The side of 53 Mountjoy Street presents a different face depending on the weather.
“I always liked that wall,” says Dr Austin O’Carroll, whose GP practice used to be located inside the building. “It was an interesting wall.”
On cloudy days, the wall’s most prominent feature is a vast rectangle of cracked plaster spread across most of the red-brick wall.
Faint in its lower half are letters from an old advertisement. The ad dates to the 1940s or 1950s, says O’Carroll.
When it rains, he says, the lettering grows darker and clearer, reading “Lime Scenery Atlantic”.
Meanwhile, once the sun appears, the rays accentuate a stainless-steel sculpture of a spider’s web mounted diagonally across the wall.
Casting a long shadow, its metal bars glisten, distinguishing them from the grey plastered backdrop.
Commissioned by O’Carroll, the minimalist piece doesn’t have any markers to indicate the identity of its creator and can be read in different ways, all of which has led, over the years, to a curious story being spun about its origins.
In the lower right half of the frame, there are two cone-like splats of web which could look to some as if they’re being stretched skywards by a single thread, yanked upwards by an entity attempting to escape it.
Or, from the perspective of other passers-by, the web could just as easily appear to be fired down from a single source on high.
For more than a decade, the latter assumption even fuelled the notion that the installation was linked to the Marvel superhero Spider-Man. But it wasn’t.
Artist Kathleen O’Brien is amused to hear about the fictitious alternative history of her work. The web was in no way associated with the Sam Raimi-directed Spider-Man trilogy, she says.
That idea was spread through an old thread on the Boards.ie forum, with some contributors promoting the theory that it was a marketing tie-in to the webslinger’s franchise.
It was, according to one user writing in late 2008, installed as part of a billboard, likely for Spider-Man 2.
“They subsequently removed the billboard,” the user wrote, “but not the metal web.”
In reality, the origin of the sculpture dates back to the late 1990s, when O’Carroll joined Mountjoy Street Family Practice, situated in number 53.
The north-inner city, he says, was still reeling from the opiate epidemic. “It was a bit Wild West. We’d often have scripts and bags being stolen.”
O’Carroll had an interest in the arts as his partner was an artist, he says, and he came up with the idea of decorating the interior of the practice with artwork.
Everyone told them not to put up art, that it would get stolen, he says. “We did up the place, and not only was the art never touched, but everything else stopped being stolen at the same time.”
He decided to go further, finding an artist to create a piece for the wall facing onto Western Way tangential to Mountjoy Street.
O’Carroll wanted the piece to reflect on the effects of poverty that he encountered daily in his practice, he says.
Much of his work has been with people who are homeless, suffering from drug addiction, or are in poor health due to impoverishment, he says.
“Before I went into the practice, I had seen little of the effects of drug addiction,” says O’Carroll, “and then I was seeing families who lost two, three members to drug addiction.”
What he was looking for was an artist to depict the cycle of poverty that he witnessed daily.
“Poverty is associated with a lower life expectancy, poorer health and then so, with poorer health, you are less likely to get out of poverty,” he says. “It’s the poverty trap.”
The sculptor Kathleen O’Brien was born in Limerick and raised in Sussex, before she and her family eventually returned to Ireland, settling in Dublin.
In the mid-70s, she lived and worked out of a studio on Henrietta Street around the corner from Mountjoy Street.
In 1986, O’Brien relocated to Poland. It was six months after the Chernobyl disaster, she says, while preparing tea in her apartment overlooking the Grand Canal.
For four years, she lived in Poland, before returning to Henrietta Street in the early 1990s.
It took her three years to re-adjust to Ireland, she said. “It was like a culture shock. I went straight from communist Poland to here, and the first things that hit me were the shining lights in the fridges of the supermarkets.”
In 2000, she met O’Carroll at an art opening. As they got to know each other better, she says, he asked her to come up with a design for the outside of his practice.
“We talked about poverty,” she says, “and the amount of young people thrown to one side during the Celtic Tiger. It was just a devastating society.”
She landed on the idea of a web as it represented O’Carroll’s concept of the poverty trap.
“It was about the people who live on the edge, who are aware of the rawness of the every day and just barely survive,” she says.
O’Brien developed the design for the piece after she finished her master’s in 2003.
She had worked on projects of a similar scale before but, she says, because this would be stainless steel, it was a rare instance when she could not do the physical work herself.
It was an important piece to do, O’Brien says. “I was delighted to do it both for Austin and for that area, because I love that area.”
“I think the people in that area are great, and there is a great sadness there,” she says. “All you have to do is open your eyes when you walk around and you see it.”
O’Carroll eventually relocated his practice to the primary care centre at the edge of the Grangegorman campus on the other side of Western Way.
The centre, he says, rents work from different artists, and among those in his own practice currently are a couple of newer pieces by O’Brien.
One installed on his wall is composed of hundreds of spoons.
Each individual spoon has a watch face welded into its bowl, and the clocks are placed into groups of ten, which are attached to a grid of vertical metal bars and horizontal forks, long, short and bent out of shape.
The story behind it, O’Carroll says, is that O’Brien would feel awkward when invited to dinner parties. “So, she’d look down at the cutlery, waiting for the time to pass.”
But, and as was the case with the web, O’Carroll says, her pieces allow the imagination to wander.
He recalls a patient offering up his own interpretation of their meaning one day in the practice.
“The patient came in and said, ‘Oh, I know what the spoons and forks are about,’” says O’Carroll.
O’Carroll asked what they meant and, he says, the patient replied, “It’s when you’re sitting there, trying to cook up your heroin and you can’t wait for your fix.”
Spotted a piece of public art that you’d like to know more about? Seen a sculpture with an interesting back story? Send us an email at [email protected], and we could research and write about it for our Brushing Up series.
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