In 2010 the Austrian arts collective Gelitin did a six week residency in the Leitrim Sculpture Centre in Manorhamilton. At the end of this period there was a curios show with little publicity which has left no trace of itself (since then no documentation of it has emerged nor any reference to it on their website currently exists). I hadn’t been aware of this at the time but did come across the group due to a piece about them online which detailed a very controversial residency they did while at the World Trade Center in 2000. I mentioned it to someone who surprised me when they revealed they had actually been in Leitrim recently. I was then intrigued to find out what they had done while here but before that I have to explain what they did in New York.
In 2000 the four artists who make up Gelatin (in 2005 they would change the spelling to Gelitin) were on a residency programme on the 91st floor of the World Trade Centre in New York. While there they did a project called The B-Thing, which entailed them building a secret room to work in from cardboard, smuggling building materials into the building and then covertly removing a window and installing a balcony outside which they had constructed. A helicopter was hired and took photos of each member standing in turn on the balcony. They then removed it and replaced the window. The erection of the balcony and standing on it is said to have all happened over 20 minutes and began at 6am one morning. The produced a book to document the project with photos, text, diagrams etc. They stated in it that, “The balcony is about the feeling you have when you stand on it and the pleasure you absorb, when being totally dependent on a structure and atmosphere you have created yourself.” I have used images from their book and elsewhere to illustrate this piece. If you look at this work of theirs in a certain way (I describe this way at the base of this piece) it could be seen to be weirdly predictive of the following year when the buildings would be destroyed on September 11th 2001. Overtime their work would become entangled with conspiracy theories, becoming misunderstood and even disputed as a hoax as it became a kind of art world myth. The group said very little about it at the time of the action (which is a situation which has continued to this day) as it was an illegal and thoroughly dangerous thing for them to do with few safely measures taken or authority given by the owners of the building.
Through contacts at the LSC I got to read their original proposal to gain the residency and learnt that they originally planned to gather waste metal from ghost estates and other properties abandoned in Leitrim since the financial collapse of 2008 and, using the facilities of the LSC, melt this material down and recast it as a large bell. This was to be exhibited along with documentation of the process at the conclusion of the residency. They suggested the bell could then be donated to the town if it could be installed in some public building where it could be rung from time to time “to remind its citizens of the here and now and that time is not linear but cyclical”. What actually happened when they arrived was that they began by building a cardboard room in one corner of the unoccupied main gallery space. They did collect waste metal from unused buildings and other sites in the area but soon had to resort to collecting it from other sources as well when not much metal was found there. They were also collecting wood and other building materials from these same sites and these were brought into their cardboard room in the gallery. They prohibited any access to this space and although it was not possible to lock it I met no-one who actually looked inside it at this time.
In the very early morning of the opening they removed what they had been building from the room and carried it through the quiet streets to a 5 storey abandoned and unfinished property close to the town centre (the ground floor was to be commercial with apartments above). They had no problems getting into this building as they only had to open one of the wire mesh panel walls surrounding it. They then walked it right up the stairs and went to the top floor and as there were no windows very quickly attached a wooden balcony to the outside of the building. They had arranged with a resident of an apartment opposite (who I located and spoke to) to allow one of them access so they could take photos of each member standing naked in turn on the balcony. One of the persistent rumours to grow from their New York stunt was that they had been naked on the balcony when in fact they had all worn white on that occasion. The photographer was the last to go on the balcony and his picture was taken by the occupant of the apartment who was told to say inside for their own safely. Then once no one was passing below the balcony was actually pushed out the window where it smashed onto the footpath and across the street below. Once the camera was retrieved these parts were then gathered up and were brought back to the gallery space where they were arranged on the floor of the main gallery space to mirror the result of the impact.
At the opening of the show they allowed access to the cardboard room which turned out to include things like the tools they used, personal items, unused building materials, sawdust and other debris that had accumulated over their 6 week stay. As usual for Gelitin there was also a performance aspect to the show which consisted of them lying still and naked in contorted positions on the floor of the main gallery space amongst the splintered wreckage. The finished bell was also present in a corner of the room and was rung to signal the start and end of the performance. A sign was posted on the door not to take any pictures of proceedings and as I could find no images it appears that this was respected although it’s likely that the group made some documentation of it for themselves before the doors were opened.
I was told that only about 30 people attended and by the next day the space had been cleared by the group. The cardboard and the remains of the balcony were left in the back yard of the LSC for sometime until it was gradually dumped or recycled. The bell was actually shipped back to their base in Austria and it appears that no attempt to donate it to the town was made. The show had no official title but in the lead up to the opening they mentioned to one member of staff that it might be called Property Crash. No artist statement was made about the work at the time and they insisted that the invite have no image from it. As it happened only an electronic invite went out and just stated that it was the ‘Gelitin Residency Exhibition’ along with their bio.
Obviously we can only speculate on their reasoning for what they did and why they picked Leitrim but this would have been the 10 year anniversary of The B-Thing in New York so maybe this is simply why they did it. The only other connection between Leitrim and 9-11 was that the first fire fighter to be killed that day was father Mychael Judge whose family was from Keshkerrigan. His memory and all of those that died have been honoured there with a small park and plague. ‘Fr. Mychal Judge Peace Garden’, on the shore of Kesh Lake outside the village. It’s not known whether Gelitin would have visited the site which was opened officially on 11th September 2005 but if they had searched online for 9-11 and Leitrim they would quickly have learnt about it. It strikes me that perhaps there was also a reference to suicide being made in their piece. The suicide rate in Leitrim and most rural areas in Ireland is high by international standards and the financial and property collapse have only increased this. There were of course also suicides from the Twin Towers on 9-11, which were of a completely different nature, but perhaps this response piece (if it was so) was partly a comment on what can happen and how you feel when you experience the loss of that metaphoric balcony, “when…a structure and atmosphere you have created yourself” fails you for some reason outside of your control. (Stephen Rennicks)