EAMON O’KANE WRITES ABOUT THE PROGRESSION OF HIS CAREER OVER THE LAST 10 YEARS.
In 2005, I wrote an article for the VAN titled ‘Constant Production and Exposure’, which outlined my career trajectory up to that point (eamonokane.com). At that time, I was living in Bristol and was a lecturer in Fine Art at the University of the West of England. Myself and four others had set up an artist-run gallery space called LOT, which ran for one year and involved an ambitious and dynamic programme.
For the exhibition I curated with LOT, titled ‘REMOTE’, I asked all of the artists in the show to send me instructions, drawings and photographs for projects by post or email, and I then carried out those projects in the space. The idea occurred out of necessity, as we didn’t have any core funding at that time, and out of an interest in Sol Lewitt’s instruction-based work. I was interested in seeing what would happen in the process of translation from idea/instruction to artwork. I translated instructions for wall-and-window-based artworks from artists such as David Shrigley, Katie Holten, Niamh O’Malley, Garret Phelan, David Sherry, Liam O’Callaghan, Sophia Gref, John Beattie and Joel Croxson.
The following year I undertook a six-month residency at the British School at Rome, and I produced works for solo exhibitions in Baden Baden and Berlin and at Draíocht in Dublin. Residencies have always proved to be important for me, and I have been reaping the benefits of the residency in Rome ever since. I returned to full-time teaching in Bristol for one year but then took the difficult decision to leave my job as a senior lecturer there and move to Denmark with my family in order to take up a residency in my wife’s hometown of Odense. I also undertook a three-month residency at Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris in the spring of 2008, where I produced works for solo exhibitions in New York and Berlin and a series of solo exhibitions in the UK.
It was during the residency in Odense that I began my engagement with the legacy of Freidrich Fröbel, the inventor of the Kindergarten. My wife had borrowed a book from the local public library for me titled An Eames Primer, written by Eames Demetrios, grandson of Charles and Ray Eames. I not only discovered that Charles Eames was expelled from studying architecture for his loyalty to the vision of Frank Lloyd Wright but also that, like Wright, Eames had studied in an original Kindergarten in the USA. In addition, the book outlined how Charles Eames’s grandfather Henry had emigrated from Limerick to America in the 1800s. This gave me the idea for an artwork that would reconnect Eames with Limerick, where I had lived for a year in 2000–2001.
I began with the idea of constructing a two-room walk-in model, a hybrid of the Eames house and studio, and using one of the rooms for a series of works based on the connections between Eames, Lloyd Wright and Fröbel. I also managed to get permission to screen the films of Charles and Ray Eames within the installation. The other smaller room became an interactive space where Fröbel gifts were accessible alongside objects designed by Eames and others as well as furniture designed by myself.
I found that providing access to the Eames films alongside this interactive ‘play area’ had many surprising consequences. Children and adults embarked on parallel journeys of discovery and shared experiences. Given the rich and varied histories, contexts and approaches referenced by the Eames films and the open-endedness of the interactive Fröbel studio, the participants were able to investigate complex questions around the advent of computing, human mortality and the origins of the universe. The work became a foundation for my subsequent interactive installations (1).
Another project, which has developed and taken many forms, began in 2007 when I was preparing work for a solo exhibition at the newly built RCC Art Centre in Letterkenny. ‘The House and the Tree’ featured a reconstruction of an original part of my parents’ house that was demolished half a century ago, and it also included a film of derelict vernacular architecture from the county, augmented by audio recordings of Sean-fhocail (Gaelic proverbs). A sycamore tree, under which King James II dined, was blown down in a storm in 1999. The cut-up fragments of the tree formed the centerpiece of the show, along with a large wall drawing of the tree itself. I had previously used charcoal to make wall drawings of trees, but this was the first time where the burnt tree, the wall drawing and the fragments of wood were exhibited side by side.
The project turned into a touring exhibition with the works evolving and changing as they moved from venue to venue. At the time I was developing The Eames Studio Limerick, I was also working in Bristol with a local carpenter to transform the sycamore tree into a seventeenth-century-style table and chairs, similar to those used by James II. I approached an installation of the exhibition at Plan 9 in Bristol in much the same way that I would approach a period of research in my studio. My intention was to work directly with the material and not from any preconceptions about how the show was to be installed prior to the four days of installation. I kept all the waste wood from the process, worked with these wooden fragments in the space for four days and eventually settled on laying the fragments out over the floor.
