Between the darkness and the light

DARKNESS AND LIGHT can be very close to one another, and it’s not always clear which is which

DARKNESS AND LIGHT can be very close to one another, and it’s not always clear which is which. The first thing you hear if you walk into the gallery at the Cable Factory in Helsinki is the drone of aeroplanes.

It isn’t until you take in Abigail O’Brien’s large-scale photographs that you realise the sound is a recording of two grown men, shown playing in the photos, making aeroplane noises – it seems no man or boy can resist emitting these when they pick up a toy plane.

But children don’t just play war games because it’s fun, they do it because of some deeply rooted impulse towards violence and conflict, an impulse they want to tame and understand within the rules of a game.

O’Brien’s installation also includes a cluster of the original plastic planes from the photos, hanging from the ceiling. Cumulatively, the different elements perfectly catch that balance of play and menace embodied in toy guns, planes, and even the sounds children make when they mimic killing and dying in war.


The work is part of 7.42, an exhibition of the work of four Irish artists: O’Brien, Thomas Brezing, Seán Cotter and Mary Kelly. Following its Finnish appearance, the exhibition opens at the Highlanes Gallery in Drogheda, Co Louth on May 3rd. The numbers in the exhibition title refer to the worst accident in modern Finnish history, an explosion at an ammunition factory in 1976 in Lapua, a town just over 300km from Helsinki, that killed 40 workers.

Is it overly romantic or sentimental to say that places may store up history and release it like feelings? Some do this more than others: the calming atmosphere of an old church; the suppressed tension to be found in an empty sports ground; and the still coldness of long-disused prison buildings.

Often we bring our own knowledge to a place, creating moods that we are then surprised (and gratified) to find there – it would be difficult to go to Auschwitz and remain unmoved, but how much of that is place, and how much is knowledge of a place? Architects can also create that sense of place through their use of light and manipulation of space. Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin is one such place, although arguably it is over-manipulated, leaving little room for the unnatural power of the Holocaust itself to emerge.

At their best, artists and writers soak up atmospheres of places, distil them and then represent them, often in a way that extends beyond their original site or root cause.

The terrible thing, which took place in Lapua in 1976, casts its shadow over all the work in 7.42, and yet the artists have responded to the ideas around the event, rather than its specifics, so that now, translated to the Highlanes Gallery, itself a former Franciscan church, the exhibition speaks of universal themes of light and dark, war and play, love and death.

These dualities are not lost on Seán Cotter, who has returned to Finland and to Lapua again and again over the years; he was there in February, to experience the winter, the time when the snow is banked up, reflecting the few precious hours of daylight, and glittering in white, icy perfection, covering in uniformity what lies beneath.

Light such as this can’t help but influence an artist, particularly a painter. You can see it strongly in the late Tony O’Malley’s work, specifically in the difference between the paintings he made in Callan, Co Kilkenny, and the ones from his trips to the Bahamas. The form and shapes are the same in each strand of his work, but the light and colours are utterly different.

Cotter’s charcoal drawings set the vaguely menacing dark shapes of what appear to be crows against bleak whiteness. His paintings are suffused with snow, or if not snow itself, then that odd heaviness of laden skies. He also manages to balance light and dark elements within the abstractions of his painting, so that, seeing them, you find you are held in a hinterland, a place in which there is no definite horizon, and things could go either way. Choices, and the people who make them, says Cotter, “aren’t always either wholly good or bad. It might not be until the very end that this may become clear. ‘Good’ people do bad things, and ‘bad’ people can do good things and the complicated nature of mankind can make it very difficult to draw lines between the two . . . Out of bad can come good and vice versa, we just don’t know.”

Time and place also change how we see works of art. In Finland, Mary Kelly’s photographs and drawings of children’s graves are about memory and loss. Back in Ireland, they also specifically relate to the former Angels Plot in Glasnevin Cemetery. Seen in the ecclesiastical architecture of the Highlanes, the effect is extraordinarily powerful. Up until the 1970s, more than 50,000, usually unnamed, babies were buried in the Angels Plot, as Glasnevin was one of the few cemeteries in Ireland that allowed stillborn (and therefore unbaptised) children to be buried in consecrated ground. Kelly’s photographs mark the graves dating from the 1970s to the 1990s, which were adorned with toys, flowers, stone teddy bears, angels and dogs, photographs and other mementoes. Her drawings, of infants and angels fading into emptiness on fragile parchment, are almost heartbreakingly frail.

Today, following a controversial “clean up”, neat rows of headstones mark the babies’ names. Following Cotter’s logic, it is difficult to know if this is the “bad” or the “good”, or even what will ultimately come out of this attempt to create a uniformity of style and aesthetic for memory and grief.

At least art can escape that. It remains one site where ideas, experience, personal and collective memories and histories can be caught and recorded in all their chaotic, idiosyncratic abundance.

Thomas Brezing’s work is marked by abundance, in ideas, colours and forms. A series of old suitcases are filled with used tea bags, marking thousands of individual life-moments, in which the very ordinary act of making a cup of tea can be the prelude to a conversation, a piece of news, a revelation, or merely a quiet moment alone; the anonymous baggage of a thousand personal experiences. Some of the paintings were made prior to his stay in Lapua, but others, such as Spark, are a direct response to the experience.

Often the scenes are night time ones, although there is an absence of darkness. In Fairground, the dark shapes of children on a carousel echo Cotter’s crow-like figures – angels, or spirits, gather and circle above the colour, just out of reach.

Despite the trauma of the exhibition’s premise (7.42 being the time one of the worker’s watches stopped, the exact moment of the tragedy) there is a sense of lightness and hope to it. Art can do that, it can show us both light and dark simultaneously, leaving meanings open-ended and often unclear. The building in Lapua where the explosion took place is now a museum and arts centre, and the region of Lapua is twinned with Co Louth. There are interesting connections between the two, of troubled histories with neighbours, and of ongoing tensions. During the second World War, Finland fought three wars – alone against the Soviet Union, with Germany against the Soviet Union, and then against Germany.

In O’Brien’s photographs, the two men playing are Thomas Brezing and Esa Honkimäki, director of the Lapua Art Museum. The two are in Honkimäki’s old childhood bedroom (O’Brien found the toy planes in the building’s cellar). In this way, she brings the pull of the past together with the hope of some kind of shared future.

Buildings, spaces and places carry memory and atmosphere, and the artists in this exhibition achieve what we often try to do when confronted with it: they capture it, hold it, and give it back to us in powerful and occasionally beautiful ways.

7.42 is at Highlanes Gallery, Drogheda, Co Louth until September 5th.,

Festival features

7.42 is part of the Drogheda Arts Festival, which runs from May 3rd to 7th. Here are some of its other highlights.

Ship Street Revisited.Upstate Theatre Project's play about stories and memories, taking place on the actual Boyne-side street referred to in the title.

The Wheelchair on My Face.Sonya Kelly stars in the hilarious and touching hit play about a four-eyed seven-year-old.

Arabian Waltz.Lebanese oud master and composer Rabih Abou-Khalil and friends perform in St Peter's Church of Ireland.

Thought Once Was.A dance double bill exploring dementia and Alzheimer's disease, and unchained freedom.

Street Spectacularswith Rumpus from Macnas and Flutterby Circus

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton contributes to The Irish Times on art, architecture and other aspects of culture