Sadness is an overlooked emotion in contemporary art, but if anything deserves to be called truly sad, it’s Jaki Irvine’s latest film ‘Se compra: Sin é’. Partly, the feeling comes from the powerfully lugubrious music, the gradual building of which is what the Irish artist’s video is all about. Filmed in Mexico City, it begins with lone street traders crying out in plaintive, sing-song voices, announcing their wares for sale. Next, an Irish folk singer and stringed instruments – filmed in the more salubrious environment of a professional recording studio – start up, while subsequent street scenes bring in more sounds. You’ll hear garbage collectors, itinerant knife whetters, steam hissing from mobile plantain ovens, accompanied by a haunting Irish folk ballad. Everything coalesces into a wonderfully immersive, deeply melancholy medley.
But beyond the music itself, there’s also a more profound sadness at work. The street sellers are, after all, hopelessly poor. And while the transformation of their daily routines into a musical score seems to ennoble them in some sense, at the same time it also indicates their lack of agency.
The point is emphasised by the two other works on display: a short video of a hummingbird hovering round a bird feeder, while in the background a man looks after his children, and a photographic installation entitled ‘Shot in Mexico, On the Impossibility of Imagining the Numbers of Dead and Disappeared’, which features butterflies migrating in vast, unquantifiable clouds. In these works, animal behaviour stands as a metaphor for humanity. In the main film, on the other hand, humans themselves are reduced to anonymous individuals whose only function is to act as a component in something larger than themselves – in the desperate, daily grind of city life, or in a musical performance that thus becomes their own, mournful elegy.