There is a comforting routine to visiting exhibitions in Dublin’s Douglas Hyde Gallery - you enter the foyer and walk past the main desk to the top of the staircase, which gives a sweeping preview of the work as you descend into the gallery’s main space, your foot hitting the same spot each time. This comfort has been removed by Gabriel Kuri’s radical structural intervention ‘spending static to save gas’ (2020), featured in his exhibition of the same name. The artist has installed a replacement ceiling, made up of wooden frames that feature an array of coins, cigarette butts, and moths, to dramatically lower the headspace of the gallery and slice the staircase in two. To access the show you must instead descend a back staircase into a new eerie subterranean space.
Clustered in the centre of the gallery are four thermally-insulated sculptural works, which give the appearance of four oversized storage crates that have been hauled into the centre and opened up for inspection. Some of the contents remain in their custom-cut casings while others have fallen out or, in the case of ‘moth wings and padding props’ (2019), vanished altogether. As you inspect these objects, the ceiling looms overhead: your head cocked to the side in anticipation of a contact that never comes. The main concept of the piece is a thought experiment realised: how much energy would we save if we shrunk this space? This question lingers in ‘chart’ (2020), a series of smoke drawings created from burning sheets of paper that list the logistics and the estimated cost savings of the ceiling. These drawings stain the walls with amber smoke, creeping up into the gallery’s foyer. By revealing the hidden mechanics behind making the ceiling, we start to ponder the difference felt when the gallery’s capacious main space has been fully opened.
Amongst the debris of the sculptures are football-sized cigarette butts, coins, as well as matches. The playfulness of the size of these objects does not take away from the seriousness of their message. Cigarette butts are the perfect metaphor for consumption and the increasingly disposable nature of 21st century living. Isolated, they are small and inconsequential, the damage they do to our health and the littering of our streets becomes palatable. When we acknowledge that cigarette butts account for more than half of the litter in Ireland and cigarette smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in the country, this becomes harder to stomach. Placing these micro and macro objects side by side in The Douglas Hyde Gallery leaves little wiggle room for dismissing the harm of cigarettes.
The success of ‘spending static to save gas’ lies in Kuri’s ability to convert invisible and ignored information into tangible assets within the gallery space. It tackles head-on one of the main challenges of the ongoing climate debate, how do we inject a sense of urgency into something that is not always visible in the everyday? So much of the climate debate’s bandwidth is taken up validating the need for action that a wider discussion around the mechanisms for change falls short. And while stopping the use of plastic straws and ensuring that cigarette butts are disposed of properly are important and worthwhile exercises, addressing the wider use and misuse of energy in buildings will leave a more lasting mark.