Their relationship is uneasy at best, and the distinctions between them are increasingly
blurred: Eamon O’Kane and Gemma Tipton talk about art and architecture.
GT: Ideas about art and architecture have made a continuous thread running through
your work, how do you see their relationship, and how did that interest arise?
E O’K: I formed an interest in looking at the two very early on, I grew up in Donegal, in a
big old Plantation house that is Georgian in appearance, but which dates back to 1611.
Those senses of context and space, of character and of history, made a deep
impression. At one stage, my parents were doing some restoration work on part of the
house. It was an old barn-type building that had trees growing out of it. The building had
to be completely rebuilt, but it ended up being rebuilt in the style of the old one. I worked
with the builder for the summer and, with hindsight, that introduced me to a lot of issues
of scale and space, and also to the idea of the clash between the traditional and the
modern. It made me really think about the character of a space.
I had planned to study architecture, but I also wanted to study art for a year. So I came
to NCAD with the idea that I was going to go on to do architecture, then I got really into
the process of making art, so I stayed on. Throughout my work I’ve always had this interest in context and place - whether it’s landscape, or cityscape, or different realities,
virtual realities, constructing realities - and an interest in architecture, in how buildings
get into the city network or map and then how they function there, that’s why I became
so fascinated by the Panorama.
Perhaps then the divergence between the separate ‘arts’ of art and architecture begins
at college. But there is still a cross over, how would you describe it?
There is certainly an evolving idea of spectacle in contemporary architecture, from
architects like Frank Gehry, to the Acconci Studio, and Diller + Scofidio . They are all
architects involved with pushing the boundaries, and I suppose that that is where the
cross-over lies. Maybe there should be more of a breakdown of those boundaries.
Instead, it seems that when an architect tries to do an installation at a museum or gallery,
we end up with something that has been done twenty years ago – by artists. And the
exact same thing can happen with an artist trying to do a building, there’s a lack of
knowledge of context, of what has happened before. That can be positive sometimes.
Rem Koolhaas has noted that too much knowledge of history can trap architects in to
certain ways of looking and thinking.
The difference between art and architecture is also a difference of purpose, intent and
responsibility. Architecture has a practical purpose. Taking the idea of the studio, art is
made inside architecture. In terms of your own work, how do you think the conditions of
making affect what is made? And what would be the ideal?
I’m presently working in a paper bag factory in Bristol and it’s just a very raw warehouse-
type space. It is great as a studio, but in terms of an ideal it’s maybe a bit cold, a bit
damp and it could have better access to the first floor… The Ideal Studio and Studio in
the Woods series are engaged with that idea. Here, the spaces are the much more stereotypical, high modernist, minimalist buildings. They are pristine, almost like gallery
or museum exhibition spaces, and from the outside, they also have a certain sort of
authority within the landscape.
And why do you think they are like that?
Because it’s sort of a fantasy. And there’s also the undercutting idea that they’re not
completely ideal. The work explores that myth of the artist working in creative isolation –
which I also worked with in Overlook, a project based on Stanley Kubrick’s film The
Shining. Jack Nicholson thinks that all he needs is to get away from it all to write, but he
doesn’t realise that it’s going to drive him mad.
In terms of the fantasy, there’s also that idea with an Alvar Alto house, or a place like
Frank Lloyd’s Falling Water that these spaces have authority, they are like autonomous objects with a certain character, and it’s easier to extract a sense of the ideal from that.
In fact, the different ‘characters’ of those high modernist houses, the ‘spectacular’
buildings of Gehry and Koolhaas, and the industrial spaces, like your paper bag factory,
seem to point to the different ways in which art is perceived at the moment: as spectacle,
as something with a social or more practical purpose (like tourism), and as something
autonomous, perhaps even essentially ‘pointless’.
I think that’s part of a much bigger idea, which is where all the work is tending. Trying to
work out a way of bringing together all those different ingredients and senses of art, and
to find a way of working that is sustainable and expandable in terms of an art practice.
The ideal studio is always one that is ideal for you, at a particular point in your practice.
