Driving between Dublin and Limerick, something became obvious for artist Mark O’ Kelly.
The challenge was how to create a public artwork in a public space, but one which would remain inside. Medium and scale were both key.
Commissioned to create an artwork by curator Tessa Giblin of the Projects Arts Centre in Temple Bar, the artist decided to bypass the traditional canvas and head straight for the motorway gantry sign.
The result, Empireland, is an epic allegorical scene painted onto ten metal panels that went on display at the Project Arts Centre earlier this month.
A Broad Iconography
“We were thinking about public space and we were actually developing a hypothetical proposal for art in a public space,” says curator Giblin. “A group exhibition was how we were thinking about it so it was painting, sculpture and it ended up morphing.”
With the 1916 centenary on the brain, as well the 50th anniversary of the Project Arts Centre, it came down to one artist, O’Kelly, to channel “the kind of artworks which we think of as being for a collective group to digest”, he says.
Instead of travelling back to the Easter Rising, the artist found himself in the early 1990s, when the first tranche of EU investment allowed the country to develop its motorway system. He got in touch with a motorway-signage company and set about creating a monumental reflection on the nation state.
Empireland has no single theme. It broadly explores ideas of trade, democracy, capitalism, and empire in a “collective addressing” of modern Ireland, says O’Kelly. Measuring 9 metres by 2.8 metres, there’s a vast amount at work within the painting.
In the bottom-right corner, an image of Polish workers accompanies symbols of production, in the guise of a pestle and mortar, and trade routes, in a motorway arrow. Above this, an image of the 1851 Great Exhibition in London focuses on the international nave where works from across the British Empire were displayed.
“If you look at the iconography in the work, it actually shows very much how we have been formed historically by virtue of our relationship with empire,” says O’Kelly. “Sometimes more embracing certain imperialist mechanisms and sometimes, perhaps, more against them, but certainly I’m trying to imply our engagement and involvement with those histories.”
It’s not just one imperial power that O’Kelly wanted to focus on though. Towards the centre of the work are painted characters from Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s 1339 work The Allegory of Good and Bad Government. Curator Giblin notes that work’s significance.
“It was painted early Italian Renaissance at a time when these friezes were absolutely dominated by religious themes or portraits of the patrons who might have funded the work,” she says. “But this was an image of democracy, and democracy is one of the key elements within the work.”
Below the frieze-like figures, a reversed image of car manufacturer Alfa Romeo combines to move away from the British Empire towards the Roman Empire and Catholicism, Ireland’s relationship to it and the modernisation of industry and travel.
The work is littered with symbolism and icons: the Deutsche Bank logo, a map of the North Inner City, a location map in Charles de Gaulle Airport, the voting ticks of the ballot box.
But what of the 11 dominant figures to the left of the painting?
The Right to Dissent
When several Dunnes Stores workers refused to sell South African goods in 1984, they made the headlines in a protest which would last until 1987. Invited by Archbishop Desmond Tutu to visit South Africa in 1985, the group was refused entry, detained and immediately deported.
The image within Empireland is their somewhat dejected return. Yet this was the moment the Irish government began to take notice of the anti-apartheid dissenters.
“I think Mark O’Kelly is really interested in what an individual can still do within that democratic engine,” says curator Giblin. “It’s not just about the protest, it’s not just about the decision, it’s also about the right to protest, the right to dissent, the right to have another opinion, and that other opinion having power.”
With images and symbols coiling around the figures, the protesters’ perms and oversized earrings, mark them as immediately relatable to artist O’Kelly, who recalls the impact the protests had on him in his youth.
“I feel that they offered the possibility to provide a model for other kinds of icons,” he says. “Especially if we’re looking at a lot of icons who are dead, who I would find much more difficult to relate to, now I’m looking at the embodiment of something in my own lifetime.”
Spanning from 1339 to 1985 in symbolism, O’Kelly sees the artwork and the centenary’s significance as a moment of maturation for the nation. There’s no single meaning to take from Empireland, a work, he says, that meant long days and a complicated preparation process.
Towards a Permanent Display
Empireland took O’Kelly more than two months to complete, and for the first few weeks he slept little as he set about preparing the motorway gantry sign for the oil paint.
“It arrived as raw metal plates. The first thing I had to do was sand them,” he says. “Then I had to hoover them to remove all the dust and then I had to wash them all with methylated spirits to make them clean, and then I primed them with an oil-based primer.”
The later stage of the process involved checking details, waiting for drying, and taking measurements in order to install the work within the Project Arts Centre.
The work is on display until May 28, but it’s unknown yet where Empireland will end up. Curator Giblin say she would love to see it on permanent display and for it to stay in Ireland. Hoping for a buyer, she says it’s an exciting time for painting and the Project Arts Centre.
“It’s just so exciting for painting as well, to be able to commission an artist at this scale,” she says. “When all these remembrances and this anniversary came up, we just really wanted to be sure that we were working with the contemporary thought, that we were asking artists to think now and not just memorialising something.”