Memories in the Material: An Interview with Patricia McKenna

Marking the Land: Soil, 1997. Site-specific work in Ballyhaise, County Cavan. Detail of County Meath soil with blue pigment, 4 x 4 x 2 ft.

Patricia McKenna is an Irish artist whose intimate sculptures and site-specific installations are known for their unique combination of materials and ability to create moods of quiet unease. Born and raised in Dublin, her family comes from Swanlinbar, County Cavan—a rural landscape in the north of the Irish republic that has been radically transformed by migration and displacement. She was involved in the Artist Work Program at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) in Dublin in 1997 and is perhaps best known for The Grey House (1993–94), an installation exploring the reality of migration in present-day Ireland, which earned her a place on the IMMA/Glen Dimplex Award’s shortlist in 1994 (an award modeled closely on the Tate Gallery’s Turner Prize in Great Britain). Since the late 1970s McKenna has participated in more than 40 solo and group exhibitions in Ireland and throughout Europe and has recently begun to exhibit in the United States. Her work was included in “Shattering the Crockery” at the Dairy Center for the Arts in Boulder, Colorado, in 1998, and “Grotesqueness of Desire,” at Inside Art in Chicago in 1999.

Melinda Barlow: You went to the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, and some of your sculptures include paintings. Were you a painter before you moved into sculpture and installation?

Patricia McKenna: I don’t know how I’d label myself. I started off in the National College of Art with a foundation course that covers a range of subjects—drawing, painting, sculpture, prints, everything. After that, I specialized in painting. At that time the painting course was very traditional: you did a lot of anatomical study, drawing emphasis, observing the figure, and life painting. When I finished college in 1974, I did a one-year general course at the same college that prepared you for teaching. But it was when I left college that I reached a crisis point. This was in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I suddenly felt that my work wasn’t satisfying me, that I was no longer interested in surface, that I was just creating objects and I didn’t know why. So I just focused on drawing for a year, and during that time I began to get very interested in space.

MB: Did you want to work in three dimensions rather than two?

PM: Absolutely. And part of what inspired me were the early Italians. I had wanted for a long time to go to Italy to see Giotto’s work, so in 1989 I managed to go to Italy for three months. When I saw Giotto’s frescoes in Assisi and Padua, I said that’s it, I am doing installations. It was color, it was drawing, it was painting, but most importantly it was space—there was a completely three-dimensional sense of space. It leapt off the walls, and it filled the room, and I suddenly knew I wanted to explore space that way, too.

The shift came around 1991. That’s when I made Drumbar, the second work in the series “Marking the Land.” One work in that show consisted of a painting on the wall and two paintings inlaid with photographs on the floor, and connecting them was a piece of fabric extending from the wall to the floor. The painting suggested an abstract interior space, or echoes of a landscape, and the photographs were of my grandparents and great-grandparents. The title of that work was Only the Land Knows Their Names, and it was a mix between abstract and concrete. I think of that whole show now as being a mixture, still half painting and sort of half installation.

Marking the Land: The Grey House (detail of the kitchen), 1993–94. Stove, shoes, and blue pigment, dimensions variable.

MB: Were there other works included in Drumbar?

PM: Yes, across the gallery were three large panels covered with white fabric that formed the centerpiece of the show. What I envisioned was that people would walk around and observe everything else, and then be confronted with the panels. Hidden in the middle one were mirrors, partially concealed by voile, which is very sheer, almost like bridal veils. The idea was that people would eventually come back to where they started and have to confront their own reflections. The work was structured like a journey and evoked the inner journeys we must all take from time to time.

MB: The motif of the journey, an interest in landscape, and an attraction to certain materials, like fabric—these seem to be some of the key features of your work.

PM: Materials speak and have their own language, they seem to contain memories. I’m very drawn to fabric, it’s true. In the Drumbar piece, people could project their own meanings or associations onto the fabric, which is tactile and also has an abstract emotional quality that lends itself to personal experience.

