The Lie of the Land

Sirius Arts Centre, Cork

By Pádraig Spillane

The Lie of the Land explores the proposal of a ‘certain Irish aesthetic’[1] with materials and structures found in the Irish landscape considered through creative strategies. The exhibition investigates objects found in the Irish terrain and is an elucidation on times past, deserted dwellings, social activities and movements. In some regards, it may be reasonable to think that we may already know what an exhibition concerning items in the Irish landscape might look or feel like. Acknowledging this, the exhibition statement makes known its intention to tackle ‘well-trodden arguments around the monument, the ruin and modernity in Irish landscape and architecture...’[2]. Indeed the exhibition title holds a conceit, hinting at the skewing of expectations regarding how we might anticipate an exhibition related to what remains from the past.

Adrian Duncan, Living Room Planner, mixed media installation, 2015

The exhibition is spread over the two galleries of the Sirius Arts Centre: the Centre Gallery and the West Gallery. The Centre Gallery of Sirius Arts Centre contains a selection of photographic works by Kenneth O’Halloran and sculptural objects by Helen Devitt. Numerous rusting 3D objects are lined up on the right hand side of the space. These metal items tilt against a wall and a green tower-like structure takes its place just off-centre within the room. Both framed and unframed photographs of varying sizes are featured on the left and adjacent walls, displaying images of large grey walls that stand straight and loom upwards. The framed pieces are smaller in scale, and appear diminutive compared to the larger unframed image which bursts out, on account of the differing proportions of the works presentation. 

Helen Devitt, Toastal Green, high gloss on found timber, 2014; Helen Devitt, Turning, hand-turned untreated mild steel, 2014; Kenneth O Halloran, Goatenbridge, Co. Tipperary, colour inkjet print, 2013

Devitt’s work Turning is the row of metal objects, seemingly frozen in the effort of slipping and leaning up against the wall. They are a multitude of spring-like objects varying in size, reminiscent of coils found in clothes pegs and scrap metal. They have a fragile despondent quality of something spent, like a match that has been completely consumed. Their empty heads tip ostensibly having lost their balance, yet remain tentatively grounded. Their presence suggests some unknown agricultural activity that was perhaps significant once, but is now superseded. What is of interest however is the reading and analysis of these objects as something tool-like and also as something figurative. For underneath the corroding material and the suggestion of something left to fester, there is something also of the transformative. The impression of something to come is posited in these particular forms beyond the circumstantial leanings and slippages. These objects act like intermediaries[3] - their rusted surfaces and the tangible spatial tensions are not indicative of something old being recycled, but perhaps reflect on something else, something in an act of conversion to a new unknown state.

From his series The Handball Alley, Kenneth O’Halloran’s photographs of unyielding grey walls are documents of disused handball alleys whose presence can still be seen throughout Ireland. The walls stand as monuments, in testimony to the former glory days of social gatherings and vanished sporting activities housed there. The alleys are constructed from large solid rectangular floors overlooked and contained by a large wall with two adjoining smaller walls, forming a U-shaped enclosure. The missing fourth wall enables the entry of a player or players who hit a ball into the alley, rebounding off the internal walls for the game to begin. 

Kenneth O’Halloran, Toor, County Tipperary, pigment print on photo matt fibre paper, 2013

O’Halloran’s range of images reflects the formal plan and structure of these alleys, although none are seemingly the same. They are prominent whether presented in the landscape alone, nestled in townland, or amongst extensive new developments. They share with Devitt’s work a formal architectural sparseness, bringing with them a direct social context - be it one that is diminished. Taking an objective typological approach to image construction, these handball alleys - representative of something redundant - are amplified by O’Halloran’s choice to isolate the sites by centring them within the visual field. O’Halloran allows colour to inform his photographs and highlight the alleys present-day appearance. Greens and greys make muted melancholy points with the featured creepers, weathered stone, and vacant spaces. Although the alleys stand boldly, these structural curiosities have become almost invisible in the landscape; currently used as sometime storage areas for agricultural paraphernalia, or something quite simply disregarded in the built environment., 

O’Halloran’s works are also present in the West Gallery of Sirius Arts Centre in varying framed dimensions and are placed adjacent to photographic works by Jill Quigley. Her images, Cottages of Quigley's Point, consist of bright painted interventions within the dark and grimy interiors of apparently derelict houses in Donegal. Vivid, neon splashes embellish the dark interiors of many of her photographs. Signs of tarnished and provisional domesticity are meddled with by these injections of colour, making allusions to counter-culture habitations and illicit celebrations reminiscent of rave and dance cultures.  The harsh flash of the camera illuminates her intrusion and involvement within the scene, giving light and shade to what seem like mock-ups or pseudo stage sets. Her painting of walls and furniture show a pointed disregard for familial household objects such as wardrobes, soft furnishings, and mantels. Quigley moves us from typical evocations of such abandoned abodes with an irreverent attitude. Blocking doorways with threads, wools and tapes makes this feel possessive, as viscous neon paint acts like ectoplasm - mixing with dust and detritus. 

Jill Quigley, Margaret-Ann’s, colour pigment print on dibond, 2013

Quigley is pushing us out of our comfort zone to assess what potential might lie in an aftermath, emphasised in the displacement and unapologetic alteration of her abandoned houses. Like Quigley’s images, Devitt’s sculptures take us from acknowledging their appearance as something vaguely agricultural and outmoded to visual linkages with the partial figure, and the possibilities of form. Theirs is a place of rupture, of breaking with the environs of the past to allow the introduction of something uncertain. Placed in proximity with O’Halloran’s photographs there is a tension between solemn sensitivity for what has gone before and a satisfaction that such sensitivity is being eroded.

Also in the West Gallery, a row of three young Leylandii trees in ubiquitous black plastic plant pots announce Adrian Duncan’s mixed media work Living Room Planner. Its position lies behind the entrance to the West Gallery. The materials that make up this work are recognisable from the building trade and as such are a measured grouping of items. High on the wall sit pieces of thin wood strips, roughly articulating the outline of a roof. Below this is a grouping of construction materials: trees, glass, concrete slabs, a detail of a blueprint, miniature wooden trusses, an open magazine, and an extended measuring tape. All of these items are placed conditionally on the gallery floor, working outwards from the skirting and wooden panelling of the gallery wall. Within this grouping are two unframed photographs leaning on the gallery’s wooden panelling, one of a tiled domestic threshold, and one featuring a detail of a pavement. The placement and grouping of materials both inhibits and allows investigation; everything is in plain sight but feels assembled for some unidentified user; look but don’t touch. We are to see these items and identify them, but not to physically work with them. Living Room Planner acts as a collection of visual tropes. Although we are not actually physically working with the tape measure or planting a Leylandii tree, what is laid out is the idea of the malleability of our dwellings and the contingency of social constructions that comprise what we may call home. 

The appeal of The Lie of the Land is the contemporary observations and treatments of structures in the Irish landscape, without resorting to idealised recollections. Although such expectations are recognised, what’s presented here is an assembly of work that outwits the easy option frequently employed - where a nostalgic focus often becomes the default position. Cases in point are Quigley’s photographic interventions; whilst apparently naïve, their strange abrasive qualities override our romantic expectations of abandoned Irish dwellings. This is the force of her work and the exhibition as a whole; knowing its entanglements to the past, while proposing to reassess assumptions about our familiar historical and cultural narratives. 

[2]   Ibid.
[3]  Julia Kristeva,The Severed Head: Capital Visions, trans. Jody Gladding, (U.S.A.: Columbia University Press),    57 - 64