Interrogating the institutions

Going Out

ON SHOW ‘Donegal Bay, Killybegs Industrial School’, a water colour on Fabriano by Conor O’Grady.

Castlebar-born artist exhumes complex histories of state and clerical buildings

‘Contested Territories’, a solo exhibition by visual artist Conor O’Grady, comprises of a body of work which was started during a group residency at the former psychiatric hospital that now houses the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, Castlebar in 2015.
This work was further developed in studios and residencies at Custom House Studios, Westport; Kunsthalle, Krems, Lower Austria; Siamsa Tíre, the National Folk Theatre, Tralee; and the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig, Co Monaghan.
The exhibition examines the representation of specific sites related to statutory or clerical abuses, with the artworks relating to Ireland’s well-documented history of maltreatment towards its vulnerable people.
The institutions that were used to contain these groups are explored in minute detail, with industrial schools, reformatories, Magdalene laundries, psychiatric institutions, Direct Provision centres, care homes, prisons all represented, as well as and more contemporary examples.
O’Grady uses interviews, dialogue and first-hand visual and material research to describe and document the frequently hidden or freshly exposed realities of these institutions. Examining each of these spaces in relation to the formula (IN+DE=RE). This equation is used to describe the reality that in Ireland, once an institution is de-institutionalised it always becomes re-institutionalised as another institution, usually a centre of education, with very little attempt, if any, to reconcile the negative histories of that particular place.
Contested Territories features sound, moving imagery and sculpture, accompanied by architectural drawings and water-colour studies.
Commenting on the exhibition, O’Grady says that while creating this body of work, the important thing for him was that he be able to respond to the revelations of statutory and clerical abuse within the context of interdisciplinary, contemporary art practice:
“In Ireland, many of the clerical/State-run institutions which were used to contain particular sections of society have a negative legacy. Most of our Institutes of Technology are housed in former reformatories or industrial schools. This re-institutionalisation of buildings is important in the representation of the complex issues related to Ireland’s relationship to its institutions.
“The buildings themselves act a reminder of the histories involving the statutory and clerical abuse of women, children and vulnerable minority groups. A legacy that does not alter or change with social norms.”
The artist
Castlebar-born Conor O’Grady studied Fine Art Education at the National College of Art and Design and Fine Art Practice at Dublin Institute of Technology, Portland Row, and he now divides his time between Co Donegal and Co Mayo. His practice uses observation, conversation and material and visual investigation as primary research techniques for creating work, well as non-visual-art-practices, such as journalism, criminology and sociology.
Over the last eight years, he has been particularly interested in re-presenting the experiences of particular marginalised or minority groups. His spheres of research have included the hundreds of men murdered as a result of their relationship to Dublin’s criminal gangs; the experiences of Irish Traveller and homeless groups living in the UK; the use of public areas by closeted-gay men; and the use of graffiti and street art in European cities as a tool for disseminating right-wing political or dissident social ideologies.
He has exhibited in Ireland, Austria, Greece and Tasmania and has been selected for a number of residencies and awards, including The Mayo County Council Exhibition Bursary (2014 and 2015); The Tyrone Guthrie Bursary Award in (2016); the Kunsthalle Krems Artist Residency Award, Austria (2017); The Home Residency at Digital Art Studios Belfast (2017); and Artist-in-Residence at the National Folk Theatre, Siamsa Tíre, Tralee (2018).

‘Contested Territories’ runs at the Custom House Studios (, Westport Quay, until February 10.