aisling o'beirn
artist documentation site

installation shot

detail of table

detail of table

detail of surface of table

detail of surface of table





bureau 1999

dunlaoghaire - rathdown concourse curated by clionadh shaffery

Catalogue text by Angeline Morrison, writer and researcher based in Cornwall, England

If you were able to look down upon the Concourse Space from outside of the glass ceiling above, what you would see for the duration of Aisling O'Beirn's show, 'Bureau', would make perfect sense. What appears from the ground to be a random arrangement of tables and objects, from above clearly represents the constallation of the Plough. O'Beirn arranged her seven waist-high silver trestle tables with typical subtlety, reversing the usual position of the viewer, and what she would normally see. Of course, the main joy is in the fact that the positioning of the tables appears totally random to anyone entering the building on foot at ground level, the vantage point of the majority of viewers. What O'Beirn has done is to privilege the vision of someone who you can't see - the person (or persons) who make decisions on behalf of other citizens. She immediately presents a paradox - a highly controlled arrangement which can be seen in two major ways masquerades as a random 'found' collection, visible (apparently) in only one way.

The tables themselves are all handmade by the artist, and the legs are coated with the strange, pale substance that is gesso - an instant reference to mediaeval and renaissance painting. On each of three tables is a bentwood chair, also coated in gesso, dividing the surface of the plasterboard by simultaneously focusing on its reflective silver surface and drawing the eye downwards towards the floor, bypassing of course, the gesso-covered table legs with their pencil inscriptions. There are also many green plants within the installation, providing an element of artificiality, of the attempt to cultivate outdoor things indoors, which often goes on in the office. Office culture, or the structure of the office (both architecturally and personally) is a running theme in this show. The title could refer to the bureau-type desks used in offices (or indeed in this installation), or to bureaucracy as an idea - it also contextualises some of the found objects such as files, watches, magnifying glasses, etc, which might easily be found within an office.

O'Beirn herself is interested in crafting as a highly valued process which played a key role in the production of such mundane and utilitarian things as shop signs. Certain passages of this work are dedicated to lamenting this lost age where pride was taken in craftsmanship - the curiously beautiful Belfast road sign made of individual glazed tiles, for example, seems to be placed entirely to make this point. There is also an old instruction book, yellowed leaves slightly mouldy, but containing secrets of a certain trade. The page open shows a restorer, making the comparison between the wood sculpture he is restoring and tree bark. The connection between the tree and the book itself is less clear, but there is a definite allusion to the nature of process or craft, which the paper-maker went through in order to arrive at the finished book.

There are also plaster casts of unusual objects and objects whose function changes when you twist or cover them - a watch, for instance, which changes to become a compass and measure distance and space. Objects related to weighing and measuring - two ways in which the human subject can come to understand and customize the world s/he occupies - appear dotted all over the tables. Obsolete but tactile and seductive-looking objects such as brass weights for weighing fish or other market goods, broken watches, objects which you just cannot identify, are all placed according to a plan within a plan within a plan. O'Beirn's interest in architecture is evidenced by the placement of the glass brick, a medium commonly used in public service buildings, but something which also makes a gesture towards the plentiful use of glass in the Concourse Space ceiling, and the overall shining space-age white-and-silver look of the show. The plan of the Plough is set out within a carefully planned space (the Concourse) within another carefully planned space (the County/Town Hall), and within the Plough is the other diagrammatic space, the arrangements of O'Beirn's mysterious found objects.

The use of living plants and greenery in her installations has become something of a trademark - her show in the Temple Bar Galleries used plants and constellations - but the use of live organic matter is highly symbolic in many ways. First of all, marking the growth of plants is another way of measuring time; it's a very specific one, as anyone interested in gardening will know that there are certain times, certain seasons, when it is good to plant, and yet others when it is good to harvest and store. Plants symbolise the fact that, independent of human intervention, life - or nature, or the world - will go on at its own pace. They represent something that human beings can only partially control. Also, the plants allow connections to be made with the constellations, as humans taxonomise the stars and species of plant in similar ways - it is a way of forcing a tiny amount of control.

Based in Belfast, Aisling O'Beirn makes political concerns an important part of her work, but with a characteristic sense of understatement. The viewer is left to draw her or his own conclusions about the nature of bureaucracy, viewing an installation which is deliberately situated in a space in a building where such decisions are made. Everything appears to be graspable to the viewer - all objects are small, the tables are low - except the all-important Plough arrangement is only really graspable if you can somehow see it from an inaccessible viewpoint, high above. Perhaps most people see major decision-makers as occupying such inaccessible positions. Or perhaps, as symbolised by the plants and the stars, people can only ever exert so much control