The Irish artist Niamh O’Malley (b.1975) FIG. 1 works with a variety of materials, which she often brings together to create uncanny configurations and arrangements. Hooks, handles, shelves, bannisters and screens FIG. 2 feature consistently in her recent practice. Through an analysis and negotiation of sculptural forms and surface, the viewer is invited to move around, look, re-look, zoom in, zoom out, consider and reconsider. The work often untangles familiar forms and ideas of function only to immediately re-entangle them. As a result, what unfurls for the viewer is a material inquiry without dogma, an invitation to continue such an analysis through looking and memory. O’Malley’s contemplative sculptures of stone, glass, wood, LED screens and metal stands gesture towards enabling, offering protection and shelter; they create a space for communal and relational haptic sensations. The artist and writer Frank Wasser interviewed O’Malley ahead of the Venice Biennale 2022, where she will represent Ireland with an exhibition titled Gather.
Frank Wasser (FW): It’s tricky when we start to impose one language on top of another – for example, words on top of a visual vocabulary. Perhaps this has something to do with the process of translation, which might be best summed up by the old Italian phrase traduttore, traditore (the translator is a traitor). With this in mind, I often think of works of art as invitations. So, to begin, can you tell me what invitation comes with this body of work?
Niamh O’Malley (NOM): The work invites communality and movement. It’s both a lure and demand for touch, encounter and occupancy, for grabbing, holding and caressing surfaces, offering a moment of tether and precarious poise.
FW: I’ve also been thinking a lot about glass as a sculptural component in your practice FIG. 3. Archaeologists have suggested that glassmaking may date as far back as 3600 BC in Mesopotamia, Egypt and Syria. The earliest known glass objects are beads, what is unclear, however, is whether these were made by hand or perhaps created accidentally during metalworking or, centuries later, the production of faience, a glaze used on decorative tin vessels. Glass holds an ambiguous status not only in its provenance but also in its form and function – at times its capacity to function is based upon its invisibility. You’ve been using glass in your work for a while now, capitalising on its transparency and liquidity in order to invite the viewer to contemplate landscape, architecture and human bodies through framing and reflexivity, as seen in the two-channel video Glasshouse and the double-sided painted glass piece Window FIG. 4. The slippage between binaries of function and functionless, use and uselessness seems to manifest in an almost rhizomatic fashion in your work. As you come to installing Gather at the Venice Biennale, I was wondering, what is the starting point of this body of work, or whether, indeed there ever is a starting point?
NOM: I don’t necessarily feel like there is a stop and a start. I was walking to the studio yesterday morning thinking about something I wanted to make. Or is this the next thing I will make? That is to say, it seems like one thing triggers another and it’s a question-and-answer process; as you’re producing things, it pulls up other queries. And there are lots of other layers to that, for example the space that the work is going into and the context. So, there is a continuum of inquiry. In relation to glass, I first picked up a piece because I wanted to film through it. My plan was for the painted outline of a rectangle to float in front of the camera lens. I didn’t think too much about that slice of glass itself – a 2 millimetre sheet for picture framing that lay about the studio – until I began to shoot. Suddenly its surface-ness became omnipresent, as every finger mark, minute insect and piece of dust clung to it. This sliver of translucency, a conventional component and device of architectural visibility, was by no means invisible. This prompted me to think of glass as a ‘thing’ and it later evolved as a component of future works.
FW: You mention that context plays a role in how your work evolves. Many of the spaces at the Venice Biennale are challenging because there’s limitations on how artists can alter the space, due to awkward architecture and protected buildings. In addition, for the visitor, there’s just so much to see. By the time they reach the Irish pavilion, which is situated about halfway round the Arsenale, they’re likely to be a bit overwhelmed. Is this something that you take into consideration at all?
NOM: It is a difficult space because yes, the audience might be exhausted by the time they get there. But it’s also the first place you come to where you can see the water and daylight. It’s quite a complicated space; it’s very porous, like the outside is coming in. I have been conscious of that but I’m not letting it lead the work. Although, I do want to produce a situation that will actively hold people in the space.
