The Mobile Museum: Millenium Court Arts Centre, Portadown, N. Ireland

Architecture, known to the Ancient Greeks and many others since as the mother of all arts, is one of the principal means by which societies assert control over the natural world. The means by which nations are literally built, architectural forms may be the most persuasive of all constructions. Buildings can seduce us, as individuals, into their innermost chambers or deter us from even stepping across their threshold. They can present us or hide us, become the means by which we as communities are made or even undone. Their symbolism, physicality, textures, spaciousness, and even their appropriated iconography can pervade a society’s values. From domestic holdings to the sites of judicial agency, architecture contains a representation of all that we hold in highest regard at any given moment. 

Eamon O’Kane – Mobile Museum

 

Art as Spatial Resistance

 

Architecture, known to the Ancient Greeks and many others since as the mother of all arts, is one of the principal means by which societies assert control over the natural world. The means by which nations are literally built, architectural forms may be the most persuasive of all constructions. Buildings can seduce us, as individuals, into their innermost chambers or deter us from even stepping across their threshold. They can present us or hide us, become the means by which we as communities are made or even undone. Their symbolism, physicality, textures, spaciousness, and even their appropriated iconography can pervade a society’s values. From domestic holdings to the sites of judicial agency, architecture contains a representation of all that we hold in highest regard at any given moment. 

 

Museums occupy a precious place within the terrain of architectural forms and functions. As containers for material culture that overtly seek to distil representations of the society in which museums reside, museum architecture is perhaps the most emblematic of all. Historically, with the advent of nineteenth century modernity, museums were seen to enter the lineage of the temple. They became first and foremost secular places of worship, where heritage is made tangible so that it might tell us about ourselves and further about those that went before us: spaces where memory is ostensibly materialized.  Traditionally museums are solid and immovable in their outer structure. While exhibitions may be, and increasingly are, transitory, the site of display is largely static. Art museums offer a further step on this esoteric journey of cultural representation. In the current climate of art practice, the sites of production of art and its display are contested, almost to the point of undermining art itself. Artists such as Marcel Broodthaers presented a critique through his art since the 1960s, while Thomas Hirschhorn is a more recent and persistent devotee of defying the modernist dream of a solid neutral temple for culture in which to contain art as artefact. 

 

Back in the mainstream, both history and art museums are often viewed as sculptural works in themselves. The work of contemporary architects such as Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind moves unapologetically closer to art, as perceptible in either the aesthetic play of the former and the symbolic priorities of the latter. Despite Gehry’s claim that the relationship between architecture and art is not necessarily one of succession, but one of inspiration (he suggests that painting is the highest form of art, one from which he draws creatively), his buildings are viewed as awe-inspiring sites in themselves – an experience usually reserved for the nature kept outside architecture’s confines or for the art held within its walls. The notional distinction between art and architecture generally revolves around varying perceptions of spatial function and its ever-changing relation to form. The modernist ethos declared its conclusion through its promotion of the white cube, a triumph of architectural neutrality over nominal function, while the new architects having cleared the fence of this modernist desire to present pure functional form, now openly toy with the renewed tension between art and architecture.  Evident in the use of a variety of materials for material’s sake, the pleasure of visual manipulation for its own sake and an overt recognition of spatial symbolism, this amounts to an overall drive to well and truly see off the lonely limitations of a functionalist aesthetic.  

 

Eamon O’Kane has chosen to re-look at the master buildings, and master not mistress they usually were, of a high modernist moment (for example, the Guggenheim, New York), and to commingle this view with recently transformed buildings (the Baltic, Newcastle), and further to speculate on the new art-itecture (the Guggenheim, Bilbao). His endeavour attests to the fact that the culture of the present is always inclusive of an amalgamation of the past. The contemporary view includes all it can survey and it is with a knowing intention that O’Kane has reversed Gehry’s one-way traffic of inspiration, choosing to draw creatively from architecture and its image for his art. In The Mobile Museum, O’Kane has developed an installation that penetrates the ideals of architecture, exploits the reproduced image of various buildings, and has generated a body of works that builds upon his curiosity regarding the notion of rupture between fact and fiction, experience and representation. To do this, O’Kane employs a range of media, and as with any artist of depth, he discloses a consistency in interrogative interests sustained from earlier work.

 

The idea of visual and material representation derived from secondary sources is one that challenges notions of truth in representation, as evident in O’Kane’s series A.K.A. (After Kafka’s Amerika), 2000-02.  For this he painted a fictional travel diary based on secondary sources such as travel brochures and guides to visualise a trip across United States of America before he went there, in a visual parallel to Franz Kafka’s research for his novel Amerika. In a related observation, O’Kane’s collective term in 2003 for a number of works was Fictionlands, used as an umbrella title for an exhibition. An ongoing animation project was begun in 2002, called die bildermacher, ani-mates, and continues to comment on O’Kane’s remarkable productivity as an artist. This is relayed through hilarious sequences of animation where small figures appear to make his paintings in stealth and account for the amassed output of an unrelentingly prolific artist. The Studio in the Woods, 2003, is a series of paintings, which betray in lush colour a sense of fantasy, taking a cue from reproduced images of renowned designed examples. These explore the desire to find the perfect space in which to work creatively: a place that is frustratingly impossible as the aura of that ideal can rarely translate into the quotidian requirements of an artist’s studio. 