Marking the Land: The Grey House, 1993–94. Wooden bannister, fabric, and ashes, dimensions variable.

MB: You used fabric in The Grey House (1993–94) as well, in the room whose peeling blue-green walls remind me of Giotto. That piece of gauze-like fabric attached to a broken banister has a ghost-like quality and seems to make a memorial of the ash underneath.

PM: I think a lot of fabric is like that, it can help create visual tension. It doesn’t feel quite comfortable, placing those materials together, and that’s an important part of the work. It’s a technique I use a lot, bringing together contradictory materials, the use of wood against fabric, soft against hard. In my recent show in Kilkenny, “Encounters,” I tried to combine some things, like earthenware, which is hard, with sisal, which is all teased out and fluffy. The contrast of those materials, or of trying to sew with thread, or put nails into ceramics, which are a bit like eggshells—it didn’t feel quite right, and I liked that sense of unease.

MB: When did you first begin to explore landscape in your work?

PM: Landscape and land have a huge effect on me, physically. I need to go out and up into the mountains and go walking every week, just to survive. The whole series “Marking the Land,” which includes Swanlinbar, Drumbar, The Grey House, and Soil (1997), was concerned with the fact that I was part of the first generation reared in the city. My parents came from an area that was slap-bang on the border between Northern Ireland and the republic of Ireland. So a lot of my earlier work used landscape as a metaphor, because I felt that I had grown up in a very “country” house, but in the city. I felt disconnected from something that was really part of me, uprooted from another place. I felt that I was neither one nor the other. So when I started looking at that, I made Echoes of Swanlinbar and Drumbar, which dealt with my immediate family. It’s been an ongoing process of peeling away layers.

Marking the Land: The Grey House, 1993–94. Wooden bannister, fabric, and ashes, dimensions variable.

MB: That process becomes a material thing in your work, which often involves peeling away layers.

PM: I think all of the work has been about that. So when I made The Grey House, it involved a conscious decision not to deal so directly with my family. I wanted to be separate, I needed to be more objective. But I still wanted the work to be within the same county, which is Cavan, in the northern part of the republic. All three works, Swanlinbar, Drumbar, and The Grey House, dealt with absence and memory and migration. There has been a huge change in Ireland lately, lots of people have left the townlands, the smaller areas around the towns which have only fields or a few houses. I was very interested in the placenames of the townlands, because a lot of them were Irish names or translations of Irish names, very connected to physical place, describing say, the shape of a field. I was concerned that, as people were leaving the townlands, whole histories were being lost, so I wanted somehow to deal with that.

MB: You’ve spoken a lot about having a dialogue with the place and the people where your works are installed, that both The Grey House and Soil were an opportunity for locals to become involved in a kind of exchange. For The Grey House, for example, you borrowed materials and then gave them back.

PM: What’s interesting about The Grey House is that I thought the piece would be up for three months. But there was interest in it, so it was up for a year. There was a half-broken door in the back of the house, and the wind blew it down, so for about six months the wind whirled through the whole place, and you could just walk in off the road. Anyone could have got into the house, but no one touched a thing.

Marking the Land: Soil, 1997. Detail of used sacks and McKenna’s video Journey, 1997.

MB: How did you find this particular house?

PM: I had help from the Cavan Arts Officer, Cliodhna Shaffrey. A whole gang of us spent months driving around every little back lane in Cavan, rooting out derelict houses. And I saw a number that were lovely, but because the house was going to be open to the public, we always had to think about insurance. If it had a thatched roof, we couldn’t get insurance; if it was across a field, we couldn’t get insurance. So gradually everything became eliminated, and I was getting desperate, and a friend of mine told me about what she called her “grey house,” near Belturbet. I loved it. Then the Arts Officer went to the local farmer who owned it and negotiated. There were sheep in it at the time that were being housed for the winter, and it was very damp and rundown. I had planned to use and hide bits of furniture in various rooms and peeking out of the wallpaper, using what was left in the house. I asked the farmer to leave everything, but he cleaned and made a big bonfire. He said he didn’t want me to go into a house in that state.

