Artists Text

Michael O’Donnell 1983
The works presented here form three overlapping series. First; a random selection of objects based on the support sticks which are traditionally used in Norwegian hay-making.

Over many years of use and storage, each pole loses its bark, is eaten into, retains the tension marks from the wires being twisted over it, and becomes a compressed object, telling tales of years of activity and production – summer use and winter storage – at one short stage vitally active and the rest of the year stacked at the back of the barn – obscure an function – utterly useless – but with a diary of events packed into its surface.


Michael O’Donnell 1984/85
When the studio activity moved from monument and the idea of monuments, it went through a transitory phase which dealt with architecture as a starting point, taking the form of clusters of modular structures. These works were somewhere between full-scale and its model source. Empty units placed against one another in groups of five or six. The transition continued until a complete fragmentation of mass or sculptural units occurred – whereupon fragments or shards of stone, metal and eventually cast elements were placed together, mainly on the floor to create the sculptural form – platform – which acted as an articulation landscape for other elements to stand within. These areas of landscape became made up of cast units repeated on a vast scale until the studio resembled a factory production line of almost identical objects.
The term landscape is used in a loose way here to entertain the idea of land – sea – air, a sort of series of levels or strata.


Michael O’Donnell “Looking for Englishmen” 1985
Wire pieces lay dormant until 1984, when I looked back, in order to find a different way of making works from the then current materials and language. For some reason it struck me as important to find something that was essential to the country I was living within. The “female” culture of weaving was one area that was right in front of my nose and on the other side of the coin was the “male” use of wire on the farm, the fixer of all, from tractors to pipes, from haymaking to…….opportunity no.2.

The two were tentatively combined. But what the hell do you do with a wire weaving – handmade – in Norway – measuring 2 x 3 meters? Let it decide for itself. And it formed a roll that was so on the edge of banality, i.e. it looked like a bit of old fencing, that it seemed perfect. So, rolled sculptures that didn’t say look at me “sculpture”, but begged the question “what is that?”

And the wire weaving went on and on.
The boredom of making these pieces was delightful.
The working process had to stop when we moved home and studio, to what is essentially a boxlike space cleared in the middle of the forest. With no views, no landscapes, no farming history – just a house – which had eaten up what seemed like enormous amounts of time, by demanding new floors, new walls and the usual nonsense that make today’s living so rustic.

So behind me, physically, I had a finished house, finished only because I said it was finished, and in front of me, physically, the prospect of building a huge new studio, which was just a flat piece of ground.

Set in the middle of the box, physically between past memories and future problems, stood my daughter’s little orange tent, which, so complete, and in no need of any sawing, nailing, cementing, or any other activity from me, was the perfect safest haven to run to.


Trond Borgen from “Das Monument” Michael O’Donnell 1989
The rhetoric of silence

The rest is silence. Rust never sleeps; its consequences are inescapable. It is mute revolution, a quiet eating away of old structures. In the sculptural language of Michael O’Donnell rust is an important factor. He is especially attentive to surface and covers objects in skins of rust and lead. In this way he creates an eloquent silence – the lead is an inert, lifeless material that deadens all sound; and the rust’s process of disintegration is silent – almost sacred. It is a matter of faith, rather than a fact of the moment.

Lead is an ambiguous material. It protects as well as kills life. It protects against radiation but is in itself poisonous. This ambiguity, this double line of associations, is an important tool in O’Donnell’s thought process. He uses sculpture to uncover the loss of meaning of old values; but at the same time he creates a new, artistic meaning out of established symbols and structures; and it is rust which transilluminates the empty structures; and it is lead which indicates what is under the skin, transparent but concealing. Through the lead and the rusted steel O’Donnell hides behind the silent anonymity of his materials. At the same time he uncovers the decay and the decomposition to which we already belong. It is a form of creative material fatigue.


Trond Borgen from “Das Monument” Michael O’Donnell 1989
British art of the Eighties

Michael O’Donnell belongs to a generation of British sculptors born around 1950 who in the eighties established and maintained a new attitude to sculpture compared to the sculpture of the previous decade. This attitude is more concerned with new angles of approach than with a break with tradition. The experience gained from conceptual art, minimalism and constructive sculpture has provided a basis – but their work has perspectives and ambitions far greater that the frames of reference provided by these movements.

This new attitude towards materials made Tony Cragg and Bill Woodrow bring the waste of consumerism into the gallery. There they transformed it into new forms in new contexts. It was the man-made trivia of post-industrial society which made their sculptural mark. To the same generation belong, among others, Richard Deacon, Antony Gormley and Alison Wilding. Even if the cannot be classified as a group, they do have certain things in common. For instance the appreciation of sculpture as metaphor, both for man’s emotions and his desire to convey social and existential relationships. In this way they go beyond the purely formal and aesthetic problems – they give sculpture coherence through associations and the use of metaphor.


