Uncovering stories in a deserted cottage
An installation of a lost Limerick dwelling links exhibitions in Dublin and Vienna
Elaine Byrne’s installation Raum stems from and fuses two diverse sources: one is an abandoned, dilapidated cottage near Askeaton in Co Limerick, and the other is a 1925 architectural construction by the distinctly unorthodox artist, architect and designer Frederick Kiesler, a pioneer of the modernist avant garde.
Kiesler is the subject of a major exhibition currently running in Vienna. His construction Raumstadt, known as City in Space, was conceived as “a temporary exhibition system” and, simultaneously, a utopian vision of a futuristic, floating city, devised and made for an exposition of decorative arts and design in Paris.
Byrne’s scaled-down reconstruction of it taps into both meanings. Raum began a couple of years ago, during a residency at Askeaton Contemporary Arts, and developed into a concurrent exhibition, Feralis, at the Belltable Arts Centre in Limerick. In the company of curator Michele Horrigan, Byrne chanced upon a deserted cottage on a bank of the river Deel close to Askeaton. “The house was built with mud from the river. It felt like part of the landscape. It had been unoccupied since the mid-1990s, and the landscape was reclaiming it.”
Byrne was keen to look inside and Horrigan approached a relative of its final occupant. That occupant was Hanni, a settled Traveller. Her nephew, Willie Harty, lives nearby. He readily gave permission and accompanied Byrne and Horrigan to the cottage. “It was extraordinary,” Byrne recalls. “He had lived there himself for some time. Everything had been left as it was when he closed the front door in 1995, and this was the first time he’d returned. He became very quiet and reflective while we were there. It was clear that the place, and everything about it, held strong personal memories for him.”
Byrne documented the interior of the cottage in photographs. While it’s a scene of inexorable decay, with layers of paper and paint peeling away from the walls, a sycamore sprouting from a mattress and ferns from the floor, it is also curiously homely and warm. Byrne quotes Virginia Woolf: “What people had shed and left . . . those alone kept the human shape and in the emptiness indicated how once they were filled and animated.” As Harty began to recall life in the cottage, Byrne recorded his voice-over video footage.
“I got the sense that in being there we were looking at someone’s story. Each detail has a meaning in terms of someone’s life: Nora’s cake top, Dolly’s chair. . . Willie’s recollections gave a glimpse into these lives and into a way of life that is gone, really. He says the days he spent there as a child, in a small, crowded cottage lacking what we would think of as even basic facilities, were the happiest of his life.”