Limerick City Gallery of Art

Visitors access this exhibition via the stairs or the lift as it occupies the rooms on the upper level of the City Gallery in Limerick. Entering by the stairs we pass a larger than life half-length portrait of a naked young man. He looks out at us, catching our eye if we wish as we pass him. His body is presented in high definition digital detail, each hair, his nipples, the shading of his skin is clearly shown. Passing from the stairwell through a small doorway we move into the complex of rooms, and do not see this or any human figure again. The representation of this young male contrasts with the non-representational majority of the exhibition, the image of the human body is absent from the installations.

The human body is present, however, in the work and in the show through the activity of the visitors as they physically interact with the works, touching or moving then, bending or crouching to look into them, passing through or around them. The body is there also in the scale of the human, the height of objects or their components, in the marks of making in the handled clay or plaster, and there in the negative or absent form of the blank oval portraits and the reduced-scale version of the Spring-Rice monument without its figure. This absence of the represented body, may be one aspect of the ‘nothing’ referred to in the exhibition’s title.

Another absence is that of the artist himself. Not that we expect to come upon the artist in a show of images or sculptures as we might in a performance work, but we may seek to perceive their trace in the marks they have made, or sometimes seek to read their psyche in what they have presented. Here Kearney has joined elements of his archive (his own art history) to newly made pieces in an installation that is part retrospective, part a recontextualising of works originally conceived for other locations. The exhibition mixes the reshowing of earlier work as part of a new installation with creating a site and context specific response where the scale of the rooms or details of the building’s structure determine the form of the new work. The installation is also site-specific in a wider sense as it draws the image and material of the city from outside into the Gallery. Viewing holes are opened, window displays created, attention is drawn to environmental details including the shifting daylight or the connection between the upper and lower floors.

Suspended on a white net is a roughly formed sphere of plaster and clay. As it dries out the colour changes, the muddy brown shifts closer in tone to the net’s white, to the white of the walls or to the dirty white of the series of A4 images of large snowballs arrayed around the landing area. The net fills the gap, the rectangular opening that links the central area of the ground floor to the upstairs and the skylights above. Drawing attention to this structural feature, the intervention allows visitors to begin to engage with Kearney’s installation from below, from outside the specified rooms. It blurs the edges of the work, complicates where it begins and ends, and draws into play the opposite or inverse of the title’s subject. Here everything becomes or could become part of the work, all is included within its parameters. The ‘meaning of nothing’ may then be that it is both what is not and all there is, that it is open to and capable of carrying the infinite. The clay in crude lumps recalls its source in clay pits upriver from the city, and also refers to that clay’s transmutation into the bricks of the Georgian and Victorian cityscape visible through the windows, and it bears the fingerprints of the artist who handled it some weeks ago when placing these lumps here. These lumps aren’t anything in particular, are ‘nothing much’, and yet can invoke ‘so much’, the micro and the macro, the fine silt of millennia and the larger fabric of the city and beyond.

The materials in the show range from the earthy, the literally mundane, to the kitsch. Clay and plaster roughly applied to cheap plywood, two circular columns of tinsel curtain rotating under bright spotlights, carefully cast porcelain aerosol canisters, a section of black hair extension, yards and yards of green chiffon, all are brought into conjunction within the installation. These materials are arranged in relation to the spaces, to the dimensions and fittings of the building, so that in places we become uncertain of what has been placed and what may already have been here. Those grey oval panels, set like security mirrors or CCTV cameras; those circular ceramic elements on the wall, like light fittings or sconces; those holes cut in the walls of the gallery showing the battens and stud walls, or revealing boarded up windows looking onto the park outside; all balance on an edge of having clearly been made, and having merely occurred in the life of the building. Circular forms, spheres, curves repeat through the rooms, so that a red fire alarm bell or the decorative studs on the roof beams suddenly jump into visibility, come into our awareness as both of the work, and of the site.

With no titles, information panels or texts, the visitor is free to make her own narrative, to account for these rooms and their contents. Here are the familiar and the strange, the carefully crafted and the more casually assembled, the oversized and the miniaturized. A sequence of different actions, interventions and manipulations have been carried out. She can look for an explanation of these, reasons for their having been done, or can playfully travel through her own sequence of associations, recollections and surprises. Kearney has brought this into being, and has left different openings for a visitor to access the work. The various objects will perform their tasks, will move or change or alter over the weeks of the installation, and on any day or at any moment a different event will occur in the interaction of a viewer’s body and history, the objects and the space.