the art of looking



Conversation between art and architecture has been, for the last four years, the constant concern of our site specific work and often we begin by looking at works from history that have served as our particular references. The Italian masters in particular developed sophisticated strategies to integrate in situ paintings into an architectural context. Di sotto in sù - literally “seen from below”- transformed ceilings into pictorial space above our heads, a view through into a heavenly space beyond, unapologetically combining christian and pagan imagery to invent a sensuous weightless world. Quadratura used the weight of architecture as counterpoint to this painterly lightness - allowing the painting to invade the framing architecture which in turn was brought into the pictorial space. If this tradition survived into the modern world, it was as dream-space in the work of Marc Chagall, and later as the soft nightmares of René Magritte. In the media of the contemporary world, reality has caught up with dreams: Yves Klein’s photographic Leap into the Void exploits our belief that cameras never lie, and the hyper-realist CGI of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity depicts a gravity-free world where the weight of Baroque architecture is replaced by the heavy engineering of spacecraft around which float bodies protected by the hi-tech fabric of spacesuits.

Our particular concern is how to reconcile these historic inspirations with the concerns of contemporary society. Participation of the community - that occupies (or will occupy) a building of glass, steel and concrete - in the  creative temporal process of making a permanent in situ work that integrates art into architecture with a particular attention to the point of view of the spectator using, in our most recent projects, anamorphosis which derives from the same renaissance perspective techniques with which we began.

Anne Cleary & Denis Connolly,  October 2014

An artwork is not merely an observation on the world, but an active participation in the world. We have developed an art practice which persistently invites the public and other collaborators into a participative/perceptive loop. We call this ‘observer participation’, a term borrowed from the physicist John Wheeler* (but while Wheeler places the observer at the centre of the Universe, we are merely placing the spectator at the centre of the artwork).
If technology and new media have taken a central role in this practice it is because they have given us the tools to develop a highly participative creative process for making temporary interventions and permanent public works.

Our art develops through curiosity, exploration, discovery and invention, often evolving rapidly and taking many forms, responding to the particular and individual needs of each project and context. We try to involve our public in all of these processes. We believe that art should be at the service of society, and our work is a constant enquiry into contemporary social and cultural questions.

Anne Cleary & Denis Connolly, September 2014.

* American theoretical physicist John Archibald Wheeler (1911-2008) speculated that reality is created by observers and coined the term “Participatory Anthropic Principle” commonly refered to as “observer participation”.

Psycle Path. Photograph, 2007

Hi Denis

Here's an instinctive reaction to what you say. Not reasoned at all, just from the gut.

You each have limited creative time available to you. But the time already gone has not been wasted: you are full of the wisdom of life. As artists you are therefore now at your most fertile.

Because art is the life you have chosen, you must make the most of this moment. Your idea of observer participation can lead you where you need to go. Machado wrote: Traveller, there is no path; the path is made by walking. Art in its sublime form is a process of walking together whereby the artist and observer together transform themselves and each other.

In a way it doesn't matter if you stay with helmets, or take your practice back into the built environment, or anywhere else. What matters for you now, in this peak of artisitic fertility, is your capacity to transform: yourselves, each other, and those who immerse themselves in your work. You should not be satisfied with superficial impressions - with small detours as it were from well trodden paths. Spiritually and culturally, as well as politically, socially and economically, those paths are in danger of leading us towards the wasteland. Your artistic mission should be to help us all find the way to a better place.

I still have in my study the great, revered textbook by John Wheeler on Gravitation (Misner, Thorne and Wheeler, as it was known to generations of physics students). After Einstein died, Wheeler became the world authority on general relativity. But I was never convinced by the argument (which came not from relativity but the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics) that there is no reality independent of the observer. And even if it's true in the quantum world, it was then hijacked and misapplied by the evil postmoderninsts and constructivists who must bear some of the responsibility for our current predicament.

The final chapter of Carlo Rovelli's wonderful little book "Seven Brief Lessons on Physics" is brilliant on the natural science part of this.

But your notion of observer participation stands on its own terms as an essential principle for art, with no need of buttressing by physics.

Written in haste - forgive me if any of this is obscure, clumsy or infelicitous!

As always


Two studies for helmets, 2015. Left, the Complementary, and, right, the Gecko.

Below: An email from John Ashton, 18 October 2016

Run River Run, University Hospital Galway, 2017