Poetic narratives exploring travel, identity, memory and place are the subject of Waiheke artist Denis O’Connor’s latest body of work.
In his first exhibition in Auckland for seven years, Denis O’Connor took the idea of a child standing on the roof, staring out to sea and watching ships come and go as the point of departure for his exhibition What the Roof Dreamt. That child was in fact O’Connor in the 1950s, standing on the roof of his family’s state house in Glen Innes, on the shore of the Waitemata Harbour, and ‘wondering where overseas was’.
What the Roof Dreamt is a complex project with three distinct chapters and some of the 37 works in this exhibition were made while O’Connor was artist in residence at Rathcoola, Ireland, in 2005.
“The subject of this project is a question I asked myself: ‘What does travel mean?’ It took five years to answer that simple question,” says O’Connor. “During that time, I found a guiding hand, the writer W.G. Sebald. Even though I don’t have much spare time for reading (except during ferry trips to and from Auckland), I tackled four of his masterpieces one after the other. I don’t think I’ve ever done that before. I was profoundly moved by his achievement as a writer and from him I learnt about voices – there are many in each of us – and to be attentive to each of these voices.
“Eventually I had to expand my project, embracing four generations, to adequately answer my question about travel. Some works explored the reveries of imaginative realms, and others were all about what happened on the spot, in a landscape miles and miles away from anything you’re familiar with.”
In these works, O’Connor, who is widely travelled, has referenced many of his journeys by engraving spare, ideographic drawings and fragments of text into 30 roof tiles, which formed the major component of the exhibition at Auckland gallery, Two Rooms, in April and May this year.
As well as the artist’s personal journeys, the exhibition references the diaspora of people from all parts of the world, seeking a better life in the New World, just as O’Connor’s Irish father did when he emigrated to New Zealand from County Kerry in 1939. Drawn from poems, diary entries, memories and observations, the text in the slate works is like a half-remembered song. It loops back and forth between past and present, emphasising how memory shapes individual identity and how, for all of us, the present moment is continually mediated by the experiences of the past.
Left over after the re-roofing of the old Art School in Christchurch’s Arts Centre, the slate tiles have been engraved, burnished and coated with pigment and wax. Their weathered surfaces and muted colours make them seem as if they have been dug up from the ground or rescued from the dark recesses of a dusty attic, and like a rediscovered box of old photographs, they have the power to surprise, mystify and delight.
In these works O’Connor draws extensively from his diaries and sketchbooks.
“Vividly experienced moments have always found their record in my sketch books. Each book lasts three or four years and becomes part of an ever-expanding library of volumes. Quite often, the formal detail of a work is experimented with on these pages, but lines of verse, quotes from wildly diverse sources and overheard phrases, anything really that might deepen the resonance of each work – often a dense amount of information – is coded into a very pared-down image.
“What I call provenance texts often find their way onto the reverse sides of a piece. Contemporary writers and poets have often been inspirational sources – the complexity and conceptual rigour of the best of them deal with modern life in ways I find more interesting than the bulk of visual arts. I sometimes see myself as a translator, and there have been occasions when a poet has responded to a work of mine commenting that a new dimension of their text has been revealed, expanding the gravitas of the original. There is a lot of life left in this image/text hybrid!”
Chapter one of the exhibition, The Quartermaster’s Dream, has at its heart the 600-year-old pohutukawa tree that shelters O’Connor’s house on Waiheke Island and this four-part sculptural installation is a sustained meditation on childhood. O’Connor’s daughter and her friends used to play in the tree when they were young.
“The Quartermaster’s Dream honours the trances and fantasy games of childhood, including my own children’s ritual pretences. They make a cameo appearance in the work Observatory. Likewise, my own dreamt-up childhood experiences lead on to the work Equator, made in collaboration with the engraving department of the Waterford Crystal Factory in Ireland. This glass globe speculates on the interlinking of narratives and cultures from different geographies.”
The second chapter, Rathcoola Dreaming, comprises three colour photographs taken in Ireland during the Rathcoola residency.
“This chapter introduces the medium of colour photography and re-imagines the emigration stories from both sides of the world. This large operatic triptych figures the disappearance of a man ploughing a field in southwest Ireland, from a Paul Muldoon poem, and has him resurfacing in the deep South Pacific, in a country called Nua Shealainn. He turns up in an orchard on the banks of the Whanganui River, then abandons his new adopted homeland, haunted by a deep yearning for his native landscape that he’d once convinced himself had no relevance, rhyme or reason any more. Dualities, ambiguities, and fabulous absurdities abound in the detail of this very theatrical tableaux, which is formally indebted to traditions in cinema; more Dennis Potter, than the clichéd myths of desperation and poverty that emigration usually conjures up. This sequence looks back at previous generations to cast clues for the last chapter, What the Roof Dreamt.
“Thirty engraved roof tiles become the stations for chapter three, the main body of work. In situ roof slates face out into the world, but also bear witness to the interior of a house and shelter it. In my stuff, materials have symbolic potency and very often have had previous incarnations and histories. The image of myself as a child, standing on the roof of the family house establishes dreaming as a primary endeavour; we all do it, don’t we? Not just artists!
“In these 30 works, foreign locations feature, mystery abounds, enigma reigns, and most importantly, something familiar makes an unexpected guest appearance, completely out of context. The slates were the perfect frame to trace this journey or quest. Sometimes I let the material itself do the talking, or let the striations and grain of the stone suggest the appropriate approach to an image. Observatory, the big Pakistani onyx work, is a good example. When I first saw this sheet of baroque luminous stone, my response was: ‘Nah, too gorgeous’. But it later occurred to me as a challenge of another sort – to try and find a tale of my own to match it.
“There are occasions when I might try to make stone appear to be another material. Chocolate, in The Sea of Chocolate, for example (the German artist Dieter Roth, who used chocolate in his work, Basel on the Rhine, 1969, must take the blame for this) or butter, in the work called Butterhood (think wholesome antipodean childhood). I’m relishing the thought of a liquorice piece this very minute (extend that generic love of black in New Zealand art into the confectionery department!).
“The sense of belonging to an artistic lineage is fundamental to my practice. The ghosts of other artists haunt, or are honoured, in many works. Just one example: on my way to see Foucault’s Pendulum, magnificently installed in the Panthéon Palace in Paris, I became lost in the Left Bank’s labyrinth of narrow alleyways. In the midst of this disorientation I recognised a precise sequence of shop fronts from a painting, called The Street by the painter Balthus, which I’ve loved since seeing a reproduction 40 years ago. Accessing my location from a recognition of the painted scene provided me with my bearings – a map if you like – to guide me where I wanted to go. Something intensely familiar pointed the way.
“The experience of remembering and recognising something deeply stored in one’s unconscious is at the heart of each of these slates. The unpredictable nature of how memory functions, and the mysteries of retrieving particular information from this well of fragments, became the principle around which all these narratives were in allegiance.
“I guess this is a template for the function of my workshop. It was knocked up out of kanuka poles and demolition material in 1971. My arrivals and departures are constantly restaging the drama and concept of pilgrimage and return. It’s my jerry-built laboratory where the revelations and experiments of memory can be vividly acted out.”
What the Roof Dreamt is at City Gallery Wellington until 4 November, 2007.