The first work you encounter on entering mother’s tankstation to see Niamh O’Malley’s ‘Placeholder’ is ‘Gather’ (2019), a balance of strength and delicacy with its coloured glass cuboids that are pierced and supported by a steel bar. This is the only ‘old’ work in this new exhibition and it is hardly old at all having been shown late last year in O’Malley’s ‘handle’ in Dublin’s RHA. The encounter with this piece in the more intimate environment of mother’s tankstation, compared to the enormous and purpose-built RHA gallery space, represents the first moment of contrast that O’Malley has crafted to encourage the viewer to stop and contemplate.
Just inside the door of the main space of the gallery, you meet the exhibition’s eponymous piece,‘Placeholder’ (2020): a large slab of limestone that has been carved to resemble an industrial floor mat. You are advised that this is the only piece that can be touched: a statement designed to confirm that this is a piece of art rather than to remind viewers that the other intensely delicate glass sculptures on the surrounding walls are not for handling. You have to engage with ‘Placeholder’, choosing to take the option to walk on, over, or around. You have to reckon with it to experience the rest of the exhibition, any passive decision leads to an impasse. The choice to walk over will lead to a small movement in the piece, a movement that conceals its weight and chosen material. The opportunity to touch is too irresistible to pass up. As you squat on the floor to run your fingers along its cattle-grid like grooves you realise that O’Malley has drawn you into her observations on shape, materiality and function, the process of introspection replicated with a real-world movement of the body.
O’Malley provides no smoking guns in her exhibition, deciding against an accompanying text or artist statement - a refreshing decision that allows the viewer to craft their own narrative. A motif that does emerge from the minimal information provided is one of contrasting vertical and horizontal lines - with the former lending its name to three glass foiled sculptures: ‘Vertical (textured clear)’, ‘Vertical (composite, pink)’, and ‘Vertical (yellow)’ (all 2020). The viewer must identify the horizontal for themselves, with the most obvious candidate being ‘Handrail (segmented)’ (2020). Like the slab before, the rail pulls at you, drawing you further into the gallery. At nearly 4 metres, the rail contains three polished beech segments and bends around two gallery walls. Two of these segments are immediately visible and when we peer around the corner of the gallery we see the third. To fully appreciate it you must back-pedal to find the appropriate viewing angle - once again creating a sense of movement within the show grounded in a series of static installations.
In ‘Placeholder’, O’Malley displays works that feel almost two-dimensional through their elongated widths, heights, and narrow depths. These aspects amplify the sense of a viewing platform in the gallery as works hug the walls, leaving spaces between for us to navigate. This platform has a sense of unease to it as the movement created by O’Malley during the viewing process leads to sensations of disorientation and vulnerability. This space is broken only by ‘Park shapes’ (2020), a short, looped video projected on a folded steel screen, which sits on the gallery floor. This video is the antithesis of those shown in ‘handle’, which required distance from the viewer in order to see. Instead, proximity is required as you once again squat to view it head-on. From this new, advantageous viewing position you sense that O’Malley has been carefully curating your vertical and horizontal movements through her considered installation choices. She has poured over the small details, presenting an exhibition that actively encourages slow looking. Those who take up that offer and inject themselves into the narrative will be rewarded for their time.