Columns | Ireland at Venice


Niamh O’Malley, studio, spring 2021, TBG+S; image courtesy the artist. Niamh O’Malley, studio, spring 2021, TBG+S; image courtesy the artist.

It’s mid-March and I am grabbing time to write in our split-shift household of home-school and work. I’m sending optimistic emails about visits to production locations in May and periodically walking through a sketch-up of the Irish Pavilion in Venice. A venture such as this would normally have begun with a site visit. Fortunately, I took a brief trip to Venice to see the previous biennale in November 2019 and I am relying on that and these virtual renderings to locate myself, my thoughts and plans.

Exhibition making is partly physical problem-solving. The Arsenale space, which has housed the Irish pavilion in recent years, is on a threshold from long interior corridor to exit space, the directional flow of traffic dictated by its architecture. It’s a space of dense brickwork, an elaborate wooden ceiling, echoed and repeated forms of stone, glass and metal arches. It’s a space of heightened visual noise, which draws you into the light – the allure of the windows, exits and air. The exhibition I make will experience a very different kind of cultural pressure in Venice – the pressure of accumulation, of distraction, and of the exit.

I do still have some access to my studio at TBG+S, which is thankfully within walking distance of my home.  My way of working belongs in a studio and I Iove this beautiful room. If anyone could actually visit, they would see numerous templates and shapes have been cut from card and paper, and rest in early compositions on the wall and ground. There are stacks of vertical steel posts and piles of wooden blocks, some from pre-existing works and others migrating as props, measures and prototypes for potential forms. Slivers of coloured and textured glass have been shaped, cut, sanded and wrapped in copper foil. Some are soldered and patina-ed and balanced on the head of a nail. They hold the light against the wall. There are a lot of annotated pages. Some are simply words and sentences; others scrawls and notations – memos to self. Sometimes there is music, an audio book or podcast, but mostly silence in the ghost-town that is now Temple Bar. It can all seem so solitary, yet this is just the prelude. 

I try really hard to keep the laptop shut in the studio, but truthfully, any event of this scale relies on a team of talented and committed people and I would be nowhere without the influx of conversations, requests and deadlines. There is the designer, Alex, who is helping us conjure a visual identity for Ireland at Venice 2022, and a wonderful PR team, who understand how we are trying to speak through this project. Dragana already captured our images in those brief autumnal days, when we were allowed to share spaces at a distance. I have worked with Flan, cabinetmaker, for many years now and there is a stream of WhatsApp images of rebates, joints and subtle shifts in curvature to be decided upon. These early drawings will definitely need an engineer’s eye before I am finally ready to let them go to Tom, the steel marvel. Pat, my glass supplier in Cavan, is concerned with the new lead times for orders and wants to be sure I have what I need. Saskia, who will help me shoot some new video footage, has just sent a diagram of our intended location, showing how sunlight shifts over the course of a day. 

When restrictions ease, I urgently need to visit a workshop in the midlands to fully understand the limitations and possibilities of a newish material I am planning to use. I have been composing letters to writers I truly admire, hoping they may contribute to a beautiful book we plan to make. There are institutions, large and small, who are supporting us with funding, without which, this project would simply not be possible. And mostly, there are my two fellow travellers, friends and allies, Clíodhna and Michael, who readily listen, support and work so very hard to make this all real, imagining with me what we can make happen. Just imagine being in Venice and making this happen.

Niamh O’Malley will represent Ireland at the 59th Venice Biennale in 2022, with an exhibition curated by the team at TBG+S.