Over many years of use and storage, each pole loses its bark, is eaten into, retains the tension marks from the wires being twisted over it, and becomes a compressed object, telling tales of years of activity and production – summer use and winter storage – at one short stage vitally active and the rest of the year stacked at the back of the barn – obscure an function – utterly useless – but with a diary of events packed into its surface.
O’Donnell “Looking for Englishmen” 1985
The two were tentatively combined. But what the hell do you do with a wire weaving – handmade – in Norway – measuring 2 x 3 meters? Let it decide for itself. And it formed a roll that was so on the edge of banality, i.e. it looked like a bit of old fencing, that it seemed perfect. So, rolled sculptures that didn’t say look at me “sculpture”, but begged the question “what is that?”
And the wire weaving went on and on.
So behind me, physically, I had a finished house, finished only because I said it was finished, and in front of me, physically, the prospect of building a huge new studio, which was just a flat piece of ground.
Set in the middle of the box, physically between past memories and future problems, stood my daughter’s little orange tent, which, so complete, and in no need of any sawing, nailing, cementing, or any other activity from me, was the perfect safest haven to run to.
Borgen from “Das Monument” Michael O’Donnell 1989
The rest is silence. Rust never sleeps; its consequences are inescapable. It is mute revolution, a quiet eating away of old structures. In the sculptural language of Michael O’Donnell rust is an important factor. He is especially attentive to surface and covers objects in skins of rust and lead. In this way he creates an eloquent silence – the lead is an inert, lifeless material that deadens all sound; and the rust’s process of disintegration is silent – almost sacred. It is a matter of faith, rather than a fact of the moment.
Lead is an ambiguous material. It protects as well as kills life. It protects against radiation but is in itself poisonous. This ambiguity, this double line of associations, is an important tool in O’Donnell’s thought process. He uses sculpture to uncover the loss of meaning of old values; but at the same time he creates a new, artistic meaning out of established symbols and structures; and it is rust which transilluminates the empty structures; and it is lead which indicates what is under the skin, transparent but concealing. Through the lead and the rusted steel O’Donnell hides behind the silent anonymity of his materials. At the same time he uncovers the decay and the decomposition to which we already belong. It is a form of creative material fatigue.
Borgen from “Das Monument” Michael O’Donnell 1989
Michael O’Donnell belongs to a generation of British sculptors born around 1950 who in the eighties established and maintained a new attitude to sculpture compared to the sculpture of the previous decade. This attitude is more concerned with new angles of approach than with a break with tradition. The experience gained from conceptual art, minimalism and constructive sculpture has provided a basis – but their work has perspectives and ambitions far greater that the frames of reference provided by these movements.
This new attitude towards materials made Tony Cragg and Bill Woodrow bring the waste of consumerism into the gallery. There they transformed it into new forms in new contexts. It was the man-made trivia of post-industrial society which made their sculptural mark. To the same generation belong, among others, Richard Deacon, Antony Gormley and Alison Wilding. Even if the cannot be classified as a group, they do have certain things in common. For instance the appreciation of sculpture as metaphor, both for man’s emotions and his desire to convey social and existential relationships. In this way they go beyond the purely formal and aesthetic problems – they give sculpture coherence through associations and the use of metaphor.
Borgen from “Das Monument” Michael O’Donnell 1989
In the series of rust prints and lead objects with oxidised iron powder we recognise the shapes of earlier sculptures in O’Donnell’s production, “Stacked Monument” and “Empire Stateless”. Not only does he reformulate earlier sculptural themes – he does in fact give us the empty space on the picture plane, as blank graphical impressions in the rust. Matter has ceased to exist -–only the negation of the sculptures is left.
Thus the process of disintegration is complete. Art has also broken down. But from this breakdown new constellations, new artistic possibilities may grow.
It is therefore the archaic qualities which completely dominate this exhibition. We are again confronted with the basic, existential questions. Questions about the nature of Man and the nature of Art must be asked again.
But the optimism is not tangible. “Star Monument”
is the only piece free of rust in this exhibition. Two crossing arches
are attached to a star by a drum. It is a coming together of heaven
and earth, without the rust of disintegration, but with the choking
shield of the lead foil.
In a Midsummer’s Nights Dream the forest or wood can be read as a metaphor for a psychological situation – a mental state of chaos, confusion, intrigue and surprise.
Wood for Trees was made in 1992. It consists of a random selection of 700 cubic meters of sculptural components, in a variety of materials. An access corridor was available around the perimeter of the piece and just enough space was left between the elements so that the piece could be entered. What you ended up with was the situation where the viewer Was a participant in the work and the work could be viewed from within, as a series of close encounters, or from without, where the viewer became an integrated part of the forest.
Two main reactions occurred – that somehow the sanctity and integrity of the individual donor sculpture was in someway compromised – correct – and two – the odd sensation of people coming out of the experience – smiling. For me personally it was the first time where the massive energy and excitement of the studio production process was on an equal footing with that of the shop window-gallery situation.
