An enigmatic Tom dePaor retrospective at Carlow’s VISUAL Centre for Contemporary Art opens up a world of imaginative possibilities and captures the spirit of a practice that defies categorisation and refuses to be pinned down.


“i see Earth” installation. Photograph by Ros Kavanagh courtesy of VISUAL Carlow

The Irish architect Tom dePaor has unveiled ‘I see Earth’, an immersive installation at VISUAL, the contemporary arts centre and theatre in Carlow, Ireland. In keeping with dePaor’s particular oeuvre, the exhibition is rich in narrative, resistant to categorisation, ethereal in its beauty ­– and very much open to interpretation. DePaor, along with commissioner and curator Nathalie Weadick, offers a veritable smorgasbord of reference points and readings to choose from.

At one level, the installation, an abstract three-dimensional composition fabricated from two kilometres of 6mm diameter steel bar and suspended from the ceiling of the gallery’s main exhibition space, is offered up as a retrospective of dePaor’s practice from 1991-2021, albeit in a nebulous kind of way. There are no images of buildings. The installation is offered as a ‘translation’ of elements from dePaor’s practice. Anybody hoping to find anything as pedestrian as, say, a chronology of the practice’s work, may be surprised to find that the text that adorns the gallery’s walls is, in fact, excerpts from dePaor’s prose poem ‘previous, next’, which interpolates the radio exchanges between ground control and the first cosmonaut – hence the exhibition’s title ‘I see Earth’. Weadick explains that she was interested in challenging perceptions about retrospective exhibitions, and you have to give the team credit for having done just that.


Visitors at the opening of “i see Earth”. Photograph by Patrick Bramley

The installation can also be read as a celebration and subversion of the conventions of architectural drawings. The rows of angled steel that provide structural stability can be read as a built version of the cross hatching. The sculpture’s proportions – 29m x 16m x 11m high – correspond to an A4 paper sheet. That said, it is also an essay in the immersive potential of multi-media installation. The gallery is illuminated by ‘These islands’, a diptych of films by recorded on Achill Island and at Ballysadare by dePaor’s long-term collaborator Peter Maybury, transforming a static exhibition into an animated lightbox of big landscapes and ever-changing light.

In a surprise twist, the installation can also be read as a riff on the romantic fable of star-crossed Chinese lovers depicted on the ubiquitous willow pattern that has graced British chinaware since the late eighteenth century. The steel rods have been hand-painted in willow pattern cobalt blue. The installation etches out the constituent elements of the willow pattern design: a house, a fence, a bridge, a hut, a boat, an island and a pair of birds in flight.


Tom dePaor and Peter Maybury also collaborated on “Temperance”, a vessel made of mild steel perched on façade in front of VISUAL and visible on arrival. The word Arethusa is etched into the base of the sculpture, referencing the Greek deity who was turned into a stream. The letters provide an escape for water collected by the sculpture. Photograph by Ros Kavanagh courtsey of VISUAL Carlow

In inviting visitors to pick and choose the prism through which to view the installation, Weadick, Maybury and dePaor encourage visitors to exercise their imagination, to make connections of their own.

To my untutored eye, the most obvious reference is The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even produced by Duchamp between 1915 and 1923. Aside from the similarities between Duchamp’s narrative of courtship desire and the plight of the star-crossed lovers depicted on the willow pattern plate, there is an apparent affinity in terms of execution and approach. The tension between the economy of line drawings ­­– or line sculpture ­– and the romance of the narrative. The collision of pictorial illusion, story-telling and obtuse language games. The play of translucency, solid and shadow. The Heath Robinson-esque delight in visible structure and mechanical form.

Perhaps most of all, there is an affinity in terms of attitude. The undercurrent of tipsy euphoria. The defiant refusal to be pigeon-holed or pinned down.

‘i see Earth’ is produced by VISUAL Carlow and the Irish Architecture Foundation and will be on show until the 22nd May 2022.


Photograph by Ros Kavanagh courtesy of VISUAL Carlow