, rewire, reshape, each depicting a hand with fingers crossed in the typical hope-against-hope gesture. These works grit their teeth and assume the brace position against their volatile counterparts, but their titles also suggest counsel for a way forward. Reiterating the pensive turn in O’Flynn’s practice is Timekeeper 78. With a Magdalene-like way about her, she has very few marks on her body, save for the 1895 poem, If, by Rudyard Kipling[i], which is written along her arms. The poem has been subsumed in collective culture as age-old guidance for how best to navigate a maddening world. In O’Flynn’s portrait, however, it lacks its last line. Ending simply with, “And – which is more –”, the poem cracks the shackles of Victorian-era stoicism and is left wide open. In turn, this opens the series up to an additional role as gatekeepers of multiplicity in the future.
O’Flynn doffs his cap to multiplicity and flux with We Come in Peace, an ongoing endeavour featuring an immediately recognisable UFO symbol, which appears ominously like a brand logo. Part street art project, O’Flynn has painted his UFO on walls in London, Italy, India, Nigeria and South Africa. The symbol also makes its way onto gallery walls in works on canvas and glass. The project is soon to make an appearance in Woodstock at Side Street Studios, where O’Flynn is based. Currently going up opposite the studios is WEX1, a monstrous 9-storey block of what the developers have called ‘strategically desirable’ apartments. Residential is the next generation of development in Woodstock, and no doubt is subject to the next generation of the complexities that mark gentrification in the area. The multi-racial mix-and-match community that has long occupied Woodstock is gradually being uprooted and replaced by the coolest of folks. With apartments currently going for upward of R1,4 million a pop at WEX1 (and a bicycle thrown in if you don’t want to buy a parking space as well) the occupants are sure to be imported from elsewhere in the city. Against this backdrop, the facing building is a perfect fit for O’Flynn’s mural project. O’Flynn describes it as a maxim of power relations: history (as well as everyday life) is governed by tides of shifting influence, one culture continually displacing another by means of subversion and assimilation. It’s not a negative comment, he insists, but an acknowledgment of change as the reigning constant.
Lately O’Flynn has also deftly returned to sculptural forms that he last engaged with in the early 2000s. In Gnomon, this manifests via an installation of rounded fertility-god-like figures, aptly made from a mash-up of historical materials, such as Carrara marble that O’Flynn collected in Tuscany, and contemporary modes, such as 3D printing. A group of smaller figures stands facing a larger one, with directional shadows painted onto the glossy surface of the installation as if the sun was shining behind the master character. The installation is quiet and reverent without being twee, a meditation on time that broadens the contemplative potential introduced in O’Flynn’s recent work. As remnants of a culture that has been obliterated – our own – these figures look both back and forward, containing in their voluptuousness the seeds of hope.
[i] Kipling’s full poem reads as follows:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!