It’s not going to be ideal for everyone. You can have a very clinical studio, or a very
messy studio. I do think the studios that I have had have dictated what I have done, or
I’ve had to work around them sometimes. For example in New York my studio wasn’t big
enough for the work I wanted to make, and I had to employ all sorts of weird support
systems to work on the canvases I was using. That gave me a headache, but I wanted
to make a certain body of work, and the way to do that was to fight against the
architecture in a certain way.
If the studio only partially impacts on the work that is made there, how do you see the
impact of the gallery space? Again we have the different models; the spectacular, the
modernist, and the industrial, as well as the more historical spaces. In many cases,
artists will be working towards commissioned exhibitions, do you think that alters how
work is made and then seen?
To some extent it does. On the other hand, there are some artists’ works that seem to
work in any space. There are also the touring shows that have to be flexible in terms of
how they are going to fit into a variety of spaces. My work at the moment is divided
between pieces that are made for specific commissions, and ones that I am developing
separately from that. So the space is dictating there, and the exhibition can become an organic thing that changes, which is something I like. Then there are the spaces where
you have to take work off the stretcher just to get it through the door… In those cases I
always think I should have planned ahead.
Yes, but in those cases shouldn’t the architects, or those converting the spaces for use
as a gallery, also not have planned ahead? Which leads onto the question – do you think
there is such a thing as the ideal gallery space?
If I had to give you an example, I would say that the ideal gallery is the Louisiana
Museum in Humlebaek, Denmark. It is a wonderful mixture of the old and the new.
You’ve got this kind of additive architectural process over time. The museum is laid out with underground spaces and exhibition compartments. It’s not that they’re all ideal, but it sets up a whole range of possibilities and structures in which work can be viewed. If you contrast that with somewhere like Tate Modern, where you have room after room after room, and the appropriate entry and exit points, but no sense of it being anything other than another IKEA-art experience. With Louisiana there’s a feeling of discovery,
both in terms of the architecture, and in terms of the art. It just kind of works.
Do you think that’s luck? Or has it been achieved deliberately? The Louisiana is also in a fabulous setting which does help. Would that be the same if it was in an urban setting?
I think it could be, but it would be significantly changed by that. Again, to take Tate Modern, the first thing you see is the building and you instantly see the weight / mass/ volume of it, so there’s no real surprises about what’s inside, but with Louisiana, they don’t show you everything. There’s something magical about it, you enter with one idea, and come out with something else. As an autonomous structure it mightn’t have the
same visual impact as Tate Modern or Guggenheim Bilbao, but it has a presence, and a way of working that is really wonderful.
Do you think the presence that the Guggenheims, or San Francisco MoMA, or Tate Modern have can actually distract and detract from what you’re seeing inside?
Yes, and I think they also compromise, because in order to achieve that external presence, particularly with, say, the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the compromises that happen internally are huge.
There’s also that thing about what a massive edifice does to your frame of mind, and
they way you have to readjust once inside to contemplate smaller scale art works in a more intimate way.
Yes, and you’re already overwhelmed. It’s like eating a large meal and then being offered starters…
Do you think that artists would consider this differently from the viewing public who are increasingly being conditioned to expect spectacle? There is also a trend in which newness, innovation and scale have become highly valued. With architecture, your experiments are built and have to last and be used, this goes back to that core difference between art and architecture, which is one of responsibility and purpose.
I think artists do view buildings for art differently in the sense that the public probably aren’t going to be considering loading or access, but I don’t think the public want spectacle above everything. There is the sense that the next Big Museum needs the next Big Idea, and that is problematic as smaller museums are looking to the bigger ones, like the Guggenheims, for strategies to secure funding and visitor numbers, feeling that pressure to pull numbers with statement architecture, instead of concentrating on developing exhibitions.
Your recent exhibition at the Project Room at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Retrospective, addresses this.
