Exhibition Profile | Stories Taking Shape

Darren Caffrey considers current exhibitions at VISUAL Carlow.

Tom dePaor, ‘i see Earth’, 2022, installation view, VISUAL; photograph by Ros Kavanagh, courtesy the artist, the Irish Architecture Foundation, and VISUAL. Tom dePaor, ‘i see Earth’, 2022, installation view, VISUAL; photograph by Ros Kavanagh, courtesy the artist, the Irish Architecture Foundation, and VISUAL.

Three dynamic installations continue at VISUAL, Carlow, until 22 May. ‘i see Earth’ is a cumulative exhibit of works by renowned Irish architect, Tom dePaor. Looking back at some of dePaor’s celebrated projects over the past three decades, we can see his manner of creative solutions and exact appreciation for detail. With a catalogue that includes the stylish and functional Pálás Cinema in Galway, and more temporary commissions, like his peat briquette structure for the Irish Pavilion at the 12th International Architecture Biennale in Venice, the accompanying film by artist and long-term collaborator, Peter Maybury, is a rich resource. On Being There (2022) reflects back over notebooks, photographs and footage of dePaor in action, while four hefts of rock, provided as seating, suggest stepping-stones. Both the film and the seating feel natural, with content and context each resolved to suit the shape and character of dePaor’s work.

An epic and immersive multimedia installation occupies the large hall, with Nathalie Weadick of the Irish Architecture Foundation reconfiguring a selection of dePaor’s works. Two large-scale video projections play on opposing walls as a diorama of wire-frame structures hangs or stands upright, cutting into the projected images and rendering these slight forms only partially visible. Each is said to be modelled on the traditional blue and white Willow Pattern motif for ceramics, although this reference is perhaps more of a starting point. The hand-painted finish is perfectly met but within this shifting atmospheric setting, the familiar oriental illustration may not fully translate. Blocked-out windows mean the only consistent light comes from two neon blue cross beams hung in the centre of the space. This makes dePaor’s watercolour works difficult to appreciate whereas the prose poem that is pinned to the wall and tracks all the way around the space is enhanced by the staging. Drawn from the radio exchanges of a Soviet cosmonaut re-entering the earth’s atmosphere, previous, next (2022) delivers a pulsating first-person narrative. When asked what he could see from his spacecraft, Yuri Gagarin replied, “i see Earth” – his words are elaborated here to form a preternatural but no less human story about interactions with space.

In the adjacent gallery, backed by a permanent outdoor water feature, the work of Christopher Steenson is presented under the title ‘Soft Rains Will Come’ – a meteorological forecasting that is supported by photographs of marshlands and variously flooded landscapes. Each of these framed prints hangs facing an arrangement of twelve transistor radios, creating a spatial sound installation that combines live shortwave radio and field recordings to transmit a live broadcast within the gallery space. 

Questions around how we encounter landscape and technology are touched on here – as well as our relationship to receiving and distinguishing intelligence across active networks. When a female voice comes into the mix, speculating on the causes of a catastrophe, the voice seems more self-aware than the fiction supposes. This aspect offered by the oracle is distinct from the chatter of found recordings and highlights the work as a form of storytelling. By engaging the incidental as a feature of the momentous, the radio broadcast effectively communicates the apocalypse from a relatively safe distance, as if it has already occurred. Referencing entropy and failed digital communications, Steenson asks what obsolescence means in the context of recurrent change. His use of the camera to share a contemplative gaze also instructs us to see afresh as we wonder on these Lovecraftian images of Irish boglands. 

There is more fantasy and mythos in One Hundred Steps (2020), a film installation by Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca, co-commissioned by VISUAL and Manifesta 13. The single-channel film and printed carpet were first shown in Marseille in 2020. Following its Irish premier at VISUAL, One Hundred Steps will tour to venues nationwide over the next 18 months. Executed across dual locations, and presented as two distinct but corresponding chapters, the 30-minute film is split between historical buildings in Ireland and France – a seventeenth-century, Anglo-Irish colonial manor, and a nineteenth-century mansion in Marseilles – both open to the public as decorative arts museums.

The film begins with a car pulling up outside. A man and young girl enter the house for a guided tour, before the girl, loosening herself from the man’s grip, slips out for a wander. Soon she finds a miniature doll’s house and a bed where she sleeps to dream, the camera drawing us in through the strings of a standing harp. Throughout the rooms of both houses, visitors reveal themselves as performers. In Marseille, where men sit at a table playing a hand of cards before taking up their drums, there is an allusion to Paul Cézanne’s famous paintings of card players, but there is also a specific musical heritage which traverses any Eurocentric framing. When in a hallway, we meet a lone dancer who steps with rhythm and purpose, it becomes clear that the interpretation of these spaces is about living memory, even as previous narratives remain present.

Inside the walls of each ornately preserved museological setting, cultural traditions strum and jig their way around shared colonial realties, offering roots which, although transitory, are equally if not more established. Presented alongside Bob Quinn’s documentary series, Atlantean – first broadcast in Ireland in 1984 and positing links between Northern African and Celtic cultures through folk practices like song and dance – One Hundred Steps only adds to the story.

Darren Caffrey is an artist, living and working in Kilkenny.