FW: Can you tell me about Drain FIG. 5 FIG. 6, which is part of Gather?
NOM: Drain is a set of three shaped pieces of limestone scored with deep linear apertures that sits on the floor and curves towards the window of the pavilion. The stone comes from a quarry, which I made a film about in 2011. In Quarry FIG. 7 a series of textured and coloured glass filters and black surfaces were placed in front of the camera, onsite, to physically intrude upon, distort and finally reveal the sharpness of the cut white limestone. There is a stripping away – or a slow reveal – of altered surfaces. From my time making this film I knew the workings of the quarry and the employees there are so knowledgeable that they were able to find this fossil limestone for me. They told me ‘we have you some good cockle!’. They have been fantastic to work with, even producing a specialised router for the job.
FW: There’s something about this potent contradiction that often occurs in your work – for example, a drain made of brittle material – which reminds me of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s ideas of territorialisation and deterritorialisation.1 They describe deterritorialisation as the process by which a social relation, which they call a territory, has its immediate and recognisable organisation and context altered, mutated or destroyed. That is, these things look functional, but we know that they’re not because of the substances and materials they’re composed of. Thinking about materials, and specifically of the fossil in Drain, how important is the provenance of these materials in the making or the gathering that’s involved in the work for Venice?
NOM: I’ve just received the essays for the book that accompanies the exhibition, which includes writing by myself, Lizzie Lloyd, Brian Dillon and Eimear McBride. Dillon writes about the glass in some of the works, for example Shelf FIG. 8 and Gather FIG. 9, and it seemed important to him to find out the names of the different glasses. I was interested when reading it because I knew that one glass was called Autumn Leaf, but not that the other is called Everglade. Anyway, to answer your question, I once made a film about the Humber Bridge titled Bridge (2010) and, of course, I read all about it and knew how long it was and so on, but then I completely forgot that information and it ended up having no relevance in terms of what I made. What was important was how it sat in the landscape and reframed the entire physical locality. So, I guess what I’m saying is there is a process of finding the right thing but it might be based more in material research than a gathering or relaying of facts and figures. When I made Drain I really wanted to make the drain out of limestone. Limestone is a sedimentary rock, which is completely porous and easily damaged; it speaks of water running through it, of the sea, of weight and compression. It was exactly the right material by being the wrong material. It wouldn’t last long if it had to actually function as a drain.
FW: Moving Image has always featured very heavily in your practice, are there moving image works in the Venice exhibition?
NOM: Yes, there are two moving image works: Vent FIG. 10 and Hooded Crow. And if there’s any starting point to the whole show, it would be the bird in Hooded Crow. Vent fills an entire LED screen with a single, looped movement of flapping louvres, opening and closing, resembling the process of breathing. Hooded Crow is a short loop of a bird sipping water from a pond, it methodically raises its head to the sky so the water can trickle down its throat. It was something I filmed in a very small urban garden in north inner-city Dublin during lockdown. I had dug out a small pond with my son and husband, which this bird came to drink in. In post-production I’ve tracked the beak of the bird so that the whole image shifts across the screen in relation to its movement. The process of digging this pond made me think about broader ideas of producing a space, how it’s a dynamic and hopefully generous act, and similar in this sense to how I would like the exhibition space in Venice to function.
FW: Last September I was walking around Art Basel and I remember being quite struck by the abundance of Donald Judd sculptures, which were all around two metres wide and two metres distance from other works. While, of course, an art fair is a very particular context, what could well have been a fiction occurred to me, which is that this might have something to do with the very recent changes in how space is considered and determined. Has the pandemic impacted on your practice in a way that you feel is tangible?
NOM: Yes. I mean, I do think we’ll figure this out in a few years’ time. Won’t we? Maybe.
NOM: But, you know, it’s all very close and still very present. I find it difficult to title things, but I came up with Gather and it just felt right for now. It’s kind of an invitation: gather, gather here. It’s also a call to action, like a protest. The idea of a crowd has changed, it has become something different, obviously in our sense of any kind of communal experience and then there’s also this real urge to be able to physically bump up against people.