Review on Kathy O’Leary's '5th Wheel Element Project' by Marianne O'Kane Boal
Kathy O’Leary’s practice is interrogatory and exploratory. It brings attention to process, community and shared perspectives. The work invites us to look at the familiar in a new way, from an alternative vantage point. We are encouraged to look closely at the overlooked, to appreciate that which we take for granted and to analyze our experience of time and space. It is part philosophical, part sociological, but all necessary, in terms of enquiry.
O’Leary employs a variety of art forms, practices and techniques to invite more comprehensive audience participation, as is befitting participatory practice. There is no room for passive viewing in ‘5th Wheel Element Project.’ The title is important, the idea of the 5th wheel points to the complicated extra dimension. Four wheels are necessary for balance and movement and what of the fifth? Yet the idea of five elements ties into psychology’s ‘Big Five personality traits,’ as highlighted by O’Leary; openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. It can also refer to the five senses – touch, smell, sight, taste and hearing – again crucial to the participatory experience of Kathy O’Leary’s work.
The artist encourages us to understand her alternative point of view but there is nothing self-serving about this work. The inception of this project was a letter describing ‘Student X,’ through which the artist wished to highlight the experience of an unnamed person with a disability in an educational institution, where way finding and navigational routes had been formed without sufficient consideration of disabled access. Her experiment consisted of a Fire Drill Intervention at NCAD, where everyone engaging in the project had to navigate their way from upstairs within the building via wheelchair to the central concourse. O’Leary’s experiment was designed to tie in with Augusto Boal’s concept of ‘invisible theatre,’ where an event is planned but does not allow the spectators to know that the event is happening. It also highlights Boal’s central premise of the Theatre of the Oppressed, where the idea of the ‘spect-actor,’ means that audience members are invited ‘onstage,’ or to participate, as part of the drama. This allows participants to act out issues affecting their lives and inviting community members to translate these lessons into social action. This is exactly what O’Leary did at NCAD to great effect.
‘Student X, Fire Drill Intervention' 2013
Photo by Lucy Estrada
Her digital prints that include All Angles and Colours are designed to focus and challenge our perceptions. They point to the notion of multiple ways of looking and seeing, the lines of perception and enquiry. O’Leary explains these works are ‘based on invisible/visible lines of perception and perspectives that can relate to the psychological. The drawing I created was originally influenced by pylons that generate electricity unseen by the eye but we still know it is there, so ethereal as well.’
Her thought provoking piece ‘Clogging Cogs’ is an ingenious wall installation that uses a circular network of industrial cogs that are moved when an audience member pushes the wheel to set the cogs in motion. These cogs were sourced by the artist following a visit to her engineer to repair a broken axle on her wheelchair. The engineer did not have a use for these so gifted a substantial amount to O’Leary to allow her to create this interactive wall installation.
Kathy O’Leary’s practice respects and proposes ‘the Golden Rule’ or ‘Ethic of Reciprocity.’ This familiar maxim which is found in the scriptures of almost every religion, states that ‘One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.’ This is a vital element of the artist’s socially engaged art. As Lynn Froggett has stated on this type of practice ‘through collaboration, participation, dialogue, provocation and immersive experiences...[socially engaged practice is designed to] widen audience participation.’ O’Leary embraces all these methods naturally and her work is testimony to this.
Marianne O’Kane Boal, October 2013