'I’m always fascinated by how people group and connect'

Rhona Byrne, artist exhibiting at TULCA

Artist Rhona Byrne with her artwork It's All Up In The Air.

Artist Rhona Byrne with her artwork It's All Up In The Air.

The TULCA Festival of the Visual Arts is currently in full swing across the city and among the participating artists is Dubliner Rhona Byrne, whose It’s All Up in the Air can be seen floating in the foyer of University Hospital Galway.

The piece is a monumental cloud mass assembled from knotted modelling balloons and air, evoking a scrambled and confused brain. The work plays with binaries, it is both ephemeral and tangible, serious and absurd. Humour and anxiety are inherent in the piece as it floats suspended within the architecture of the hospital. It is a visualisation, a heightened awareness of where you are and the precarious nature of existence. Hovering in the foyer it invites a pause as one enters and allows for conversations on conflicting notions of what it means, but ‘It’s all up in the air’.

Rhona Byrne’s work is predominantly site and project specific. Her interdisciplinary approach manifests in many forms, including hand made objects, sculpture, video, photography, drawings, context specific installations, and collaborative event-based projects, which explore the interplay between people and their habitat. She has exhibited widely in Ireland and internationally and received a number of awards for her work.

Her freewheeling creations have included releasing pigeons from a building, creating spatial audio environments, live directing and producing performance events, working with large choirs of 500 people in a football stadium, working within Dementia Care, organising umbrella shielded urban walking tours, creating wearable structures, and ‘social clothing’. She also delivers art workshops for children and adults.

A photographic family

While Rhona was in Galway mounting her piece in UHG I chatted with her about her work and began by asking if she hails from an artistic family. “My dad worked in the photographic business for years and had his own one hour photo shops, Speedi Snaps in Dublin, so I grew up with photography and it is still a large part of my creative process,” she tells me. “My dad sadly passed away nine years ago, so he only saw the early years of digital photography and smart phones, and the disposable nature of photography.

"I come from a creative family from my dad’s side. Eight of my first cousins went to art college, studying fine art, design and photography. I knew about art college early on and that’s what I wanted to do. I was lucky to have some really supportive art teachers in school who gave me access to the art room even at lunch times. I went straight to NCAD after school and studied sculpture, joining four of my cousins at the time.”

She goes on to explain the factors that influenced her work’s interest in people and their habitats, and its deployment of different types of art practices. “After college I spent time in San Francisco and New York doing decorative painting and furniture restoration which led me to interior design in Dublin and Spain. I trained in Auto Cad [technical drawing], then did an internship with an architect’s office in Dublin, and then with a few other design companies, and lots of freelance projects. I was designing commercial and domestic interiors and was feeding my love of creating spaces and environments for people to inhabit. All of this experience feeds into my practice still.

"At this time, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Dublin was in a building boom and my frustration grew with the remove between what was planned, designed, and built for people, and the lived experience of inhabiting of these spaces. This led me to develop the project Home with the Ballymun Pigeon Club and residents of the regeneration scheme planned for the area. The aim was to give voice to the lived emotions and experience of the people who occupied this space. This was when I returned to my art practice.”

Aside from her art practice, Rhona continues to collaborate on architectural and design projects. “Before I returned to my art practice I was working as an interior architect but as an artist I often work with architects now as an artist,” she reveals. “I’ve been an artist on a design team for planning processes; I think it’s important to have an artist input and involvement at the early stages of design where possible. For example I was working with the OPW and Heneghan Peng Architects on the redesign of the site of Mountjoy prison and more recently with South Dublin County Council as an artist on the team for research, design and planning process for the redevelopment of Design development of NTA Cycle Route 10B on Grange Road and NTA Cycle Route S05, and the corner of St Enda’s Park / Pearse Museum, Rathfarnham.”

'I’ve had quite a few adventures'

It's All Up In The Air

The interactive aspect of her artworks has seen Rhona engaging with disparate groups and individuals, including people who are not from visual art backgrounds. I suggest this must have entailed some interesting experiences and responses. “I’ve had quite a few adventures, it can be a fun working process,” she agrees. “I get to meet a lot of different people and communities with different interests and perspectives, like travelling through a snow storm to a roller coaster enthusiasts convention in Maine USA, working with a group of comedians in NYC, a ‘joyologist’ in Tasmania, a laughter group in Melbourne. I’m always fascinated by communities of interest and how people group and connect.”

Rhona outlines her thoughts on It's All Up In The Air and how it fits into the context of its hospital location.

“This is a really interesting context for this piece where real tensions and unknowns are playing out for people,” she observes. “The piece is recognizable as a hovering graphic emblem of misery and pessimism, this temporary sculpture is in a constant unstable state and explores qualities of oppositeness, tension and precariousness. I think the work resonates with each individual differently depending on their perspective that moment or day. I hope the work invites conversations between people and what’s going on for them when passing through the foyer of the hospital.”

This is Rhona’s second time to exhibit at TULCA as she also participated in the 2010 festival and she concludes by expressing her appreciation of being part of this year’s event; “TULCA is a really significant and ambitious annual show in Ireland. It’s great to be part of it. It was really well organised with lots of support. I had lots of help from students of GMIT who generously gave up their time to make this happen. University Hospital Galway has a great art programme run by arts director Margaret Flannery who was a great support to make this happen.”

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