Small cities that tell a big story

Tadhg McSweeney’s labyrinthine constructions are ingenious statements on the urban environment

The centrepiece of Tadhg McSweeney's exhibition Edifice Complex at Carlow 's Visual Centre for Contemporary Art is a kind of city in miniature, an architectonic, labyrinthine sculptural construction. This is not to say that it's one of those sleek architectural models with huge, impassive blocks, little stylised trees and tiny happy people, designed to lull you into a state of utopian, Celtic Tiger inertia, so that you'd buy a penthouse off the plans for several times the annual GDP of Belgium.

No, while it would be wrong to describe McSweeney’s work as dystopian, he has from the first dealt with the idea of a damaged, broken world in need of repair. He habitually employs found objects and basic materials, such as sheets of plywood and other recycled scraps and fragments. He ingeniously cuts, combines, shapes and arranges such impoverished stuff so that it all becomes a world in miniature, even as we are aware of the visual trickery involved.

His Edifice Complex , a cobbled together but intriguing city, draws us into its complicated, interlocking forms and spaces in an hypnotic way. It can be read as an allegory of Ireland during the speculative building boom. It's a vision of the bizarre world that, given a lot of money and a dysfunctional planning regime, we ended up making and, to our surprise, living in. The significance of the location, an enormously ambitious cultural venue initiated during the good times, and more recently faced with serious issues, is unmistakable.

Born in Dublin, McSweeney is the son of one of Ireland’s foremost landscape painters, Seán McSweeney. Tadhg’s early years were spent in Co Wicklow but the family then moved to Ballyconnell in rural Co Sligo, the birthplace of Seán’s mother. Growing up in the country, and involved in studio life, McSweeney developed a knack for working with materials in a practical way, including an involvement in making canvas stretchers and frames. He also accumulated objects and fragments that caught his interest.


Although he did think of studying architecture, he opted for fine art at NCAD. In his first year in the painting department, he says in an interview with curator Eamonn Maxwell, "there was a project where we were asked to bring in things of personal interest from which to work". It was a turning point. Rather than bringing in one or two things and depicting them in paintings, he kept bringing in more and more stuff and "became interested in assembling objects and images on the wall".

By the time of his degree show, he was making improvised “fantasy landscapes with some kinetic elements”. He continued to make paintings, often in conjunction with sculptural elements. Even his most painterly paintings, however, reveal an artist playing with suggestion and ambiguity, never really settling into a readymade pictorial language, preferring to tease out some potential image from the give and take of the process.

In his paintings, as well, he was drawn to using surfaces and materials with a prior use, such as paper or cardboard, old wood panels and off-cuts, recycled frames or bits of frames. It’s as if he was taking the conventions apart and reassembling them, not rejecting tradition but not taking it at face value either, looking both backwards and forwards, making new worlds from the residue of the old.

Another important feature is the hand-made, rough-hewn nature of everything he makes. No matter how ingenious or elegantly put together his work is, he doesn't try to disguise the low-tech simplicity of it all.

Huge undertaking
The main gallery space in Visual is huge. Enter through the main doorway and the entire gallery is immediately visible. The scale is overwhelming. McSweeney, who is based close to Carlow and is familiar with the gallery, set about thwarting the architecture. He devised a "Babel-like" architectonic construction that redefines the entrance. You have to negotiate your way through it. It's not exactly a labyrinth, though. In fact, it's a pleasant place to be in itself, and its multiple screens and windows offer many partial views, including a first glimpse of the metropolis at the far end of the room.

This idea of framing is central to the exhibition. As if to underline it, McSweeney uses numerous picture frames or parts of frames in many constructions. Thus, although there are no paintings as such in the show, painting is ubiquitously implied: the installation is brilliantly designed so that you can see it as a limitless succession of framed images, images that constantly stop you in your tracks. In this way, it’s not just architectonic in a general sense, it’s also a gallery within a gallery, prompting us to think of the mechanics of art-making and presentation.

While there is an elegiac quality to McSweeney’s work, its mood is more optimistic than you might expect, more recuperative than sorrowful. We find ourselves, he implies, in a faded, broken world, but it’s full of beauty and possibility nonetheless, and not a little humour.

Those swords can yet be beaten into ploughshares. In the Link Gallery, he’s constructed a fantastic kinetic contraption. Two unlikely looking vessels, looking precarious and ungainly, approach each other along a rail but manage to stop short of the apparently inevitable collision before beginning the process all over again.

In its short history, Visual has had some terrific, adventurous exhibitions, and that’s a pretty good description of McSweeney’s. More than that, it functions as one continuous, monumental though never overbearing installation, one that was conceived and made specifically for the gallery: it works superbly and it’s perfectly complemented by Tacita Dean’s film on Pop Art sculptor Claes Oldenburg.

Edifice Complex by Tadhg McSweeney, curated by Eamonn Maxwell is at Visual, Carlow until April 14th. Manhattan Mouse Museum , Tacita Dean’s film about the world of Claes Oldenburg , is at Visual until April 21st.