This piece has laid certain criteria for future development, dealing with capacity as a focus point. The work could exist in a scale way in excess of the original or cut down to fit any space however small – the parameters of the work are how many cubic meters of showing space are available.
So a flag shape made up of brown metal slats hung on the wall had its own heralding yellow disco lights installed, in went the plug and 1920 watts went into action. These globes of golden yellow have an effective lighting area of 15 degrees, so when out of that beam they aren’t up to very much – but what I wasn’t aware of was that a shaft of yellow cross sculpture light was blazing its way out of the studio window, across the garden, through the French windows at the front of the house -–demolishing the kitchen, escaping out of the corresponding French windows at the back of the house, screaming through the forest, in which our house nestles, and off running down the valley to be lost forever – and certainly laying claim to being the longest sculpture I’ve ever made.
The piece was based on the idea of having coins (gold) in ones pockets – small change – and the sex change possibilities in frying ones testicles. I have a tendency to use credit cards these days.
Blekastad , “Looking Back” 1997, Michael O’Donnell
“Fire”, can in the terms of the Italian philosopher, Mario Perniola, be called a simulacrum. Perniola wished, like other Post Modern theoreticians of the 1970’s, to provide dignity to the non-essential, to the superficiality within our culture. He laid emphasis upon the rites and put them before the depth within myths, using examples from ancient Rome. The ritual does not refer to any deeper truth, therefore it does not deal with the contradictions between truth and lies, it exists and functions as a practising form. We can therefore see a value within the act, and especially those repetitive acts. This is where the similarity with O’Donnell’s production of art comes in. He repeats his own symbols of the fire or the pig in a non-essential way. They usually do not refer to anything else, and when they do, the shift their meaning within the next exhibition.
During the alternative exhibition PiG (Project in Gamlebyen, 1994) “Fire” was placed high up on a concrete wall. In the dense traffic and slum area of the town, “Fire” lit up with a new monumentality on the simple concrete wall. The piece, 4 meters by 2 meters, was placed 18 meters above the ground. If we enter further into the colour effects in “Fire”, we discover the exciting transitions from the white, glowing outer edge, the red-to blue-violet centre, and the reflections on the wall as a muted, warm red colour glow. In the darkness of evening and night, beams of warm, glowing colour were projected out from the dark facade. The various colour-and light qualities created a tension between depth and surface effects. The violet colours in the heart created a deep space, whilst the white, glowing outer edge and the warm red wreath around it, glued the symbol to the surface so that the piece reminded one of a burning branding iron. Advertising boards have for many years used similar symbol to “Fire”, and the simplicity and striking power of the symbol reminds one of the visual effects of advertising. This aspect was strengthened by the placing of the piece, over a series of ice cream adverts for Magnum, however, “Fire” differs from the advert on one significant point – it refers to itself only and not to something to be sold or informed about.
Within O’Donnell’s artistic practise aspects
of playfulness and variation are characteristic. He plays with the way
our society uses symbols. He likes, in his distanced and ironic way,
to disturb our fixed attitudes. As a foreigner he freely gains an outside
view of the culture he lives and works within, even though it is not
Norwegian Culture that he deals with. The symbols are more general and
might just as well belong to England as to Norway. It is rather as if
distance strengthens and clarifies O’Donnell’s artistic
projects. He produces with an ease that is unusual in a Norwegian context.
One project follows another, one series of works line up to the previous
ones in an unstoppable tempo, doing exhibitions in Cape Town, Holland
and in Lillehammer during the same year.
O’Donnell rephotographed a photo taken by Heinrich
Hoffmann in Munich, August 14th, 1914. Hoffmann registered in his photo
a crowd of people applauding Germany’s entry into the Great War.
After some years Hoffmann managed to identify Hitler’s face and
later became Hitler’s court photographer as a result of this (Hitler
was sent a copy of the photographs with his face in it)
Sudheim, Mail & Guardian, Durban,February 2000
The crowd: that swollen, seething animal, comes to
life when human beings swarm together in a single unity of desire. As
an organism the crowd works its seduction by promising the surrender
of individual will to the mass. Individuals, no longer responsible for
their actions, become sublimated into a scheme, more epic.
In a separate work in his Durban show, O’Donnell
has intriguingly blurred the line between the static and frenzied viewer
by dismantling Heinrich Hoffman’s famous photograph of a jubilant
crowd in Munich’s Odeonsplatz celebrating the outbreak of World
War 1 on August 14th, 1914.
Michael O`Donnel works with monuments, attitudes to spirituality and the commodity of death.
Kunstbanken Hamar 2009
……...some of the final sentences of Death Row prisoners in Texas, arranged according to length of sentence - just prior to their lethal cocktail injection.
The information became available to me in 2003 when my daughter, then a trainee lawyer, came across it during some research. It was for trade only access. The information is divided into four sections:
It seems fairly clear that the first three sections are devoted to a proof of guilt – the mug shots set the scene, no one can look innocent with that style of portrait …the personal information adds to a sense of foreboding, and the horror of the crime committed completes the picture. The final statement leaves room for the confession of the convict, to be heard by the witnesses of the execution process.
