Artist Deirdre O’Mahony explores the complicated intersection of public space, civic life, history, and art. In one piece, for example, she reopened an abandoned rural post office as X-PO, a public meeting place that hosted events, installations, lectures, and art exhibits. A key to X-PO—and to O’Mahony’s concept of placemaking—is providing a platform for spontaneous collaboration. “I really wanted to allow space where people could share different kinds of knowledge, because it has always been my experience that where different forms of knowledge come together, interesting things happen.”
Public Art Review: Do you have a working definition of placemaking as you approach your work?
Deirdre O’Mahony: For me, placemaking is about actively engaging with the matrix of human, natural histories and practices that shape a place and its context. Placemaking makes these connections visible; it acknowledges the complexity of the social, environmental, cultural, and economic dimensions that affect place.
How does that manifest in the places you’ve worked?
Well, you must understand that in Ireland we have a complicated relationship with the land that plays out in recurring conflicts around landscape and land use. These conflicts engender compulsive and passionate responses to particular—and not necessarily picturesque—places: fields, bogs, and so on. These irrational passions are so deeply felt that the Irish playwright John B. Keane wrote a powerful play about them called The Field, and the term “Field Syndrome” is sometimes used to describe them.
I live in a very beautiful region called the Burren, in the west of Ireland. When I came here in 1991, I was shocked by an environmental conflict about the construction of an interpretative center. The plan, and the controversy surrounding it, had a profound effect on local relations and raised all sorts of issues. The central question concerned the power relations that governed who drove the representations, cultivation, preservation, and interpretation of place.
Observing this controversy forced me to try to identify a contemporary place-based practice that could begin to address the fragmented and fluid nature of rural society today. Since then, my version of placemaking has tried to complicate perceptions of rural life. I want to make visible some of the more complicated reasons behind recurring conflicts about environmental regulation, changes in land use, and the effect of these changes on individual and collective subjectivities.
So does your work specifically attempt to challenge these perceptions? If so, how?
I’m interested in how this mix of expectations plays out in the social unconscious in rural areas. As a result, my projects explore an expanded idea of the relationship between arts practice and cultural activism. X-PO is a good example of this.