Trond Borgen from “Das Monument” Michael O’Donnell 1989
The most extensive installation, “Running Rotten Row”, refers both to the parks of London, cultivated and tended throughout the centuries, and to British soldiers, who during the First World War divided the Delville forest in Northern France into sections with street names, among others “Rotten Row”. Here mass violence and meaningless death were dug into the ground in an absurd cultivation of the soil. O’Donnell’s objects are strictly ordered, with military precision diagonally in the room. There are spires, towers, lookout posts, a warrior and a bear. The feeling is static, but there is a latent rawness and brutality hinting at an aggressiveness and a violence which is both hidden and made apparent.

In the series of rust prints and lead objects with oxidised iron powder we recognise the shapes of earlier sculptures in O’Donnell’s production, “Stacked Monument” and “Empire Stateless”. Not only does he reformulate earlier sculptural themes – he does in fact give us the empty space on the picture plane, as blank graphical impressions in the rust. Matter has ceased to exist -–only the negation of the sculptures is left.

Thus the process of disintegration is complete. Art has also broken down. But from this breakdown new constellations, new artistic possibilities may grow.

It is therefore the archaic qualities which completely dominate this exhibition. We are again confronted with the basic, existential questions. Questions about the nature of Man and the nature of Art must be asked again.

But the optimism is not tangible. “Star Monument” is the only piece free of rust in this exhibition. Two crossing arches are attached to a star by a drum. It is a coming together of heaven and earth, without the rust of disintegration, but with the choking shield of the lead foil.
Is this where the future rests?


Michael O’Donnell 1992
The usage of materials is one of O’Donnell’s greatest strengths. He mixes the permanent and traditional material of granite with unpure and impermanent materials like foamrubber and rusty, worn steel plates. He casts cement in moulds, he mixes marble-dust and rust, which are cast together to be chiselled and polished. He even uses bronze. The materials traditionally thought of as impure and the extensive mixing is a heritage from the avant-garde art of our century. The list of former reference points is long. We can mention names like Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg and Joseph Beuys. A more direct model for the rusty steel plates is Anthony Caro. This important British sculptor started working with similar materials and shapes early in the seventies, at the time Michael O’Donnell was a student at the Royal College in London.

In a Midsummer’s Nights Dream the forest or wood can be read as a metaphor for a psychological situation – a mental state of chaos, confusion, intrigue and surprise.

Wood for Trees was made in 1992. It consists of a random selection of 700 cubic meters of sculptural components, in a variety of materials. An access corridor was available around the perimeter of the piece and just enough space was left between the elements so that the piece could be entered. What you ended up with was the situation where the viewer Was a participant in the work and the work could be viewed from within, as a series of close encounters, or from without, where the viewer became an integrated part of the forest.

Two main reactions occurred – that somehow the sanctity and integrity of the individual donor sculpture was in someway compromised – correct – and two – the odd sensation of people coming out of the experience – smiling. For me personally it was the first time where the massive energy and excitement of the studio production process was on an equal footing with that of the shop window-gallery situation.

This piece has laid certain criteria for future development, dealing with capacity as a focus point. The work could exist in a scale way in excess of the original or cut down to fit any space however small – the parameters of the work are how many cubic meters of showing space are available.


Michael O’Donnell 1994
…. So instead of cutting into the object to produce a form-shape-symbol made of empty space, I decided to fragment the emptiness further by projecting the form-shape-symbol from the object via light. Suddenly the studio was a different place, its grey workshop interior that I know so well, having built it and worked in it almost every day for the past eight years, was transformed into a relit, warming fairground of visual excitement – equivalent to a good church at midnight on Christmas Eve. This was getting dangerous – soft lights – sweet music next – until by chance the local electrical shop sold me some spotlight bulbs of 60 watts strength, going under the dubious name of “disco bulbs” , with a name like that they deserved at least one quick trial.

So a flag shape made up of brown metal slats hung on the wall had its own heralding yellow disco lights installed, in went the plug and 1920 watts went into action. These globes of golden yellow have an effective lighting area of 15 degrees, so when out of that beam they aren’t up to very much – but what I wasn’t aware of was that a shaft of yellow cross sculpture light was blazing its way out of the studio window, across the garden, through the French windows at the front of the house -–demolishing the kitchen, escaping out of the corresponding French windows at the back of the house, screaming through the forest, in which our house nestles, and off running down the valley to be lost forever – and certainly laying claim to being the longest sculpture I’ve ever made.