In 2009, I used the replica furniture to stage a re-enactment of James II’s meal at ArtSway in the New Forest. Again, I intentionally took an improvised approach to how the artwork should evolve. Using the seventeenth-century-style furniture produced in Bristol, I directed the reenactment, which was performed by the English Civil War Reenactment Society. This took place at two sites in the New Forest on 19 April, almost 320 years to the day from the actual event. I gave the re-enactors a brief synopsis of the background history and asked them to improvise the roles they were given. The film was shot in one take and then edited. The furniture was installed in the gallery space with the video documentation of the reenactment. This was connected to another re-enactment, which took place on the same day, of a hunt led by James II, who was the last king to hunt in the New Forest. I was interested in connecting the two places using the fact that James II had visited both.
The exhibition came back to Ireland in 2010 for my solo show ‘The Twentieth Of April Sixteen Eighty Nine’ at the Crawford Municipal Gallery in Cork, while at the same time Fröbel Studio was shown in an exhibition titled ‘School Days: The Look of Learning’ at the city’s Lewis Glucksman Gallery. Works from both exhibitions were included in Dublin Contemporary 2011. Installing two apparently unrelated installations in the same exhibition caused me to reflect on the connections between them, and this led me to a new body of work dealing with entropy and carbon. The most recent work related to this is titled wood archive and is currently on show at the Vigeland Museum in Oslo as part of the Norwegian Sculpture Biennale.
Another body of work that explores ideas around entropy relates to the plant nursery complex outside Odense that I bought in 2009. The greenhouses (6,000 square metres in size) were in use up until the day we took it over, and I have been documenting its steady decay since then. Surveying the buildings in those first weeks, I became aware of the various work processes involved in maintaining and running a ‘controlled horticultural environment’. The architecture and design facilitated the most efficient use of the space for plant growing with minimal staffing. Every inch of space was used, and an elaborate system of huge rolling tables enabled access to all the plants. These were ingeniously built using various off-the-shelf components from a standard building-supply warehouse: concrete drainage pipes used as support pillars, steel piping for the rolling mechanism and then the large plastic table with aluminium frames.
Long concrete paths connected all of the spaces from the greenhouses themselves to the potting room, with its huge soil-spitting monster of a machine, to the canteen, the packing room and the loading bays. Large trollies were used to transfer plants from space to space, and the elaborate watering system consisted of thousands of plastic pipes supplying water from the mains as well as a groundwater well and a huge rainwater catcher.
The process of adapting this complex into working artists’ studios began the day we took it over. The setup was curiously compatible with the needs of a studio: spacious buildings of various sizes and heights with good access to one another. Many of the tools and materials also found a new life: plastic for packing artworks, plant pots for mixing paints, extension cables, lighting, pallet trucks, and so on. Thousands of smashed-up concrete pipes were used to fill in an unwanted pond, while the metal transport trollies were used to build moveable walls and a huge stainless steel table was used in setting up an etching workshop. All decisions followed a particular logic and felt like a series of Chinese whispers between the buildings themselves. Throughout this process, I felt the ghostly presence of those who had built and worked in the buildings.
Working at this site over the last six years, I have slowly begun trying to trace my own logic. The artworks I’ve produced here have been largely lens and installation based. An interesting element of these mediums is that, although there are iterations, the works are never finished, or at least their completion is suspended until the site has fully returned to nature or I have expired – whichever comes first. I am developing this work for a major solo show at the Butler Gallery in Kilkenny in 2017, and I am using images taken at the site for solo exhibitions that will take place in the USA, Germany and Denmark in 2016–2017.
Note: The Fröbel Studio has been shown in New York, L.A., Quimper, Dublin and Norwich, and it has recently toured Ireland with support from the Arts Council Touring Scheme in a series of solo exhibitions curated by Linda Shevlin, starting at Roscommon Arts Centre and then travelling to Riverbank Arts Centre, Galway Arts Centre and, most recently, The Model in Sligo.
Images left to right: Eamon O’Kane. Black Mirror Building 1 (Case Study House), 2014, acrylic on canvas, 150 x 200cm; Eamon O’Kane, ‘Twentieth of April Sixteen Eighty Nine’ installation view.