Michelle Malone’s new body of work situates the autobiographical in the now.
“My grandmother was originally from tenements and her experience of staircases growing up was that they were a public space, additional to the home. Coming from the Oliver Bond flats, my own experience was similar. I became interested in the evidence of class in architecture and particularly in the working-class home. I decided to build the exhibition around the idea of the staircase and tell my grandmother’s story of moving from tenements to Fatima Mansion flats, and finally to her council house in Finglas in 1973. I wanted to do two things: examine suburbanisation and imagine what it would have been like for my grandmother to finally have a home with staircase, garden and all.”
Michelle Malone is gaining a reputation in the city for her capacity to articulate a sensitive socio-political vision of Dublin’s class politics. Her artworks consist of contemplative and autobiographical installation spaces, which slowly invite the visitor into making connections between her memory-laden, talismanic objects, and the social history that conditions her reminiscences. Her new show follows in the footsteps of her previous, Great Uncle Joe, arranged in Studio 16 at the Temple Bar Gallery + Studios in 2021. As with that show, Malone synthesises several media to form one cohesive ensemble in O, to have a little house; the artist combines digital tapestries, archival footage, voice recordings, and sculptural constructions that are expansive and set-like, creating an ambient succession of environmental artworks.
Malone’s exhibition is based upon memories of her grandmother’s home, supplemented by her own experience of growing up in inner-city housing. The Oliver Bond flats in the Liberties were built by the London architect Herbert George Simms in 1936. In his role as lead housing architect for the Dublin Corporation (the prior incarnation of Dublin City Council), Simms had a disproportionate effect on the fabric of the city, reportedly producing 17,000 homes between 1932 and 1948. In addition to the Oliver Bond flats, Simms was a key actor in the suburbanisation of Dublin, and his appointment coincided with the Housing Act of 1932, a piece of legislation passed by DeValera’s government that sought to increase the level of public housing dramatically from 2,000 to 12,000 annually. Even on the most cursory inspection of the historical circumstances that condition Malone’s installation, then, the relevance to our own period is striking: pull on any one thread, and interesting connections suddenly become clear.
From the visitor’s perspective, as you walk into the ground floor exhibition room at The LAB on Foley Street, you are immediately confronted by a large wooden frame. On the nearest wall of the construction, a small doorway allows you to glimpse an intensively carpeted space and a stairway, vividly yellow, travelling upwards. The air is filled with the sound of an elderly Dubliner speaking; her melodic voice is fissured, saturated by the passing decades, and though the voice is everywhere around you, it’s hard to make out the words she is saying.
As you walk further into the exhibition room, you find not one but two wooden constructions that interact with and complement each other. The flamboyant carpeting in the space on the left has, in its expansiveness, an almost Twin Peaks quality – one of Lynch’s most effective visual motifs is the Black Lodge’s endless chevron flooring, which covers a dreamlike distance. The effect of Malone’s bombastic pattern, uninterrupted by furniture, evokes a similar sense of the uncanny, of the familiar being made strange and surreal. Our eyes are drawn to the large tapestry on the far wall: Malone depicts the interior of her grandparents’ sitting-room from the 1980s in Fingal, featuring a large red sofa, white lace armrest covers, twin-tiered wallpaper, bell lampshade, and a small, rectangular cast-iron fireplace. The relationship between the image and its avatar creates an intriguing tension. “By contrast to the vast, empty spaces I made with the sculptural elements, the images are filled with working-class materials and objects.” Malone’s installation speaks to the fixations of memory, its ability to focus on certain features of experience to the exclusion of all else, as well as to the inevitability of its losses – the details that are simply forgotten.
In the next space, Malone amplifies the hypnagogic effect: mint-green predominates as the enclosing colour, and the floor consists of rich, fertile soil. A wooden chair sits on the loam, carefully folded kitchen towels resting on the seat. A slim, diagonal pathway bisects the hazelnut earth. Mirroring the left-hand side, another tapestry depicts the garden that her grandparents enjoyed when they moved to the suburbs from their inner city flat. According to one of her social media posts, Malone has sharp memories of her grandmother’s “beloved rose bush,” portrayed in detail here. The surreality of these installation spaces underline the irrational element of nostalgia, a subject that has often been remarked upon, insofar as nostalgia involves both an ache for something that is gone and a fantasmatic privileging of the absent object. In the event that an object of nostalgia returns, the result is only ever disappointment, as the spectral lustre that swathes the object in your memory never materialises.
A third installation completes Malone’s investigation into her grandmother’s home upstairs. The first floor is a continuation of the aesthetic established by the ground-floor constructions: single items of plain, antiquated furniture are placed at a distance from one another, amidst large pools of flecked white material, which you swiftly discover is pebbledash. Pebbledash is a cheap, efficient way to protect the external walls of houses from wind and rain, and was used liberally by the Dublin Corporation under Simms. It has since become something of an architectural albatross – typically the public associates pebbledash with inexpensive social housing, and its presence usually devalues the property of the home it protects. Here, in Malone’s world, it acts as a series of islands, bringing separate objects into one domestic archipelago. On the first floor, the words that you heard earlier, spoken by Malone’s grandmother, suddenly become clear. It’s a poem “titled Old Woman of the Road, by Padraic Colum and it was written in the early 1900s. It was my grandmother’s favourite and the recording is from a few years back in her kitchen. In the poem Colum speaks about yearning for a home in a rural context.” For Malone, the poem is an eloquent reminder that this yearning is “intergenerational”.
On the ground floor there is an RTE archive film from the 1960s. A reporter speaks to people who are moving from their homes in the inner-city to new houses in the suburbs, paralleling the story of Malone’s grandmother. Many people depicted by the B&W footage are deeply angered by the conditions they have been living in, and hold only a small flame of hope that their new homes will be better. One man refers to his experience of living in a tent as an act of protest against the ineptitude of local politicians, who fail to produce affordable, adequate housing. As always with Malone, the autobiographical element quickly sparks a return to the present, and her sensitivity to class politics sharpens to a razor’s edge.
The curator Sheena Barrett remembers seeing Malone’s undergraduate degree show “and was so impressed by her exhibition. The sheer determination to produce something that ambitious despite the many constraints was already impressive but the treatment of the subject matter, the finish of the works, and the cohesiveness of the show were exceptional. I was curious to find out more.” Barrett’s careful attention has paid off tenfold in this exhibition, and as the curator alludes to, Malone’s youth makes it even more exciting. She has a talent, says Barrett, for “realising large scale installations.” I expect that this show will be the first in a long career.
O, to have a little house runs at The LAB Gallery, Foley Street, until November 5.