MB: You worked again with the idea of layering, and you hid things. There were bits of maps tucked in the shoes, photographs and glasses peeking out of envelopes. How did you collect those materials?

PM: The Arts Officer put an ad in the local newspaper, saying that there would be a public meeting in the townhall with an artist who was doing an art project, and that if anyone was interested, they could come and hear what it was about and maybe get involved. The people who came were very open, they set up a collection to see if anybody wanted to donate things that had been left by people who had emigrated from their county. We also went to every class in the schools, leaving tags, which the children filled out with the names of their townlands.

Marking the Land: Soil (detail), 1997. Site-specific work in Concourse, Dun Laoghaire, Rathdown County Hall, County Dublin. Plastered sacks, dimensions variable.

MB: I’m interested in how you arranged materials in both The Grey House and Soil—envelopes and shoes and piles of earth make me think of Minimalism, because the elements repeat. But your work is more poignant than mathematically precise.

PM: For me, there is a huge freedom in repeating something, because repetition creates its own order. It creates a kind of stability that is not stable. You have the continuation of a pattern, but at the same time you can vary and distort it by placing materials and objects out of context. Here again the Italians were helpful, for I think there is a sense of rhythm and repetition in those frescoes that creates another kind of abstract space within the work. And, by the way, I love Minimalist work, but I know I couldn’t make the real hard-edged Minimalism that I love. I need texture, surface, and different kinds of materials.

Marking the Land: Soil, 1997. Site-specific work in Ballyhaise, County Cavan. Soil and folded sacks, dimensions variable.

MB: And in The Grey House and Soil those materials bring home the reality of displacement. You also seem very interested in the process of decay.

PM: There is definitely in my choice of materials a concern with decay and mortality, the past, and memory, and in The Grey House in particular I wanted to create a sense of presence, of people who are not there. I’m interested in how the past has shaped the present, how the present tries to make sense of the past.

MB: Are there artists with whom you feel a kinship about these issues, or that have been important for you in your work?

PM: Joseph Beuys influenced me, his way of thinking about land and history, and how you place yourself in relationship to things. I also like Christian Boltanski, for the way he sets up false histories, questions the whole idea of memory, uses clothes and photographs and repetition. And then of course Robert Smithson and Richard Long.

Marking the Land: Soil (detail), 1997. Site-specific work in Concourse, Dun Laoghaire, Rathdown County Hall, County Dublin. Blue coat, fabric, and clay mixed with blue pigment, 18 x 18 in.

MB: I wondered about Smithson, because of his interest in entropy. And the piles of earth in Soil are very reminiscent of Long, who documents his own journeys—just as you document the journey involved in making Soil in one of the videotapes included in the work.

PM: From a drawing point of view I quite like Cy Twombly. I had seen his work for years and it never moved me. But I happened to stumble upon a retrospective show of his a year ago in London, and I absolutely loved it, particularly the drawings, and the way he dealt with history and surface and texture, through layers and layers and layers.

MB: There is in Twombly, as in your work, a similar tension between representation and abstraction. For example in Soil, or in the works in “Encounters,” you include photographs, but you can’t see everything. What you see is partial, it’s just a glimpse or a fragment.

PM: Right. I like that you almost blink your eyes, and you’re not sure if it’s really there.

Encounters: Dormant, 2000. Kilkenny. Slip-cast earthenware and sisal, 15 x 17 in.

MB: Tell me more about Soil. Where was it installed?

