A small cabinet of curious animal wonders


Entering the cabinet of animal curiosities on Dundrum’s Airfield estate is like stepping into the past, writes ROSITA BOLAND

YOU WONDER was it tempting fate, the way July’s weather turned out – building an art installation on a raft. Arks, Noah, floods, the lone brave dove going out to seek dry land, all that watery Biblical stuff.

At Airfield in south Dublin, there is a newly developed water area on the edge of the 14-hectare estate. Here, Airfield’s summer resident artist, Andrew Dodds, has located his site-specific piece.

“I’m really interested in blurring the distinction between natural and cultural objects,” Belfast-born Dodds explains, as we shelter from an almighty downpour in his installation, Wunderkammer.

Much of his work as an artist is site-specific, and landscape based. His brief at Airfield was to make a piece of outdoor art, drawing on items from the house and grounds of the Overend family’s estate, which has been a trust since 1993.

Dodds wanted to create a “social sculpture”. His idea was to create a kind of cabinet of curiosities, with objects from the archives of the Overend family, and items that were available in Airfield’s education programme. Cabinets of curiosities – or wunderkammer, “wonder rooms” as they were also known – were popular with wealthy families, and aristocrats from the 17th century onwards used them to display treasures, souvenirs, and esoteric bits and pieces, usually collected on exotic travels.

Dodds’s Wunderkammeris an old garden shed that was on the estate. He commandeered it for his installation, painting it white inside. As the piece is temporary, he wanted to emphasise the ephemeral element of it, so he placed it on top of a raft: logs of Wicklow pine, layered over plastic barrels. It’s beached at the side of the man-made pond, looking a lot like an ark, that might or might not drift away on the next flood.

With an ark, you expect creatures and birds. The first thing you see when you enter the shed are taxidermy birds and a fox, as well as a number of skulls, horns and antlers. There are also sepia photographs of long-dead dogs belonging to the Overends, including a Westie called Bonzo, and envelopes full of dog hair, clipped as mementoes. “I see the domestic pet as being halfway between nature and a cultural object,” Dodds explains.

The Overend family were very fond of animals, particularly their many dogs and cats, and constantly documented them, in the form of photographs and written records. While the majority of the contents of Airfield were sent to auction, the items with less value, chiefly paper documents and various personal bits and pieces, such as photographs, amateur paintings, and ornaments, were retained. These are now stored in a small, crowded room in the main house. The floor-to-ceiling shelves contain scores of archive boxes, labelled everything from “Farming invoices 1905-1933” to “Letetia Overend Diaries 1937-1944”.

“I literally had to go through piles of stuff to find what I wanted,” Dodds says. Since his focus was on animals, he took whatever he could find on the Overend pets, including a large piece of cardboard, which is on display in the shed. The back of the cardboard, part of a shirt-box from a shop on Grafton Street that no longer exists, appears to have been written on by a child. It’s entitled “Cats Record” and solemnly documents the number and fate of kittens born to a stray cat, Mrs D, who arrived at the estate “to the lodge of this said place, Airfield” in April 1912, the same month the Titanic sank. “Matthew, died in lime; Sally, given away; Neranda, disappeared; Perdita, sent to the cats’ home.” Dodds sees his Wunderkammeras a type of time-capsule for the estate.

There are fallen nests, skulls of dead animals, the preserved fox, the photographs of the family dogs, the records of a stray cat’s kittens, all arranged inside the shed on shelves he built from the left-over wood he used for the raft. It’s a bit like being inside a cabinet of curiosities. To stand at the shed door and look out across the water is to feel that you’re part of the past.