Adrian O’Connell’s Off Limits, at Platform Arts, is a formally complex installation, reflective of his artistic work in recent years that explores social segregation and its manifestation both intellectually and physically. Following a realisation of the project in Berlin in 2004, this is the first presentation of the piece in Ireland, where it has been extended in size and scope for its venue.
A series of metal wires runs horizontally through the gallery space, dividing it into two. Each wire is electrified with a low level pulse running through it, and functions akin to a boundary device used by farmers to keep sheep or cows within a field. The gallery visitor might experience a mild electrical shock by touching the wire, and so are challenged as to whether they engage with a potentially uncomfortable physical contact within the installation. A sign in the space alerts viewers to this. Furthermore, this form of fencing prevents the participant entering one half of the gallery space. Inside this prohibited area, four monitors are suspended. Each play a series of videos recorded by O’Connell featuring headshots and voices of immigrants to Belfast in the last ten years. Over sixty participants have worked with O’Connell, each reciting the same phrase. For example, an Italian says, “This space is off limits to all Italians,” and so on, each nationality utters the phrase in their own language to the audience present. Echoing the presence of electric fence in the space and its function to make inaccessible a section of the gallery, most viewers won’t comprehend what is being said, with each participant using their native language, often a foreign language to the gallery audience. Alongside these aspects, O’Connell has realised another entity, consisting of 12,000 keys connected together to form a large sculpture suspended from the gallery’s ceiling. He has collected these keys from friends, acquaintances and the general public over several years. The presence of this piece acts as a kind of juxtaposition, another riff on the accessibility of space, territory and identity.
The use of the gallery space as a container of sorts to explore human interaction has many precedents; one could consider the early installation pieces of Dan Graham, Vito Acconci’s performances or the tropes of relational aesthetics of the 1990s. In O’Connell’s case, there are many strata of engagement and understanding going on. One might allude to Michel Foucault’s theories around heterotopic space as a guide in a theoretical decoding of O’Connell’s work. In his well-known essay Of Other Spaces, Foucault suggests a blind spot of the construction of society, a place were one could be isolated, away from the immediacies of social systems, yet able to see all of the structures it implies. The neutrality of the gallery space could be suitable for such a theory, a place where an audience can come, and for a while, be free to think about what they are going to do. Off Limits might seem estranged in this context, an elevated form where we can consider O’Connell’s themes. In this regard, there might be a sense of a removal of context, where the installation facilitates a suspension of the relations around social segregation, where an audience can take an objectified viewpoint around our own perceptions and attitudes.
Yet, this installation is hardly a honeymoon hotel or a galleon ship on the high seas, spaces where Foucault thought that heterotopias might exist, instead it exists in Belfast city centre, in a space accessibly to all, not dictated through a series of social rituals or enactments such as a marriage or joining a navy. Anyone can enter. Anyone can experience. In O’Connell’s scenario, there is no protection in the form of stereotypes and social actions that might permit a group to bind itself together in terms of rhetorical maxims and idealisied self-images (Perhaps this is reflected in the fact that none of O’Connell’s work touches the gallery floor, only his audience’s feet, instead Off Limits is suspended in a stasis that might resist any possible grounding and basis for resolution). Instead, the installations achievement is its deconstructions of social and linguistic constructions, destratifying reality itself, creating a space of debate where the individual is not simply given an opportunity to reflect on social mechanisms, but where they are actively implied into such a situation.