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Earth Institute Artist in residence Deirdre O'Mahony presents 'Sustainment Experiments' in Kilkenny

Published: Friday, 21 October, 2022

Table with food

(photo: Kasia Kaminska 2022)

Deirdre O’Mahony is the Earth Institute artist in residence for 2021-2022 in collaboration with Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council and UCD’s Parity Studios. She is a visual artist whose practice is informed by a deep interest in rural sustainability, farming, food security and rural/urban relationships. For more than two decades she has investigated the political ecology of rural places through public engagement, archival and moving image installation, critical writing and cultural production.

Deirdre’s most recent project is called Sustainment Experiments. It is a five-year public art inquiry considering what actions can be taken concerning farming, food consumption and the current ecological and climate crises. The essence of the idea of 'Sustainment' is that it brings about an equivalent paradigmatic shift in human behaviour that the Enlightenment did. If we are to survive, our behaviour must consider the knowledge that the earth is a shared space for humans and non-humans. The project is comprised of various elements including research, exhibitions and events.

The first action within Sustainment Experiments was The PLOT at VISUAL in Carlow. Through growing food in the gallery grounds, PLOT looks back to the potato ridge as a technology born out of the need for food security in Ireland’s past, and looks forward to future food security, biodiversity and resilience in the face of climate change through the lens of another crop, sainfoin.

Food on table

(photo: Kasia Kaminska 2022)

People eating the Feast

(photo: Freddie Greenall 2022)

The second and current element of Sustainment Experiments is taking place at the Butler Gallery in Kilkenny (until 31 October 2022) in the form of an exhibition and a ‘feast’ event. The feast is the first of three planned for the project and brings together farmers, food producers, scientists, politicians, and policymakers to explore first-hand experience of the challenge of farming today over a meal.  

The format is modelled on an 18th century feast hosted by French scientist, Antoine Augustin Parmentier who worked to address food security and public health problems by changing public attitudes towards the potato, believed at the time to be unfit for human consumption. For this 21st-century version of Parmentier’s feast, Deirdre worked with food designer and cook, Clare-Anne O’Keefe to devise a provocative menu for Kilkenny that focuses on soil health and climate change. Following Parmentier’s example, the ingredients acted as prompts to guide the conversation.

Tableware from the Feast

(photo: Kasia Kaminska 2022)

The feast was held in the gallery with dinner service and wall hangings made by Deirdre, costumes by Bog Cottage Collective and embroidered texts by Sadhbh Gaston. The exhibition now displays this tableware, cutlery alongside other artefacts from the meal, which have been designed to activate and animate conversation. The exhibition is accompanied by Deirdre’s installation Feeder which provides readings on soil health and food production and a screening of her film Speculative Optimism which tells the story of sainfoin, a sustainable alternative to rye grass for animal fodder. The exhibition is part of The Soil Project, an annual artists commission at Butler Gallery.

Read our interview with Deirdre for our Earth Talks series.

Alongside the Earth Institute/DLRR residency, Deirdre is supported by Visual Arts Bursaries (2022/2021) from The Arts Council of Ireland; Artlinks (2022); Kilkenny Arts Office (2020); Centre Culturel Irlandais (2020/2021) and Fire Station Artists’ Studios Sculpture Award and Residency (2021/2022).