PM: It was originally installed in a machine shed at Ballyhaise Agricultural College in Cavan, in a huge room divided by a small, low wall. I had the heaps of soil in one part, and in the other part I had the big haystack of bags, which were very old and smelly and decayed. Also in that part of the room were the two videos, one of the various bags of soil being dumped into a pile, the other of the journey to get the soil. In the other room with the soil was also a sound piece, consisting of a text I wrote and a bit of singing. The volume was quite low, so people would hear it in an almost subliminal way. When the piece came to Dublin, it went to a very modern architectural space with wood paneling on the walls and a very different atmosphere. On the floor were lights, into which I placed photographs, so they were almost like little mini view-boxes, or slides. In each case, I responded to the nature of the space where the work was installed. In Dublin I also took the same sacks, dipped them in plaster, and leaned them against the wall. It was like a memorial, the way people put wreaths against walls.

MB: Where is the soil now? Did you take it back to the different counties?

PM: No, I still have it my backyard. There are still lots of things I want to do with that piece. It was a difficult piece, and I found it emotionally very draining. I dug up soil in every county in Ireland. Imagine, moving six tons of soil!

Encounters: Journey, 2000. Kilkenny. Slip-cast earthenware, sisal, and photographic transfer on earthenware, 15 x 17 in.

MB: Certain elements that you used in The Grey House reappear in Soil, like the shoes covered in blue pigment. The same color also appears in the little blue coat.

PM: As in The Grey House, I used found objects, some from secondhand shops, some of my own, and I took clay and mixed it up like mud, and I painted layer upon layer upon layer on the objects, until they were transformed. I was interested in the layering of influences and cultural weight of loss and transformation. The color blue has a lot of ancient spiritual associations, and I see it as the inner spirit that shapes people inside, the part of themselves they take with them wherever they go.

MB: How did people respond to Soil?

PM: The county manager in Cavan got really nervous about the piece, he didn’t like the sound of it. I was nervous myself, because if you say the word soil in Ireland people get very tense; land is very territorial here. When I was trying to get permission to dig up soil in Northern Ireland, I never used the word “soil” because it was too political. I was worried that Soil would be seen to be advocating 32 counties, a united Ireland, and violence, which it wasn’t.

MB: Why violence?

PM: Because at the moment there are 26 counties in the republic, and people here who would want a united 32 counties might be part of a politically violent group. So I had to be very careful, because Soil was questioning all of these things—stories and myths and heritage and culture—and how we come to terms with them. I was also very aware that in Ireland so many have been killed because of different claims about land and history and memory. I was asking how we carry the weight of all these things now.

MB: It must have been quite a shift to have a gallery show after all those years of working in alternative spaces. And the new work in “Encounters” is also very different, especially in its materials and sense of intimacy.

PM: It is. I’d been playing around with photographs and with fired earthenware slip, cast earthenware. It was very similar to what I did with the coat in Soil, where I painted layers. Earthenware slip is runny like cream, it’s not solid, and you use a material to catch it or soak it. So I used paper, and fabric, and lace. I immersed the material in the slip, then fired it in the kiln. It’s like a sandwich. You’ve got the earthenware, you’ve got, say, fabric in the middle, and you’ve got earthenware that has soaked right through the fabric. The fabric burns away in the kiln, and you’re left with solid earthenware that looks just like the material, only the texture changes. It goes from soft to hard.

“Encounters” in a way was a break from installation. The work is very personal and almost domestic in feel, and each of the titles refers in some way to the idea of a journey: Interlude, Dormant, Diary, Passage, Excursion, and there are seven others. Again, I used family photographs, many of them of myself and my sister. Interlude uses one of my parents and an uncle of mine playing on the beach.

MB: Installation is so monumental, while you could hold the work in “Encounters” in your hand.

PM: Exactly. And I’ll tell you another thing: each of the installations took about two years to realize, and a lot of the process, especially with Soil, was taken up with getting permission, with administration, with hours and hours on the phone. For the small sculptures in “Encounters,” I could work with my hands and enjoy the process of making. Each piece is like a memory fragment, like what you’d find in someone’s boxes under the bed.

Melinda Barlow is an assistant professor of film studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder.