Artist Rosie O’Reilly in conversation about idirlinn, shifting silence, which runs at the Lab on Foley Street until August 27

Posted August 18, 2022 in Arts and Culture, Exhibition Review

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Artist Rosie O’Reilly discusses her beguiling body of work which can be currently seen in the Lab on Foley Street.


Materiality is explicitly at the heart of idirlinn, shifting silence – can you explain how you decided upon the materials you chose to work with and their inter-related meaning?

The poet and artist Etal Andan talks about silence as an absence in her book of poetry by the same name, Shifting Silence. I couldn’t get these words out of my head as I read Amitav Ghosh, The Nutmeg’s Curse and brought research together for this show.. He talks about the urgent need to give voice to those that are silenced on a planet in crisis. Who have we silenced and how can we shift them Idirlinn (between us in Gaeilge), so voices are heard? Silencing appears, again and again, as something to unknot through the materials in this exhibition. Textiles for example, so few early examples exist in the great history museums of swords and stones, but we know they predate those artefacts. Reeds; another much silenced material in western thinking and doing. Disintegrating and reemerging in the great cycles of life as our species built shelters that said so much about our custom, culture and land relations.

“Who have we silenced and how can we shift them Idirlinn (between us in Gaeilge), so voices are heard?”

In this exhibition you also encounter a cuttlefish, (Cephlapod from Greek Head Foot) the great shapeshifter of the ocean, appearing as cast bones and as a window to view through. The ocean as an otherworldly sensorium has become a place I dive into to shake up the bad habits of terrestrial thinking. It dazzles you and makes you think sideways. Cephalopods have always been that creature for me, we are separated by 600 million years but as our dimensions of consciousness expand it’s clear they are kin. The place they occupy in mythology nods to a time when people were deeply connected to and acknowledged the power of the more than human world.

The Morrígan, another shapeshifter, is the great queen in Irish Mythology and appears here as a crow. I had the great fortune to meet Nicola S. Clayton FRS, the Professor of Comparative Cognition at the University of Cambridge as I began observing the clever corvids. Her lab teaches us that they are the feathered apes, matching primates in cognition, the place they occupy in mythology again tells us our ancestors were fully aware of this. We talked a lot about non-verbal communication, how wordless thoughts can capture things humans have difficulty thinking about. Listening generously with full senses can be a powerful tool for reconnecting, working with the bird mentor Kristi Drangini and musician Colm O’Ciosoig the Morrígan is be heard.

I choose all these materials because in telling their stories they begin to shape future stories. Donna Harraway sings out here “It matters what stories tell stories”.

Your installations downstairs containing the interwoven and thatched reeds displays both a local and global connectivity and fragility which informs your ecologically-minded work. Is this a significant central theme to the exhibition?

When you’re in the gallery you’re standing on the floodplains of the river Liffey, the old marsh lands from which the wattled bridge was first made to cross the great river at low tide. Baile Átha Cliath – the town of the hurdled ford. (I now speculate and imagine that this humble wattled bridge was of course, like any crossing in life, embellished and crafted in the hands of those who needed it. I’m lucky to have met the thatcher Kyran O’Grady who was so willing to share old wisdoms and in doing so began to world building with them. I’m equally grateful to have journeyed through Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer while preparing for this show. She breathes wisdom into a world drowning in information …It’s impossible not to want to dive deeper. What can local indigeneity teach us about moving forward and reimagining? Journeying through our own history of shelter and contemporary indigenous wetland dwellers like the Ma’dan people of Iraq. Each arch is essentially an ‘A’ frame of a house. When I built the first one on my own with rope and reed and raised it to it’s 4 mtr height I felt far from fragile. This is a powerful storytelling material. This is not the story of evolution we have learnt to listen to where certain genders, classes and races can’t be world builders. In a beautiful human entanglement with these reeds we built seven in a short period of times. Idirlinn; One holds, one gathers and another knot is tied, a new story begins.

“Idirlinn; One holds, one gathers and another knot is tied, a new story begins.”

There is a fragility evident in your sculptural pieces upstairs also – can you explain what clearly seems like an intricate and time-consuming process behind their creation?

My line making is happiest on paper that finds it hard to take its weight. The ritual of repair is then inherent in the drawing process. Over time they repeatedly rip, flooded by ink or scared with a raw edge only to be repaired and remade. Drawing teaches me to understand things.

The series of wax balls, sea eggs, were made in three locations for three different. Dublin, Galway and Cork.

I’ve collected shells and fragments from specific coastlines for years. For these works they got crushed and in a large silicone balloons were mixed with wax and my own breadth and cast to the sea at high tide. I hand it over to the sea, it does the setting and the distribution of material elements, they dance on the waves and I walk the beach to find them as the tide drops them off.  And at some point they will melt and reveal all those elements again.

Did the pandemic inform or influence the direction of your work?

Zoonotic diseases, diseases that transfer from animals to humans are on the increase due to human ecocide This has been known for a long time. The pandemic only verified for me that the way you choose to live is a political act.

How optimistic/pessimistic do you feel about our climate crisis and ability to adapt and respond to it?

The potential for adapting and responding is everywhere.. we just need to start listening; to the more than human, to indigenous thinking and doing, to anticolonial methodologies (Pollution is Colonialism by Max Lioiron), to feminist ecologies ….  For me this is not about pessimism or optimism because this would reaffirm a static position, a handy linear millstone. In protest to this thinking I’ll keep moving, turning stones and digging in the clay. Staying with the trouble.

If you visit the exhibition you are the final part of a spell poem being cast; a world building excersise Idirlinn

Claochlaím agus osclaím

Ach tá tusa greamaithe

Dúnta san am i láthair       

Déan nead agus éist

Le smaointe gan focail

Le céadfaithe dúisithe

Agus siúlfaimid le chéile arís

idirlinn, shifting silence by Rosie O’Reilly runs at the Lab on Foley Street until August 27.

interview: Michael McDermott

photos: Louis Haugh


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