The Absent Architect, an interactive art installation that will be at the Casino Marino through the summer months until October, is the latest in a long succession of public-art projects by the Paris-based Irish duo Anne Cleary and Dennis Connolly.
They are perhaps better known as Connolly Cleary or, on occasion, Cleary & Connolly, and their work habitually combines technological sophistication and easy accessibility: they actively involve the public as few other artists manage to do. In fact, their practice has consistently progressed to be increasingly collaborative with other artists, curators and audiences.
They both began by studying architecture and, when they turned to shaping art projects, they were unhappy that what they made “looked like architects’ art”. Their radical solution was to form a two-person group, IAT, or International Art Terrorists. Theatrically costumed, they ventured into public galleries and ritualistically broke the rules, by taking photographs, for example, or stepping over boundary rails, generating a response from guards and attendants. They videoed these actions, though not initially, so their early forays are undocumented. In contemporary-art terms, these events align with both institutional critique and relational aesthetics, although in retrospect they feel that the critique element was more incidental than calculated.
As Cleary puts it, they were really breaking down barriers in their own minds, breaching “the conceptual wall dividing art and life”. Certainly the relational aspect has been predominant since – starting with their own relationship: they are a couple as well as being artistic collaborators. Connolly says that collaboration is one effective way of undoing the egotistical tendency generally built into the creative process. Their collaborative approach has from the start situated the work in a social space, and its form arises from and is often dependent on engagement.
That comes across very clearly in The Absent Architect. William Chambers designed the Casino, or "little house", for James Caulfeild, or Lord Charlemont. It was finished in the mid-1770s. While certainly small by comparison with Charlemont House (now the Hugh Lane Gallery), which was also designed by Chambers, the Casino is regarded by many as Ireland's finest Neo-Classical building and, as Maurice Craig describes it, "one of the most beautiful buildings of its kind anywhere". Caulfeild and Chambers, who became friends while on the Grand Tour and both adored Classical architecture, set out to create the most perfect building in Ireland. It's also, Craig pointed out, one that in its sheer eclecticism doesn't quite belong anywhere.
When they embarked on the project, Connolly Cleary latched on to a few salient features. For example, it is, as Cleary notes: "A bit of a Tardis." Like Dr Who's phone box, it appears from the outside as a fairly compact single room. With considerable ingenuity, Chambers engineered its interior and exterior so that it actually comprises 16 rooms over three storeys. Once you're in the Tardis, of course, you can travel through time, and time travel is at the heart of The Absent Architect.
Chambers is and was absent in that, while his design is detailed to a mind-boggling degree, employing many intricate structural devices to fool the eye. He was based in London and extremely busy, so he never got to see the Casino. Connolly Cleary have somewhat rectified that omission; with Tardis-like sleight of hand, they've arranged things so that, when we enter the parlour of the Casino, we can see Chambers at work on the building's design, with his assistant James Gandon and a draughtsman, and in the parlour itself.
Pat Shortt plays the part of Chambers, Vincent O'Shea is Gandon and Connolly is the draughtsman. As you enter the room, you see yourself on a monitor. As you move around, your image fades and gives way to a view of the architects discussing the plans. Past and present overlap fluidly, depending on your position. The artists have coined the term Temporal Symmetroscope for this part of the installation, and the other two elements they call Iso and Stereo Symmetroscopes.
The Iso plays with spatial perception as the Temporal plays with time. A mirror construction situated in the hallway, it addresses the way Chambers tricks our eyes, exploiting our habitual sense of scale, proportion and distance. It’s movable, and when you rotate it, it makes a creaking sound not unlike the Tardis.
Located outside, the Stereo Symmetroscope resembles one of those sets of fixed viewing binoculars. This is another time machine. Lady Caulfeild made watercolour sketches of life on the estate at Marino, which was an open demesne, where people could come and go freely. Look into the eye pieces of the viewer and you see not a distant glimpse of the Sugarloaf but these sketches brought to life, being made and unmade within the real view of the Casino in front of you. Shortt et al feature, as does Cleary – “as a fishwife”, she notes – and several local volunteers, drawn from retirement and scout groups. It was, Cleary points out, a freezing day when they filmed, and everyone strained to give a sense of summery ease.
“The Casino constantly makes you ask yourself whether you’re seeing what you think you are seeing,” Cleary says. “You can’t take anything for granted. It’s full of tricks and illusions. We’ve tried to carry that over in our approach.” They’ve also opted for a subtle intervention rather than an obtrusively modern statement. Each part of the installation is presented so that that it doesn’t feel out of place but becomes part of the furniture.
Pauline Kennedy, the guides supervisor at the Casino, is very happy with The Absent Architect: "It's fascinating to see how people interact with it. Some are very cautious, others very hands-on. What's noticeable is that it's bringing a different audience to the building. We get people who come to see the art and find that it introduces them to the building. And that's really what we hoped for."
The Absent Architect is at the Casino Marino, off the Malahide Road, Dublin until