Between a Bucket of Water and a Cup of Coffee
Two men sit at a table, sipping coffee and talking fitfully about art. The man on the right is thoughtful and anxious, wondering aloud what art is and whether he can legitimately call himself an artist. The man on the left, a more sceptical and irreverent character who has, apparently, little interest in either of those questions, tries at first to reassure his companion but soon loses patience and finally throws a glass of water in his face. The man on the right is Daniel Devlin. The man on the left is also Daniel Devlin. And in this video, Conversation, we see three of the hallmarks of Devlin’s work. One is coffee, which serves as a sign of conviviality and sensuous pleasure—of the kinds of gratification that, unlike the more rarefied pleasures of contemporary art, can always be counted on. Another is the splashing; in Devlin’s work, the glass or bucket of water is like Chekhov’s proverbial pistol: if it is introduced in the first act, someone, often the artist, is bound to get a soaking in the third. Finally, this video, like so many of Devlin’s pieces, features the artist himself, who acts as both agent provocateur and fall guy in an art work that queries its own merits.
Let me describe Gatanje, another video by Devlin. Again, two figures are seated at a table, drinking coffee. One of them is the Devlin himself, who is conversing in Serbo-Croat with a middle-aged woman. It soon becomes clear that the woman is a fortune-teller who will shortly try to read the artist’s future in his coffee dregs. When she asks him what he wants to know, he says he is wondering whether he will be successful as an artist—or should he just give up?
After a little gentle banter to the accompaniment of cawing seagulls in the background, the two finish their coffee and the woman examines the patterns formed by the dregs at the bottom of the artist’s cup. First she sees an ostrich, later a dinosaur; and as she disserts encouragingly on his future, it slowly dawns on the viewer that Devlin, while expressing doubt about his prospects as an artist, has quietly staged in the video something akin to the creation of a drawing or painting. After all, images appear in the bottom of the cup and the fortune-teller, who expertly interprets those images, looking for hidden truths, is in some (hilarious, outrageous) sense a stand-in for the critic.
So a work of art, or at least a set of images, emerges here, not through the artist’s talent or enterprise, but randomly, triggered by his anxiety.
As he appears in his own work, Devlin is always both a brazen self-publicist and a reluctant, doubting, apologetic artist. And his works are at once sober pieces that adopt the protocols of the documentary or the home video and shaggy-dog stories that occasionally lapse into a kind of existential farce. Devlin is a post-modern naïf, always working to recapture the lost dignity of the art object but never quite knowing where to look for it. His canvas is his own vocation and he turns it into a tragic-comic narrative with an uncertain ending.