So justice is seen to be done and the righteousness of the process gives almost everyone involved the means to survive.
Sitting on Death Row is normally a long wait - anything up to fifteen years –
In California there is a moratorium on executions. Its considered a bonus to sit on Death Row, as the privileges far out way those of prisoners who are convicted to life sentences.
Michael O Donnell Quartair den Haag 2010
In 1960 Elias Canetti published “Masse und Macht” wherein he refers, with emphasis on the concepts of crowds, to the celebration of a crowd at the outbreak of the First World War and specifically to Adolf Hitler’s’ “St. Paul on the road to Damascus moment” at Odeonsplatz, Munich on 14th August 1914:
“But those first August days of 1914 were also the days in which National Socialism was begotten.
James Murphy, an ordained Catholic priest, who worked as the official translator of Hitler’s’ speeches and produced the only Third Reich approved translation of
In his book “Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives” Alan Bullock illustrates this event with Heinrich Hoffman’s’ photograph of that day, in which in the 1930’s Hoffman was to discover Hitler in the centre of the frame. He sent this to the Führer and remained his official photographer until 1945.
The idea of the encircling of the head and the elevating of the individual from the body of the mass produced a series of works in which all the individuals in the Hoffman crowd were re-photographed as witnesses to this specific event:
The work was shown in Wroclaw and in Durban as flat wall pieces. The A4 portraits sorted according to their distance from the camera in the original moving up the wall to the most out of focus and distant at the top. One individual or witness, chosen at random, was elevated to a scale of 9 x 4 meters. In Norway it was shown as a horizontal line bisecting the space, moving in and out of focus depending on the point of view.
In this exhibition, three witnesses from the original work are used. They are from the back of the crowd, consequently way out of focus, but still clearly readable as faces, in spite of only four dark identifying marks on the white surface. This work refers to the monuments to the unknown soldier – the First World War solution to the dilemma of how to remember the dead within the landscape of mass death and social revolution in post-1918 Europe. For the first time conscripted soldiers were to be commemorated; individual death was no longer to be diluted into national pride in victory.
Within the framework of the Second World War,
“I know - do I know it - that the one at whom the Germans were already aiming, awaiting but the final order, experienced then a feeling of extraordinary lightness, a sort of beatitude (nothing happy, however) - sovereign elation? The encounter of death with death?
“There remained, however, at the moment when the shooting was no longer but to come, the feeling of lightness that I would not know how to translate: freed from life? the infinite opening up? Neither happiness, nor unhappiness. Nor the absence of fear and perhaps already the step beyond. I know, I imagine that this unanalyzable feeling changed what there remained for him of existence. As if death outside of him could only henceforth collide with the death in him. “I am alive. No, you are dead.” iv
i Elias Canetti Crowds and Power trans. Victor Gollancz, (1973), p. 181.
Michael O Donnell Ørebro Kunsthall 2010
This exhibition is divided into two parts:
There are around 350 metal plates each bearing the final sentence of a prisoner, immediately prior to execution.
Not many of us know exactly when we are going to die. This select group usually find out the time and date three or four months in advance.
The death penalty was abolished in Sweden in 1921 …so the roles of the executioners “bødel (the hangman)” and “skarpråttare (the axe man)” fell out of use when capital punishment was finally abolished in times of war in 1976.
Kumla Prison is where Sweden’s longest-term prisoners are held…in other times and attitudes, it would have been Sweden’s death row.
Ørebro is where applications for parole are heard, for prisoners convicted to life sentences.
The second part of the exhibition displays five neon pieces.
Michael O Donnell 2010
2010 IKM OSLO
Wax and the “special soul substance”
Michael O Donnell Galleri Brandstrup 2014
THIS EXHIBITION SEEKS TO OCCUPY THE SPACE BETWEEN THE MONUMENT AND DEATH.
It’s surprising to see that the categories come from widely different approaches but end up criss-crossing one another
1. The private performances.
The relationship between the citizen and the animal refers to the idea of an event in the past, which at the impact of a disaster hovers in a silent time frame, before reality kicks in.
2. The photographs.
The camera has continually been a component tool in the working process.
3. The souls.
These casting which relate to the Duncan MacDougall’s demonstration of the existence of “a special soul substance”. (See exit) quote exit.
4. The slabs.
In the days of hanging as the preferred method of capital punishment, there were specific tables of body weight to rope length ratios, which should be followed to avoid unfortunate accidents. If not followed, beheading could occur or the prisoner could be left hanging around for an unacceptable length of time.
5. The monuments.
These are 24 carat gold plated texts, which are the final sentences of a selection of Texas prisoners immediately before execution.
The selection from a larger ongoing work of around 550 texts, concentrates on the ones that pass on some sort of physical, spiritual mantra or slogan, which is more applicable to life than death. Seen in isolation they lack self-indulgence or expected morbidity and seem to rise above the given opportunity for confession or remorse.
“Within the sumptuous messiness of human experience, he depicts history as an unfolding, ill managed pageant in which politicians, opinion makers and cultural leaders stumble through their parts”…. To this we could add the rest of humanity.