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Desert Island Artworks: ‘Nephin’ in Glasshouse by Niamh O’Malley

There are three video pieces in our current show, Niamh O’Malley’s Glasshouse, which I would risk life and limb to rescue from shipwreck:  Quarry, the detailed and attentive study of a working limestone quarry; the eponymous Glasshouse, a formal achievement with exquisite qualities - arguably the finest piece in the show; and Nephin, a film which surveys at a distance the mountain of the same name in Mayo, in the west of Ireland.  Despite the compelling qualities of the other two, if there were space only for one USB memory stick in my lifejacket, it would have to be given to Nephin.    

In this film the viewer is placed inside the window of a vehicle – a car or van.  The gaze is that of a passenger:  it remains steady, keeping the mountain in view.  A black mark on the glass gives a fixed point of contrast as the car moves, circumnavigating the mountain.  The camera captures the surrounding landscape.  Walls, vegetation, ditches and fences obscure the view of the mountain from time to time, emphasising separation. Throughout, the mountain remains the constant, almost obsessive, focus, but one that refuses to be ‘fixed’ or framed. The use of black-and-white acts as another distancing device:  by taking out the diversity of colour the viewer notices planes and shapes, shades rather than textures.  These formal qualities alone make it a totally absorbing piece.

Nephin is an exceptional artwork which also works for me on many other levels.  The circuitous journey and the level of close attention to the mountain and its surroundings, evoke many summers spent happily, if purposefully, driving around the highways and byways of Ireland visiting the festivals, arts centres, arts officers, community groups and individual artists who represent the rich and diverse fabric of the country’s artistic life. 

Alongside this personal nostalgia, Nephin also has a depth of literary and mythic resonances. The distinctive mountain is situated on the shores of Lough Conn, near Crossmolina, and can be reached from the towns of Castlebar and Ballina. It was the seat of the kings of Connacht in medieval times and a song, The Brow of Nephin, features in Douglas Hyde’s ‘Love Songs of Connacht’, one of the key texts of the Irish Revival.

The mountain has romantic associations in Synge’s play, A Playboy of the Western World, in which Christy Mahon tells his beloved of his dreams, and Pegeen Mike responds, suggesting there is something illicit about love that might be consummated there:  

A Playboy of the Western World by J.M. Synge (extract)

CHRISTY -- [indignantly.]  Starting from you, is it?  (He follows her.)  I

will not, then, and when the airs is warming in four months, or five, it's

then yourself and me should be pacing Neifin in the dews of night, the times

sweet smells do be rising, and you'd see a little shiny new moon, maybe,

sinking on the hills.

PEGEEN  [looking at him playfully.] -- And it's that kind of a poacher's love

you'd make, Christy Mahon, on the sides of Neifin, when the night is down?

CHRISTY.  It's little you'll think if my love's a poacher's, or an earl's

itself, when you'll feel my two hands stretched around you, and I squeezing

kisses on your puckered lips, till I'd feel a kind of pity for the Lord God is

all ages sitting lonesome in his golden chair.

But most of all what makes Nephin  so personally resonant is that when the artist places this time-worn and resonant mountain behind a plate of glass, she seems to say ‘look again at all that is familiar’    

Niamh O’Malley’s artistic project asks us to think about glass as a surface or screen on which the world is projected: she herself has spoken about its ‘fake translucency’.  She draws attention to the material nature of glass, its dullness and lack of transparency.

Glass frames us everywhere we go – in our cities, our homes and even on our faces. O’Malley enables us to see better by helping us to become aware of this material and reflecting on its uses and limitations.

Nephin, draws on what is for me an instantly recognisable view – the car window on a  mountain in the Irish landscape.   It deftly shows that we are detached by the screens that surround us, screens that we sometimes consider invisible and yet which separate us from reality.

We see and do not see.

A thought to ponder on the desert island………

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