The concern with landscape is central to the work of Irish artist Alanna O’Kelly, who lives and works in Dublin. O’Kelly works in many media. The basis of her work is the relationship between people and their natural environment as she maps a landscape of feeling and emotion. She is sensitive to the nature of the materials she uses and links her artistic practice to the natural cycle. She says of her materials that they “take their energy from the earth. It is not removed.”
O’Kelly was born in Wexford, Ireland. She studied at the Regional Technical College in Galway. In 1978, she graduated from the National College of Art and Design in Dublin with a degree in fine art. She completed a postgraduate course at the Slade School of Fine Art in London in 1987. While studying at the Slade, she both appreciated the life in London but also felt alienated as an Irish woman at that time because of the troubles on the streets of Belfast and the bombings by the IRA in English cities.
O’Kelly was attracted to installations and other art media by rejecting hard, abstract art and by choosing to work with natural materials early on in her career. She has made flax sculptures and installations, employing natural and primitive craft forms. While her ideas and skills were broadened through wide travel, they originated from the Wexford coastline of her childhood. Her ideas have led her to address contemporary issues through a variety of media, including live performance and video installations.
O’Kelly first came to performance art through sculpture when she was an undergraduate student in Dublin in the 1970s. She has done much performance art and has toured her work in Germany, Holland, England, Ireland, and the United States. In 1983, to show the conflict between humans and technology, she enacted a primitive ritual in Marlay Park, Rathdown, Ireland. Her “Chant Down Greenham” mixes her own voice performing traditional Irish keening with a tape of heavy machinery to protest against the nuclear missiles at Greenham Common, an RAF base west of London. In 1986, she made “Dancing with My Shadow” a mixed-media piece which incorporates cursive text written over her face.
Her 1990 “The Country Blooms, a Garden and a Grave” is composed of six color photographs, three of which have an overlay of texts. The images are of green fields and earthen banks. However the texts, taken from 1846-1848 historical sources, give a harrowing view of the Great Famine. They describe death by starvation of thousands of people in County Cork and tell of one horrific example of cannibalism.
O’Kelly’s elliptically narrative projection work “Sanctuary/ Wastelands” 1993 is personal and politicized. This work alludes to fecundity as well as to famine. It deals with the richness of memory as well as the history of impoverishment. O’Kelly states, “I have a passionate attachment to a place, a life, a history.” Mothering is a key element in this work. The first version was made in 1992 when O’Kelly had given birth to her second child and when she and the world were watching television images of a devastating famine in Somalia. That period, in the early 1990s, also saw the beginnings of a debate in Ireland about how to read and understand events from the past, such as the Great Famine in the mid-nineteenth century.
The famine is a deep-seated trauma for the Irish and remained a subtext for successive generations, only to emerge as a focus for new open debates in the 1990s. There was simply no way of dealing with the enormity of what happened in the Famine and why it was allowed to happen. O’Kelly comes to the subject of the Famine through the media, through famine in Africa, through her own motherhood, and through her Irish identity.
The focal point of “Sanctuary/Wastelands” is a burial mound on a beach in County Mayo around which one could find the bones of those who starved in the Famine before the mound was washed away in a storm. A 1994 version of this work involved the artist running on a spot in the gallery until exhausted, repeating the action of a starving Irish child, who ran silently for miles alongside a carriage, seeking alms at the height of the Famine.
Her work has appeared in many group exhibitions at the Irish Museum of Modern Art and the San Francisco Art Institute. Her work has been featured in numerous group exhibitions in London, Paris, Dublin, and the Sao Paulo Biennial in 1996. She has had several solo exhibitions in Dublin, Canada, and the United States. Her work is in the permanent collection of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, the Irish Great Hunger Museum in Connecticut, and the Workhouse, Carrick on Shannon.