By spending so much time at home over the past two years, many of us have become aware of our immediate world in a way that would be familiar to artists and philosophers. Without the distractions of late nights, vacations, or even daily commutes to work, we had the space to really notice the things around us.
Given time and concentration of thought, the shadows on the walls, the twilight of corners, the elegant lines of a shelf, the way the wind plays on grasses and leaves can all lead us to understand and to feel more richly the experience of being in the world.
Gaston Bachelard wrote an entire book about it. His Poetics of Space was first published in English in the 1960s and is still enthusiastically rediscovered year after year by art students becoming familiar with the practice of deep seeing. Bachelard touches on everything, from nests to chests of drawers, from attics to cellars. Irish artist Niamh O’Malley does something similar, but instead of words she uses glass, metal, wood, film and photography. Later this month, she will represent Ireland at the Venice Biennale, the seven-month event often described as the Olympics of the art world.
Those who have never been to the Venice Biennale may be wondering what it’s all about, but with 80 countries hosting exhibitions and a host of prestigious curators, critics and museum directors in attendance, the selection can define a career. It is also an opportunity for art lovers to stroll through the extraordinary and often bizarre Giardini, a Napoleonic pleasure garden, in which different countries built national pavilions, reflecting what they obviously thought the make it look good at the time. So while the Nordic pavilion is still stylishly Scandi, with trees growing through the roof; the US house looks a bit tired and colonial these days.
This year, the Russian pavilion will remain empty; the artists and curator, Kirill Savchenkov, Alexandra Sukhareva and Raimundas Malasauskas, having resigned in response to the invasion of Ukraine. Pavlo Makov will represent Ukraine, with a work called The Fountain of Exhaustion, which will be installed, like O’Malley’s Gather, in the Arsenale, the network of former shipyards and armories, some of which date back to the 12th century.
When I meet O’Malley one sunny morning at the Temple Bar Gallery, the Russian invasion has not yet begun. Elements of Gather have just been crated for transport to Venice, and O’Malley’s studio appears to be awash in the delicate lush greenery of a springtime garden. It’s odd, because we’re actually surrounded by a range of typical, most non-gardener like studio trash. There are bookshelves, wood, glass and metal samples, reference photos and drawings, computers, wiring, a portable heater (no studio is complete without one) and the inevitable kettle and coffee maker.
But there’s also something about the way the light hits the various plants O’Malley has in pots along the generous windows that seem to amplify the greens of some sketches, and are reflected in panels of glass of different colors. leaning against a wall. After a while, I realize that the source of the feeling is not the potted plants, or the colors of various emerald elements, but a movie, playing in a loop on a small vertical LED screen, leaning against the wide window sill. Hooded Crow follows a large black bird plunging its beak into a small garden pond. It’s gently bewitching. The wild bird is absorbed in its activity, nodding to the water, as if praying. But there’s something about the outline of the stones around the pond that lets you know this is a domestic space – so there’s a tasty sense of out of place and out of place about it all.
The pond is in O’Malley’s back garden. It was one of those lockdown projects, undertaken by the artist and his family, to emphasize those drifting days when you were lucky if you could retain a sense of purpose, even if your main goal – to keep your loved ones healthy and happy (or at least semi-sane) – was tough enough.
“We have a very small garden downtown,” says O’Malley. “And I decided to dig a hole. Remember we had that great weather? So we dug this hole and made a pond, and then some kind of beautiful thing happened, as loads of birds came. I sat there drawing them with my son. Then I filmed them, and it ended up having a real impact on the terrain of Venice, and everything that came out of it.
Born in Mayo, O’Malley remembers the locked-in presence of those days. “Everyone felt it, but being in the city especially, when we ended up not being able to travel at all… It was tough.”
She describes the digging process and how more material seems to come out of the hole than should have gone in; and digging up stones and broken pottery, and arranging them with his son, giving them a sense of order. “It made me think about how we create spaces, what is useful and what you do when you can’t do anything… You dig a hole, and by digging a hole, you make a mountain” , she laughs.