In part, yes, alongside the idea of being a little artist inside a big museum, there was also
this idea of the permanence of architecture, and the impermanence of art. What you
have with a museum like IMMA is that the space itself very rarely changes, internally or
externally. It may be refurbished, or an extra wall built, or painted a different colour, but
the space is static, while shows continue to go through it. IMMA has just had the Sophie
Calle retrospective, and now you wouldn’t know it had been there. Every exhibition that
goes through a museum becomes kind of like a ghost, an impermanence in relation to
Are museums and galleries the ideal environment for looking at art? Considering the
scale you have been working to, for example, it is either going to be seen in a corporate
environment, or it has to be in the pristine contemplative spaces of the museum or
I think artists are conditioned to want certain things. That comes out of art history and
the way the art historical canon has moved forward, and how the white cube has
become the dominant factor. I don’t know about other artists, but I think in general if you
had the opportunity to show in a very raw space or in a pristine white cube space, you’d
probably take the white cube. I’d definitely be a member of the less-is-more school. But
then again, I also quite like the way artworks will end up in different kinds of spaces. I
like the way that in a domestic space a work will be looked at and re-looked at and
become a part of someone’s life perhaps.
There’s also the way that if museums are tending to ideas of spectacle, contemporary
art history is becoming a story of spectacle.
Yes, that is true – and it’s interesting to think that one of the reasons that Panoramas died out so quickly was that they had become nothing but spectacle. So if museums are
tending that way there is the risk that they could burn out. There will always be one more
spectacle, but art has so much more to offer than a quick fix of that.
In terms of museums spaces, this current body of work, Building Series is more a self-
reflexive critique that also looks at why I work to such a large scale. The scale of them
implies their destination (the museum), while the works themselves are looking at the
destination of that destination itself (the ruins). It’s a sort of a fantasy, but it’s also very
much about ideas and the genesis of ideas, and about bringing architecture back to the
There’s also that idea that goes back to the beginning of our conversation, about the
point where you fixed on becoming an artist rather than an architect, and that this work
questions that again, questions the coexistence of the two. Rem Koolhaas has pointed
out that there’s no escaping the inherent artificiality of the museum. In Building Series
you’ve got the coexistence of the natural and the artificial, but the artificial has had to
give up it’s myth of permanent perfection. Do those ideas inform the work?
Definitely, and coming back to Koolhaas, he’s also talked about having to be prepared to
consider the tabula rasa, to try to start with a clean slate, but at the same time bearing in
mind that there can be no such thing. There’s always going to be a residual something,
either in the mind of the person drawing on the slate, or on the slate itself. And that is
present in the idea of ruins. You’re clearing the slate, digging down, clearing again, it’s
an ongoing process. And there’s this kind of feeling that ruins are there to be preserved,
part of a collective memory and heritage. A ruin is like deconstructed architecture, it’s
like looking at a drawing or a model, laid out like a plan.
There’s that sense, taken in terms of your depiction of Henning Larsen’s ‘perfect’ studio,
of the ineluctable fate of the ‘perfect’ building.
And there’s also the mixture of my fantasy for a perfect space, together with a realization
that the fantasies about where you want to live, what you want to do, are just fantasies.
The reality exists in the processes that attempt to make them happen. And you have to
recognise that getting them causes dissatisfaction in other ways. That brings us back to
the Overlook idea. That realisation that, say, Jack Nicholson’s dream wasn’t going to
work out. Recognising that is healthy. It’s kind of an informed optimism.
Drawing together the threads of what we have been talking about; we have this idea that
informing a work there is the studio, the museum, art history, architecture, the city, the
ideal, the fantasy, and the reality; and that they all coalesce in this ‘thing’ that we see as
art. They can’t be separated. I think your work is interesting for the way it addresses that.
I think that’s where it has led me - to this present show at the MCAC, to the idea of having a large container, which contains a studio, which has models and drawings and
things, and which will change over the duration of the show, and which is then contained
in the gallery. First of all you have the sense that the paintings on the walls have come
out of that studio/container, and you get the idea that it is all a process. And then inside
the studio/container you can revisit it, and you are seeing something that is a studio, but
that is also an artwork. Then in the other spaces, seeing the video pieces, with the
playfulness of the idea of the changing artworks in different museums, you have this
idea of exhibitions lingering as ghosts and so on. In keeping the MCAC show in a state
of flux, I’m drawing people into that process, and trying to unpick what it all means.