 

This last area of fascination for O’Kane is developed in The Mobile Museum into a decidedly understated reflection on the imperatives that drive artists to consider how their work relates to the spaces it occupies at various points of its journey. The relationship between where the work is made, stored, displayed and the work’s own sense of space is a common cause for deliberation among artists. Often struggling to overtake architecture on a daily practical basis, artists attempt to reclaim the spaces they work in as distinctly their own and further do battle to overcome the atmosphere of the places where their work is revealed to the wider community.  Artists generally agree that the size of a studio implicates the scale and concerns of the work, therein and thereafter. In Bristol, O’Kane works in a now defunct paper-bag factory and the industrial implications of this space echo throughout his recent work, even beyond the work actually made there.

 

Perhaps it was also O’Kane’s proximity to the galleries at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, while on residency there during 2004, which propelled his work to increase in size. The very scale of the paintings in The Mobile Museum presents a way of looking that encourages the viewer to move through the gallery space: standing back at a distance from the work to incorporate its full view, and moving up close to see in detail the range of painted marks created within each one. This physical change was coupled with a newly restricted monotone palette. The use of black and white suggests the language of drawing, plans, the retrospective view of photography, and subtly evokes a modernist aspiration to avoid the symbolic complications of colour. 

 

The role of reproductions or secondary sources in cultural production is still to the fore of O’Kane’s mind, as these images were based on reproductions in books and magazines. The architectural examples visually interrogated in The Mobile Museum are well known to the architecturally interested viewer. The power of spatial manipulation is just one way in which the ‘master’ buildings of both the present and the wider past can fascinate a visitor. The means by which such celebrated buildings are conveyed – their stature sensed and presence felt – without ever having physically stood in front of or in them is reliant upon the power and success of photography to capture that essence and subsequently enrapture the viewer. Indeed the museums and houses studied in The Mobile Museum are so familiar that they are perhaps more easily understood as emblematic structures than functional spaces.  

 

As paintings, O’Kane’s images also speak the language of paint itself. His idiomatic return to prioritizing painting seems indicative of a re-enchantment with the product of art-making. Never entirely erased from his oeuvre to date, the product has been challenged through a rigorous practice of negotiating the implications of the reproduced image for the original, along with the suggestion that industry might supplant inspiration within systematic elements of productivity.  As contemporary art seems to persistently challenge the limits of selection, hierarchy and materialism, O’Kane too has mused on this enthrallment to process but seems to contradict the notion that art must be by definition unresolved. Instead he presents in The Mobile Museum two distinct outcomes: one a preliminary conclusion (the paintings), the other indicative of an ongoing, non-definitive process (the crate-like mobile studio and its contents).

 

 

Nature too creeps into the frame of O’Kane’s paintings, through an evocation of a classic cinematic shot. A building is seen surreptitiously through foliage, clearly the site of impending doom in the thriller genre. A voyeuristic ambience set out in the Studio in the Woods, O’Kane’s large canvases of The Mobile Museum are similarly seen as frozen moments in a narrative yet to unfold. Or perhaps that narrative is already told, and what we see is a glance backwards, the retrospective gaze as the protagonist departs the scene. Either way, the atmosphere of these images is undoubtedly one of reflection, of pause. 

 

Underneath the strata of installation, mixed media and text, the process of painting itself has always been at the core of O’Kane’s practice and is perhaps his primary subject. The tactility of paint and the process of making a painted image are clearly the link between what is of representational interest to O’Kane (such as the fantasy of ideal spaces to live, work and display art in) and his more abstract fascinations (such as the implications of the general art process and photographic reproduction for visual arts). The practice that produced these works is driven by in-depth textual, visual and spatial reflection, but most crucially has the heart to conclude with a synchronous meeting of visual imagination and its tangible relation to paint.

 

Bernard Tschumi writes of ‘event architecture’, the ever-changing interaction between form and function in architectural terms. This is clearly a concept of interest to O’Kane, both literally and metaphorically. The museum is an ideal transported internally and communicated outwardly through plans, maquettes, models and finally realised in brick and mortar, titanium and steel. But place changes and spaces are transformed: factories and stables have been appropriated as artist’s studios; prisons and hospitals have suited museum needs. O’Kane’s mixed media work plays on these changing notions of space and the places where art is expected to be. Co-joining this exploration with an analysis of the process by which art is made and various media applied to reach a conclusion, The Mobile Museum sets out a spatial resistance to the venue in which it resides. By presenting alternative solutions to reflect his art, O’Kane instils awareness of how the work got here, it’s storage and suggests the transience of its current location: the art will ‘move on’.

 

The desire of artists, broadly, to find or create an idyllic workspace has been, modern times, the source of many works in different media. To imagine the studio in the woods or a room of one’s own is to imagine possession of a place, for just a while, that can contain the artist’s imagination. In galleries and museums spaces, the viewer can possess, if only for a moment, the work presented to them. The unpacking of one artist’s ideas, an amalgamation of their dreams and vision may be held by the viewer for the duration of their visit and the length of their gaze. However, their memory of it is transportable. In O’Kane’s eloquent rendition of the spatial resistance of art, it seems clear that the fantastical studio is permanently beyond the horizon, but that the museum is in truth mobile.

 

November 2004

 

Niamh Ann Kelly is an art writer, critic and lecturer at the Dublin Institute of Technology.