“It takes effort to make something work,” says O’Malley, reflecting on a question posed by an exhibition visitor, curious about the exposed cables in her video sculpture and if they were necessary to make the film. “I loved that question… I like to make things that are very bare and obvious, creating a simplicity of act or form.” Oftentimes, the finished product does not reveal the process, and in there, the distance between a person’s understanding and their connection to materials begins to break away. Simply seeing things as they are presented becomes intuitive. This is a fragrance — spray, smell good. And, This is a sculpture — look, see art. Our sensitivity and primal instinct to question and relate back to the things around us get lost. I interviewed the artist Niamh O’Malley following the opening of her exhibition “GATHER,” representing Ireland at the 59th Venice Art Biennale, presented by the Temple Bar Gallery + Studios, Dublin. One of the first questions I asked Niamh was if a scent could ever be a sculpture, given its non-tactile and transient nature; her response was, “When I think about scent, I don’t think of it as a narrative form, although it may call upon memory and relate to stories in some ways. Scent is quite spacious. It occupies space.” More often, space for us is less about what is inside but the lack thereof. We think about breath and elbow room; between this and that. But what happens when the materials return our attention to the familiar — you can anticipate the touch, perceive the smell, and immediately place the object within your everyday surroundings? Or what if space is something that is created for you to enter and not one of distance? It is no longer about what stands between. Rather than a sculpture, it becomes your shelter — a place of refuge. And rather than a fragrance, it becomes your space — a world to occupy. O’Malley’s preference for using base materials and her perspective on space restitches the torn relationship between the body and materials with an invitation, but also a command, to GATHER.
»AS IT CAN BE ABOUT VISIBILITY, IT CAN BE ABOUT INTERIORITY. IT PULLS YOU INTO A SPACE. I AM VERY INTERESTED IN TOUCH AND THE RELATIONSHIP TO THE THINGS THAT WE USE AROUND US.«
FOLIE: Niamh, I am so happy to have this conversation and to explore your work olfactively. I want to dive into the materials you use in your sculptures.
O’MALLEY: Yes. I am actually very curious. It is definitely a new one for me.
FOLIE: Are there any materials that you constantly return to, and what feelings do you associate with them?
O’MALLEY: More recently, I have worked a lot with wood, but glass has been the longest-lasting one. I started working with glass because I was filming through it. I was painting something on a sliver of translucent glass and putting it in front of a camera. But then, all the glass was just lying around the studio. I like that glass is translucent but not invisible – It is far from it! The more the glass sat around the studio, the more it became a part of different forms. As it can be about visibility, it can be about interiority. It pulls you into a space. I am very interested in touch and the relationship to the things that we use around us – shelves, books, handles. Things that even if you can’t touch them in the exhibition, you understand how they feel and know how it feels to run your finger across them. I do all the finishing of them myself, the staining, the waxing, and all of that process. It is really important to me. And more recently, steel. Which is this hard, cold, strong material. It is incredible! You can fold it like paper and get these crisp, clean edges; it is strong enough to hold something 3 meters in the air. It is just an interesting mechanical process that creates this material with such strength and elegance. Also, stone. These are very, sort of, base materials—wood, metal, glass, and stone.
FOLIE: You expressed your desire to make things still or solid. Do you think that something so unfixed and transient, like a fragrance, could ever be a sculpture?
O’MALLEY: This is very interesting. I don’t use sand because I believe that it is a narrative form. When I think about scent, I don’t think of it as a narrative form, although it may call upon memory and relate to stories in some ways. Scent is quite spacious. It occupies space. I like to make things that are very bare and obvious, creating a simplicity of act or form. Someone asked me a question about one of the pieces in the exhibition with the LED screen. They wondered if all the cables and wires in the back were necessary to make the film. I loved that question. This was to show that it takes effort to make something work. When you think about fragrance, a lot goes into producing something.
FOLIE: Are there any particular smells you often experience while creating your works or the environment in which the pieces are developed?
O’MALLEY: One, particularly, is the wax I use to polish the works. It is called Osmo Polyx – Oil. It is not furniture polish; it is really a wax. It is really lovely; I always enjoy this part. Then, there is the smell of cutting wood and sawdust.
»I SUPPOSE I REALLY WANT THEM TO EXPERIENCE THE MATERIALS AND REMIND THEM OF HOW THINGS ARE MADE IN OUR OWN WORLD, IN OUR OWN SPACE, AND EVEN ON THE STREET.«
FOLIE: What feelings would you like the visitors of “Gather” to take with them?
O’MALLEY: A sense of familiarity but also enough strangeness to produce a moment of attention. So they linger with the form, like some of the stone pieces. They feel some of the weightiness of the material. They literally feel it at their feet and what lies at the ground. They have a sense of their own body in relationship to a piece that was formed over millions of years and scored through tooling that lies heavy on the ground. Some of the pieces create corners and shapes in the room, and they relate back to your body. Are they producing a sense of shelter or a space you can inhabit? I suppose I really want them to experience the materials and remind them of how things are made in our own world, in our own space, and even on the street. Using these materials to provoke a sense of strong attention and relationship to the materials that are around us in the world.
FOLIE: Suppose there was a smell or a scent that someone could leave with. What would you imagine it to be?
O’MALLEY: I would say something quite clean and precise. Everything is held in its own space. It’s a weird thing. When I make shelf work, every element is really singular, but they are grouped together. Although you are able to separate the objects, they don’t flow into each other or become one form. They are like a series or a set, quite distinctly. So considering this, if I would imagine it as a smell, it would have a very distinctive and precise point to it, that you can distinguish the different ingredients in the composition, but as a whole, it feels like something new.
FOLIE: Any contrasting materials?
O’MALLEY: Yes! Like there is a lightness of the glass, it is transparent and very fragile, and then you have the weightiness of the steel. Both are functional and kind of extremely heavy. And then you have the piece of wood that often creates a line holding them together.
FOLIE: Thank you Niamh. Before we end, I will default to two more general scent questions. What smells are you personally attracted to?
O’MALLEY: I am a gardener, so it tends to be flowers. Something new opening in the garden just reminds me of the previous year. I have roses, and we have a massive fennel bush. It is such an amazing thing; it is so fluffy and soft, but the smell is sharp and really intense. Quite loud, actually. It tends to be things I grow.
FOLIE: You are based in Ireland. Are there any particular scents that often draw your attention?
O’MALLEY: Rain! After you go for a walk after the rain, everything just lifts. You can smell the grass. It is a very earthy, foggy, crisp, clear smell of grass, leaves, and new growth – especially during this time of year. I guess it is about the smell of rain and what it does.