Michael O’Donnell 1996
This open ended series of works primarily exist as photographs of myself and a series of objects. The original Fools Gold photo – Small Change – was made on the morning of Christmas Eve 1994. I put two yellow spotlights in my trouser pockets – plugged them in – and exposed the camera shutter for as long as I could stand having 120 watts of heat next to my private parts. The smell of melting underpants heralded the completion of the work – I had held out for twenty six seconds.

The piece was based on the idea of having coins (gold) in ones pockets – small change – and the sex change possibilities in frying ones testicles. I have a tendency to use credit cards these days.


Ingrid Blekastad , “Looking Back” 1997, Michael O’Donnell
O’Donnell often allows the same sculptures to take part in different exhibitions. The spotlight version of “Fire” changed character according to the different context it was placed within – from the sacred to the objectified. Installed within an exhibition space the lightsculpture gained an overpowering effect, and with small fish made out of wax on the floor, the flame associates easily to a modern idol. Within biblical traditions we know that fish refer to the congregation. Interpreted in this way, the fish become the public and the art piece, the God of our times. This interpretation is perhaps not so removed for an artist like O’Donnell. He grew up in a Catholic home and relates to christian symbols. However, we cannot interpret the piece as an unambiguous allegory, there are several layers here, and the artist plays with the interpretations and lets the symbols change their content to which ever context they perform within.

“Fire”, can in the terms of the Italian philosopher, Mario Perniola, be called a simulacrum. Perniola wished, like other Post Modern theoreticians of the 1970’s, to provide dignity to the non-essential, to the superficiality within our culture. He laid emphasis upon the rites and put them before the depth within myths, using examples from ancient Rome. The ritual does not refer to any deeper truth, therefore it does not deal with the contradictions between truth and lies, it exists and functions as a practising form. We can therefore see a value within the act, and especially those repetitive acts. This is where the similarity with O’Donnell’s production of art comes in. He repeats his own symbols of the fire or the pig in a non-essential way. They usually do not refer to anything else, and when they do, the shift their meaning within the next exhibition.

During the alternative exhibition PiG (Project in Gamlebyen, 1994) “Fire” was placed high up on a concrete wall. In the dense traffic and slum area of the town, “Fire” lit up with a new monumentality on the simple concrete wall. The piece, 4 meters by 2 meters, was placed 18 meters above the ground. If we enter further into the colour effects in “Fire”, we discover the exciting transitions from the white, glowing outer edge, the red-to blue-violet centre, and the reflections on the wall as a muted, warm red colour glow. In the darkness of evening and night, beams of warm, glowing colour were projected out from the dark facade. The various colour-and light qualities created a tension between depth and surface effects. The violet colours in the heart created a deep space, whilst the white, glowing outer edge and the warm red wreath around it, glued the symbol to the surface so that the piece reminded one of a burning branding iron. Advertising boards have for many years used similar symbol to “Fire”, and the simplicity and striking power of the symbol reminds one of the visual effects of advertising. This aspect was strengthened by the placing of the piece, over a series of ice cream adverts for Magnum, however, “Fire” differs from the advert on one significant point – it refers to itself only and not to something to be sold or informed about.

Within O’Donnell’s artistic practise aspects of playfulness and variation are characteristic. He plays with the way our society uses symbols. He likes, in his distanced and ironic way, to disturb our fixed attitudes. As a foreigner he freely gains an outside view of the culture he lives and works within, even though it is not Norwegian Culture that he deals with. The symbols are more general and might just as well belong to England as to Norway. It is rather as if distance strengthens and clarifies O’Donnell’s artistic projects. He produces with an ease that is unusual in a Norwegian context. One project follows another, one series of works line up to the previous ones in an unstoppable tempo, doing exhibitions in Cape Town, Holland and in Lillehammer during the same year.
This great energy became apparent in the retrospective exhibition O’Donnell held in the Factory space of Citadel in Oslo.- A vast number of his sculptural elements, in different techniques and materials were gathered, showing both his artistic strength and his weaknesses. O’Donnell’s artistic approaches seldom dig down to the bottom, however, in this context it was turned into a type of manic hall mark or artistic concept. With ease he finishes one project and with restlessness he approaches the next.


Agata Saraczynska
Gazeta Wyborcza 13.11.98

“To see and to know”

……………… in the other part of the gallery one is presented with a considerably more expressive artistic vision with Michael O’Donnell as its creator. A British artist who has lived for many years in Norway. His exhibition contains two separate works. The first, which carries the exhibition’s main title: Telling stories to lions and the second work – a monumental composition of pictures/photographs in a glass case, both extend beyond a general understanding and one has to know the background of both pieces to really understand what hides behind here. The display in the glass case is a collection of 336, more or less readable portraits as well as one large one. The effect is incredibly arresting and becomes even more fascinating when we learn the story behind it all.

