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Dust to dust

Updated: Mar 14, 2020

A response to the Lavit Gallery Student of the Year Exhibition Confluence

featuring Padraic Barrett & Orla O’Byrne by Paul Connell

“All I know is a door into the dark”, opens Seamus Heaney’s timeless lament of the male condition.

It is a venerable door, this gateway, one that is knocked on but seldom answered.

Barrett’s work demolishes whatever door stood meekly between him and the dark and he welcomes it, he taunts it; marrying himself to the veil between, but never committing to either side.

There is no more binary for him here; there is no more life or death, but something that oscillates between the two, exponentially, tangentially. The artist’s performances are both baptism and burial. Large format videos of the artist absorbed in shamanistic rituals occupy the floorspace, where we appear to witness from a great height above, or as if stumbling upon a corpse.

Barrett imposes on us from what side of the veil we are observing, toying with fetish and the voyeur.

We watch the artist subject himself to the elements, vanish beyond them and then return a harbinger, a messenger. Questions of masculine legacies and inheritances leak from the imagery of the land and the labourer, where the artist motionless, worships and blasphemes, as Heaney put it: 

“Set there, immoveable: an altar

Where he expends himself in shape and music”.

Rhythm and breath and black and white and earth and water.

Laden with a seductive masochism, these become instruments of insight and vicious mockery.

The artist’s live endurance based performance in the gallery flirts with the abject.

We are invited to an intimate burial where the artist in silk pyjamas and a lace veil is ceremonially freckled, coated and baptised in soil. There is no vault or grave, but a humble white panel. His mausoleum, or birth canal is something beyond the visible. The shovel is laid down, and earth trembles on heaving slumber.

“A last one so unanswerably landed

The staked earth quailed and shivered in the handle?”

Revisiting the site some days later, and finding his resurrection indicated by the impression of the artist's body in the sculpted earth, candidly relates to the confluence between it and the onlooking partial casts.


Like three dimensional shadows, O’Byrne’s vexing plaster casts are, in essence, not far removed from drawing. Not unlike Ozymandias, whose “half sunk, shattered visage lies”, there is a subtle pathos to the obscured faces, smothered in bliss and agony and sophist fraud.

Blankly they confront the viewer, begging for answers. The series of artefacts nestle in their mantle, like fractions of a catacomb; unlike Ozymandias, nameless. 

Casting as a process is crucial to the visual and conceptual ambiguity of these death-masks. By nature of their medium, the faces reasonably resemble an unknown yet undebatable Platonic form, but what elegant mutations from their original or mother source the artist charges them with is what separates them from mere facsimile, and challenges preconceived notions of imitationalism, institutionalism, and authenticity. We live in an unreliable world infested with photoshop and other modes of image or video manipulation and chicanery. O’Byrne’s artifice is sophisticated and derisive of a post-truth age.

Obelisks that shiver with almost chemically heterogeneous chalk drawings tower over the viewer and trespass, stealing space in the gallery, like a column of negative space, rather than merely occupying it. A number of legacy drawings, now and long since erased, are projected onto the blackboard surface, and melt in and out of the conflicting first, second and third dimensions. It would be wrong to call this animation, because these beautifully ethereal waves are the ghosts of drawings, rather than brought to life. Ripples and wrinkles of memories of chalk and the artist’s own hand in their making come to the surface and are washed away again, leaving us ponder their origins, their language and their impermanence.

Confluence runs until the 15th February 2020 in the Lavit Gallery, Wandesford Quay, Cork

(Installation photo of Caul by Padraic Barrett 2020)

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