Fiona Kelly: work at rest

The materials in Fiona Kelly's works are also her subject matter. Her depictions of deteriorating ruins, cast-off objects and eroding edifices being slowly absorbed back into the landscape are made through those very same residual elements. Concrete powder solidifies into geometric sculptural forms, bitumen is printed onto a plywood billboard, dust is transferred to gallery walls. The peculiar alchemy that Kelly employs suggests a certain temporal nature to her pieces, as if, in the (very) long run, they too will succumb to the relentlessness of time, will crumble and decay and leave no trace.

Is it any coincidence that Kelly's practice has largely developed at a time when Ireland has gone through a recession largely caused by the excesses of an unregulated property boom? From 1999 to 2007, bank lending towards construction and real estate increased by 1,730 percent, reaching €96.2 billion. Fintan O’Toole points out that, “at the height of the madness, we were building 90,000 [houses] a year. Prices were a developer’s fantasy: between 1994 and 2005, average house prices in Dublin increased by a scarcely credible 328 per cent.” 1 The ramifications of this spree were seen in the 'ghost estates' throughout rural and suburban Ireland, where new housing developments sat vacant and unconnected to public services and utilities, in the half-built structures squatting on commercial properties, and the derelict complexes taken over as artist studios and rehearsal spaces. Sadly, no real lessons seem to have been learned in the time since then: the economic recovery of Ireland in recent years has driven property prices and rents back up to their 2007, pre-recession levels and, as always, vested interests see no reason to intervene. Rather, the attitude seems to have returned to "the boom times are getting even more boomier", as the former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern glibly promised in 2006.

As Tim Edensor explains: "Ruins are excess matter, containing superfluous energy and meaning, which, as disorderly intrusions, always come back to haunt the planners' vision of what the city should be. They confound the normative spacings of things, practices and people and thus address the power embodied in ordering space." Such failures of vision also haunt Kelly's work. They point to the hubris of the central planner, the consultant, or the counsellor, who envisages that things should run in a certain orderly manner. Residue is a by-product of these ambitions: the scattered remnants, abandoned fragments, unfinished foundations that, in most cases, would have been swept up and deposited some place where they wouldn't be visible. Here, they are simply left behind.

The cyclical trajectory of decay and growth in Kelly's practice operates on a different timescale of course but, at the same time, her images of re-wilded landscapes, with broken fragments of concrete and rebar being gradually overtaken by a resurgent, irrepressible nature, are familiar scenes in contemporary Ireland, particularly in the small towns pulled along in the wake of Dublin and Cork. The roots never truly took hold in some of these places. For instance, in her 2015 sculpture The Distillation of Detritus, several cast cubes of reconstituted demolition material sit on a turf-carpeted wooden pallet. The installation wavers somewhere between building site and makeshift garden, and it is perhaps this between-ness that is integral to Kelly's practice. The mingling of natural and manmade materials renders the components as indistinct, alternately registering as 'growing over' or 'building upon' each other. Is the sod merely being transported to a new location or has it accrued over time, slowly peeking through and then overtaking the wooden slats above? Are the cement shapes intended as rock outcrops, albeit ones moulded to very specific, modular forms, or are they the debris of an unseen, even unfinished, site nearby? Is the space done or is it just getting started? To complicate matters, the same work (or at least the same title) re-appears several years later, stripped of its grass bed and makeshift pallet. The cast concrete forms appear to have multiplied, piling one atop another, while the platform has been replaced with a more refined minimalist wooden structure. The work seems to have evolved to another stage in an ongoing, ever-changing evolution.

While Kelly’s work does often depict the after-effects – or the looming changes – of urbanisation, it always proceeds further to find that, in the re-use and re-construction of discarded materials (a tactic that Kelly has also deployed in mixing elements of previous projects, incorporating old works into new installations), there are opportunities for playful subversion, humour, hopefulness. The printed image of industrial detritus amongst weeds and nettles becomes the exterior design of a three-dimensional plywood shelter while a separate series of prints resemble plans for absurdist natural inventions: a skip full of pines, a lone tree growing from a ball of soil. In an installation at Luan Gallery in 2018, a large mound of waste glass, ground into a fine, shimmery powder, is intermittently spotted along its surface with inverted jars. These act as miniature greenhouses, beaded with condensation and containing fledgling variations of plant life. There is potential even here, where the discarded wreckage of industry, of economy and ‘innovation’, becomes the seed bed or testing ground for new shoots of growth. The title of Kelly’s work: Future Forests

1.     Fintan O’Toole, “We have returned to 1913 conditions - families living in a single room”, The Irish Times, 19 September 2017

2.     Tim Edensor, “Industrial Ruins”, in Manifesta 7 Companion, eds. R. Dasgupta, N. Montmann and A. Pitchon (Milan: Silvana Editoriale, 2008)  p. 110.