O’Donnell rephotographed a photo taken by Heinrich Hoffmann in Munich, August 14th, 1914. Hoffmann registered in his photo a crowd of people applauding Germany’s entry into the Great War. After some years Hoffmann managed to identify Hitler’s face and later became Hitler’s court photographer as a result of this (Hitler was sent a copy of the photographs with his face in it)
O’Donnell treated all the portraits equally, both the clearly visible ones and the ones not so clear. He randomly chose a portraits which he enlarged and here we can draw many different conclusions and interpretations.
Just as symbolic is the artistic language in the other exhibitions work by O’Donnell, the piece consists of three different elements; a contour of a lion with an outline in red light, a collection of light-reflecting glass plates, light bulbs and a video projection. The exhibition’s creator tells a story about a family who lost their son, killed and eaten by a lion at the zoo. A completely neutral description of the court case that followed and its verdict that declared that nobody was to blame. A parallel to all the injustice carried out in the name of the British Empire. When we set aside this conclusion we also discover that both works use an universal language, that they engage and involve us as they are and create diverse associations. That I believe and see.


Alex Sudheim, Mail & Guardian, Durban,February 2000
Mass hysteria revived as art

The crowd: that swollen, seething animal, comes to life when human beings swarm together in a single unity of desire. As an organism the crowd works its seduction by promising the surrender of individual will to the mass. Individuals, no longer responsible for their actions, become sublimated into a scheme, more epic.
This phenomenon, of mass in conflict with individual behaviour, is something that obsesses British/Norwegian artist Michael O’Donnell. “The experience of being in a crowd has been described as akin to the feeling which overcomes one just before death by drowning. A sort of tranquil miasma of peace that engulfs the body,” he says.
O’Donnell’s vast and exhaustive photographic installation which make up his Witnesses series – simultaneously on show in Sweden, Finland and Durban’s NSA Gallery – are subtle and profound deconstructions of the very nature of human history. With his approach grounded in the simple concept of “the witness”, O’Donnell investigates the creation of collective memory through the device of the crowd. Historically significant moments, however epochal they may be, are ultimately functions of the arbitrary, mostly anonymous people who make up the collective of witnesses who ensure the event’s transmission into history. “An event takes place and you are there. Whether by chance or by design we cannot know; whether or not it was a momentous event we only discover later. But the fact is you were there, a witness on behalf of everyone for our collective heritage,” he explains. The most fascinating aspect of O’Donnell’s work is his intense focus upon the apparently random, faceless members of the crowd at certain historically crucial events. His scrupulous and enormous portraits of unidentified individual in the thong are reflective of a lateral shift away from the obvious renown of an event – that is, what famous people were involved – to the nameless participant in the event whose witnessing it makes him an essential element in the formation of that moment in history.
The centrepiece of O’Donnell’s installation in Durban is the gigantic portrait of an anonymous man in the crowd of onlookers at the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936. As Jesse Owens crossed the line to the 100m dash – the event which caused Adolf Hitler great personal humiliation, for a black man had beaten his Aryan athletes – the man in the trilby hat turned his face away. Isolating his head in the crowd, O’Donnell rephotographed it and painstakingly handprinted the 224 A4 photographs which make up the portrait.
A similar work in the Swedish exhibitions depicts an unidentified man who has just been released from Buchenwald, while in Finland O’Donnell has recreated in large scale the portrait of an unknown black man in the crowd outside Pollsmore prison when Nelson Mandela was released.

In a separate work in his Durban show, O’Donnell has intriguingly blurred the line between the static and frenzied viewer by dismantling Heinrich Hoffman’s famous photograph of a jubilant crowd in Munich’s Odeonsplatz celebrating the outbreak of World War 1 on August 14th, 1914.
By chance, one of the men in the crowd was a young Hitler. Hoffman encircled the head of the future führer and sent it to him, which led to Hoffman’s appointment as Hitler’s personal photographer until the Third Reich perished in a Berlin bunker in 1944.
O’Donnell has meticulously re-photographed and hand-printed every single head in the crowd – many just grainy, unrecognisable blurs – and separately recomposed it in a vast installation consisting of over 350 individual prints.
The crowd, which had relieved its members of their individuality to become a single mass, is now forced to fracture that seal. The impact is similar to dropping a frozen block of ice into hot water and watching it violently crack apart.
A cryogenically frozen chunk of the past, pitched protesting into the bubbling torrent of the present: angry, broken, vulnerable and dangerous.



Michael O`Donnel works with monuments, attitudes to spirituality and the commodity of death.