Niamh McCann, VISUAL, Carlow, 3 October 2015–3 January 2016
The core work in ‘Just Left of Copernicus’ is a large geodesic structure installed in VISUAL’s main gallery. This is a challenging space, but the work is big enough to successfully withstand compression by the room’s engulfing depth and volume. It is inspired by the work of Buckminster Fuller, a pioneering engineer/designer who patented geodesic building design in 1960 in an effort to achieve cheaper, faster and more efficient home building. McCann’s motivation for making this work seems ostensibly to come from nostalgia for the ‘modern’ period, when civil innovation was understood as a means to better the conditions of man. This ties into her collaboration with Limerick Fab Lab, one of many fabrication laboratories (see also WeCreate and Workbench) providing the public with an environment in which to design, make and construct pretty much whatever they choose.
The logistics of McCann’s dome were devised by architects Séamus Bairéad and Jack Byrne using a neat modular system of bespoke flexible joints and industrially produced cardboard tubes of varying lengths. The design allows the structure to spread into a series of connected domes, which ascend and curl while remaining tectonically weighted to the floor. The making process is foregrounded in its skeletal form and raw, uncoated materials. The palette of soft grey paper and warm plywood is earthy and wholesome in a way that Fuller’s proposed domes never were. Although his visionary designs won him both critical acclaim and notoriety, they were never commercially successful.
On a facing wall, the image of an Aer Lingus air hostess, taken from a 1960s pocket calendar, is rendered in a cheerful nostalgic style. The three-metre-high mural brings to mind the ideal of Lemass’s sparkling and unblemished Ireland, untarnished by the dark memories of industrialisation that haunted other nations.
The post-war zeitgeist that Fuller embodied was one of a desire for atonement, where western society seemed suddenly to discover humanity as a phenomenon worthy of attention. It was a time of social democratisation, of betterment and of innovation, all with the ambition to improve humanity rather than simply advance the cause of capitalism. It was a hunt for heile welt, or an ideal world, where nature, technology, humanity and capital could all exist in harmony.
Viewed holistically McCann’s practice appears to capture, overlap and juxtapose these zeitgeists of the twentieth century. But the very idea of a zeitgeist hinges on the existence of a collective consciousness and a collective memory, which have the potential to be moulded by the ‘spirit’ of the age. By probing and extracting important moments from this collective memory, McCann begins, whether intentionally or not, to fracture its legitimacy and truth. Gramsci identified capitalism’s greatest weapon as cultural hegemony i.e. its ability to give rise to an accepted weltanschauung or single, dominant world view. In the title McCann references Copernicus, who challenged the established and literal worldview of his time, and the German industrial architect Hans Poelzig, who, conversely, was noted for his pragmatic approach. In 1906, Poelzig wrote: “We all too frequently seek to save the emotional content of past epochs, without first thinking what use it is to us”. (1) By lining up Fuller, Copernicus and Poelzig alongside references to the emergence of modern Ireland, McCann emphasises the contested ways in which history is used and calls for a more critical interpretation of its perceived failures.
McCann’s research material is laid out on glass-covered tables and shows a preoccupation with space exploration and engineering. She includes a charming image of Soviet poster boy Yuri Gagarin, photos and maps of lunar landscapes (including the Copernicus Moon Crater), handmade geodesic maquettes, the architect’s sketches for the plywood joints and schematics for the full-scale structure. The earnestness of this material matches the playful nature of the dome and underpins the entire project with a sweet childlike optimism. It brings to mind my own childhood poring over the Junior World Encyclopedia, marvelling at wonders like the Brussels Atomium, Fuller’s Dome for the 1967 World Expo and German spaghetti junctions. But curiously, on a wall opposite the lovely Aer Lingus lady, there is painted a deflated weather balloon that casts a withering chill over the galleries. I couldn’t help but feel that somewhere along the way something went wrong that McCann is trying to put right. In ‘Just Left of Copernicus’ she is both persuasive and captivating, drawing attention to a worthy dream – even if you weren’t born before 1975.
Carissa Farrell is a writer and curator based in Dublin.
Note: Hans Poelzig, Die Dritte Deutsche Ausstellung, 1906
Image: Niamh McCann, ‘Just Left of Copernicus (The Roof of the Story)’ installation view, 2015, VISUAL, Carlow.