Avril Corroon is a socially conscious artist, whose work falls within a category that is sometimes referred to as ‘political art’, ‘protest art’ or ‘artivism’: her latest project is the culmination of a 2-year research period into the living conditions of 55 households in London and Dublin. In the course of the last two years, Corroon investigated the problem of dampness in residential buildings.
“I was invited to come up with a research project that would lead to an exhibition with TACO!, an artist-led space in London. Between then and now, the development phase involved a radio show, a film screening and my own version of a poster campaign. During this time I was also in talks with Sara Greavu, the curator at Project Arts Centre, about creating a work that spoke to the context of the housing crisis in Ireland. We launched DAMP TANK, and after receiving Arts Council support I was able to expand the project.”
As part of her preparation for this undertaking, the artist reached out to members of the tenants’ union CATU and the general public, and organised it so that everyone who consented to participate would receive an “energy-efficient and high-quality” dehumidifier. In return, each household contributed their stories, their ideas, and crucially, they collected their damp for the artist to use as material in her work. In Dublin alone, over 700 litres of damp have been collected and are now on display in the exhibition at Project Arts.
“What I was most surprised and privileged to experience over the course of this project was people’s belief in the work. Participants took the process on with careful consideration. Some wrote about the process, prioritising the activity of dropping off the damp to pick-up locations or to Project Arts Centre in their routine. Others reported on the effect the dehumidifying has had on their breathing and general comfort in their home. Some are even making drawings mixing the water with ink on paper.”
Corroon’s installation is fascinating to the extent that it foregrounds the concept of dampness; what it is and what it means, its semantic and symbolic connotations. Dampness, of course, is merely the presence of water, and water, as essential to life as air, has long held a fundamental place in the mythologies, metaphysics and allegories of human civilisation. In ancient Greece, for instance, early philosophers like Thales of Miletus, a pre-Socratic thinker, held the view that water was the original substance of the universe, creating all matter from its depths and reabsorbing all matter at the end of its cycle. According to Aristotle, Thales’ speculative position derived from the fact that “(i) the nutriment of everything, and (ii) the seed of everything, is moist.” This argument was rejected by Aristotle and his master Plato: although both remained advocates of the elemental importance of water, they held that it is only one of the four cosmological building-blocks, along with earth, air and fire. As antiquated as the ancient Greeks’ ideas may appear to us today, the constitutive relationship that is articulated between water and flourishing life is nonetheless familiar: oceans cover our planet, rainfall supports and maintains our plant-life, and the composition of our very bodies, as we often hear quoted, is 60% water. These statements about water’s role in our ecosystem bear a tangible similarity to the ancient Greeks’ conception of the world, and they lead to positive associations in our cultural imaginary that are universal; water = sustenance, water = life-giver, water = the fluid engine of the planet.
And yet as you walk into the installation at Project Arts, those associations are quickly and dramatically eliminated. Confronted with 25-30 jerry cans, two huge vats, and several large blue drums filled to the brim with water, your accumulated experience of the containers and their large volumes inescapably breeds a sense of anxiety. This anxiety is compounded by the tight architectural formations that Corroon has used to structure the space: tall aluminium panels, as you might find on a building site before the walls are constructed, carve up the gallery floor. The winding, narrow pathways lead you to the central area, where Corroon’s video installation is exhibited.
Corroon’s video work features about half a dozen interviews with people living in households marred by severe damp. This is the centrepiece of the show, and it is through the descriptions and impressions offered by these long-suffering tenants of their circumstances that our understanding of the nuances of dampness’ psychological impact develops, word by word. Much of what they relate is as you might expect, though still interesting for all that. However, Corroon has done an excellent job in pinpointing the insights and reminiscences that are unique, and that then anchor themselves in your consciousness, returning for days afterward.
The mould began following a leak from an unknown source in our downstairs airing cupboard. The floor was wet with water in a puddle; it happened once and has never happened again. But the mould seems to have grown throughout the house ever since. It makes me feel worried because mould is something scary. It’s not nice, it’s not a flower: it’s the opposite.
I’m not sure how to explain it really, but it’s the first time I’ve ever experienced damp. I’ve never lived in a property with it. So I feel like it’s an actual entity. It’s like me and it. I don’t say “hi” when I come in, but I certainly am aware of it.
We noticed water dripping from the ceiling in our bedroom. And the water in the living room, it was rising from the skirting boards. You could see it was wetting the wallpaper. Then we had the issue with the damp coming across the walls. Our daughters’ toys are in a toy box against the wall and the damp must have gone in and spread. She had some teddies in there. I had to throw quite a lot away.
The idea that it was in your bedroom, where you’re probably doing 7 or 8 hours of breathing, and that it was collecting, it was liquid breath; that was quite interesting. This was something that… It wasn’t real. It wasn’t human. It was an organism of sorts. But part of that organism was us – me and my wife.
We are far away from either the ancient Greek or contemporary ecological model of water; now water is a thing, an invasive force, the mother of mould, the opposite of flowers, an entity that you could speak to, something that targets and infects children’s toys, and even an organism that detaches from you and grows independently. This constant activity of producing new models and descriptions is a feature of the installation that Corroon believes is integral to her practice as a whole: “art has the ability to forefront contradictions,“ she says, “and challenge hegemonic ideas and the boundaries of our time. I think my artwork comes first from a sense of curiosity, of wanting to treat the absurd with importance.” But we mustn’t mistake the character of Corroon’s interest in contradiction or absurdity: according to the artist, her preoccupations stem from “a yearning for justice and frustration with the inequity that exists in our society.”
Got Damp/Púscadh Anuas is at the Project Arts Centre until June 10.
Avril Corroon will give an artist talk presenting her practice along with research ideas, at 6.30pm on Friday May 26, as part of Clear Away the Rubble / Glan an Spallaí ar Shiúl, an open research project about housing
Photos: Louis Haugh
Words: Tom Lordan