O, to have a little house!
To own the hearth and stool and all!
The heaped up sods upon the fire,
The pile of turf against the wall!
– Padraic Colum, An Old Woman of the Roads
Location is everything for Michelle Malone’s first solo exhibition. Her multidisciplinary practice draws on her own personal experiences and those of her extended family, growing up in social housing in Dublin’s inner-city. The LAB is tucked away behind Talbot Street in the historic heart of the city, its modern custom-built gallery space a sharp contrast to the old Georgian Quarter where the tenements once stood. Turning the corner, passers-by are ambushed by a large cut-out of a familiar statue. It is a representation on a grand scale of the Child of Prague – a religious icon traditionally put outside by Irish mothers for good luck and sunshine on wedding days. The colour and absurd size echo the appearance of a shop window display, but the sturdy plywood cut-out holds a poignant sense of human absence that subverts any advertising potential.
Malone’s installation in the main gallery space is angled towards the enormous windows and is presented to the public in the form of two ‘rooms’. The ‘good room’ is complete with a familiar 1970s carpet with a pattern of brown swirly leaves; there is a staircase with the same carpet, while a large tapestry of a domestic interior hangs on the wall. The ‘garden room’ contains a matching tapestry and newly dug soil, suggesting the possibilities of a garden or vegetable plot. A pile of neatly folded tea towels sits on a cosy wooden chair. The optimum view from the street outside brings to mind a stage set for a Seán O’Casey play.
Upon entering the gallery, visitors walk around the installation as the ‘rooms’ have their back to the white walls, and seemingly force us to almost press against the windows or walk across the freshly laid carpet. This smell evokes strong memories of the excitement of moving house. A woman’s voice recites the poem An Old Woman of the Roads by Padraic Colum, evocative of family parties, where everyone prepared a ‘party piece’ to entertain relatives and friends.
In a witty refusal of the white cube, the upstairs gallery space has floor-to-ceiling white net curtains. This traditionally gendered domestic space shows pride in a new home, through the carefully chosen furniture, the chair and the dresser with matching blue and white delftware. Visitors discover that the installation is in fact a personal interrogation of home. The artist’s grandmother moved from the tenements to the inner-city flats and eventually to her own home in Finglas. The artist found photographs in her grandmother’s archive of the interior of the new house. In a clever appropriation, Malone has reproduced these photographs as tapestries.
The focal point of the exhibition is the staircase. In the tenements, where large families often shared one room, the staircase was an important place to have private conversations. This habit of sitting on the stairs to chat is central to the action in Malone’s installation. A sense of community through suggested conversation is inherent in the staircase, emphasising the disenfranchised voice. Here, the women do all the talking.
The back gallery space screens an RTÉ documentary about the move from Dublin’s tenements into the suburbs. A young woman with a buggy is pleased that her children sleep much better in the peaceful suburbs. According to the exhibition press release, Malone aims to “enter authentic working-class symbolism into the (artistic) canon” (dublincityartsoffice.ie). Indeed, we find plenty of symbolism here, from the materiality of the swirling carpets to the giant Child of Prague. By including personal narratives, Malone goes beyond stereotypes of the witty working-class Dubliner (courtesy of writers like Roddy Doyle) to bring an intimate and embodied understanding of the working-class experience to new audiences.
Beatrice O’Connell is a multidisciplinary artist based in Dublin.