“You’re always doing something,” she continues. ” Is not it ? And then you wonder about the logic of what you’re doing: whether it’s work or whether it’s just time spent. And you watch where your attention is drawn. I think it’s very similar to doing shows. You ask: what am I doing? I make room.
As we speak, I wonder if the things that kind of deep attention draws to us work on us, even if we are not aware of them. In other words, do O’Malley’s art and Bachelard’s writing enrich our lives by adding to our sense of the world? Or does it simply call attention to things that we know are there, but have not yet realized as fully formed thoughts? Is it about noticing or creating?
“It’s probably a bit of both,” O’Malley said, after a pause. “I mean, there’s some stuff that came walking around town, that definitely influenced the show, but I wasn’t walking around town to find a show. You can’t ignore the gestation of a show, but that doesn’t mean it can’t talk outside of it.
She shows me another video work, Wind, which is one of those works of art that at first seems light, but you can’t quite tear your eyes off – or your mind. A square air vent, a little grainy and very gray, its flaps activating, then calming down either by gusts of wind or by the turning on of an invisible power source. There’s a lovely liveliness to it, and it strikes me as a gateway to epic delight in the small, the mundane, the otherwise overlooked.
It’s also a gateway to some of O’Malley’s perhaps most obscure works. Obscure art, or rather art that doesn’t wear its meaning on its sleeve, sometimes gets a bad rap. We don’t seem to care too much when literature becomes elliptical. Think how revered James Joyce is. Then there is the elusive text that Eimear McBride wrote to accompany O’Malley’s exhibition, hinting at further suggestions for new ways of seeing and thinking. As we progress through Gather – the steel, wood and glass works have names such as Shelter, Holds, Covers, Double Canopy – we see everyday things made strange by the eye of O’ Malley.
Take a closer look though, and you see that the weirdness is actually a reduction to the essence. Holds is a selection of beech and steel supports, sculpted into a satisfying tall form that supports its weight lightly, while reaching and through the roof. The shelter is just that – a curved steel and glass canopy, small patches of green glass imitating leaves.
Exhibiting successfully at the Venice Biennale is partly due to the necessary skill and vision of the artist and curators, but also to a great deal of luck. You reach the Irish Pavilion (it’s actually a room, one of a series of spaces) after navigating through the huge main exhibition of the Arsenale, and past a number of other national flags. As such, you have no prior knowledge of what awaits you. A quieter, more thoughtful show can be presented perfectly if the visitor has just experienced a more cacophonous presentation, or it can fade away. Even the most wonderful art can depend on the background music of what surrounds it.
“I like tough spaces, actually,” O’Malley says. “Because they force you to approach them, and it impacts work.” She cites her exhibitions at the Royal Hibernian Academy in 2019 and the Douglas Hyde in 2017 – another notoriously delicate space due to its scale and proportions: “I loved it. Everything was singing…” In Venice, visitors will have just passed through the Oman pavilion. “It’s a big collective program with two sound works, that’s all we know,” she laughs. “But you don’t want to do something pompous, like shouting louder will make you heard. Well, I don’t.
As she ponders the idea of carving out space and shelter for herself, how storing things on a shelf can be akin to painting and creating works of art that breathe strangeness and familiarity, I begin to re-examine everyday objects around me through new eyes, and I feel better about it. “It’s a weird moment,” O’Malley concludes. “It really is, but being in a room with art is all we can offer in a way. And that’s a lot, actually.
Niamh O’Malley, Gather, is curated by Clíodhna Shaffrey and Michael Hill of Temple Bar Gallery + Studios. The Venice Biennale runs from April 23 to November 27, labiennale.org, irelandatvenice2022.ie. Following its presentation in Venice, Gather will tour The Model, Sligo; Temple Bar Gallery, Dublin and Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast.