A Seat At The Table
Arch Enemy Arts, Philadelphia
By Eva Masterman
At first glance, the complexity of Mary O’Malley’s new installation, A Seat at the Table, may be missed. Obvious is the incredible skill and detail that has gone into making this lavish eight-piece dinner service; the table is resplendent with ceramic cutlery, soup tureen, crab platter and much more besides. It is not O’Malley’s meticulous attention to her craft that could be overlooked, but more the layer upon layer of cultural referencing and political satyr that runs through this ambitious work.
One may be forgiven for reading a statement about waste, climate change, the destruction of our oceans. Whilst this understanding may be one that is a definite concern to the Long Island born artist, the work in fact offers much more than this and takes us out of the well-trodden dead-ends of microplastics and dares to point the finger further inland. It is an invitation, a conversation, and one that the viewer is asked to take a seat and partake in.
A way into the topics on offer would be to first assess the title. Here, we already begin to witness the care in which O’Malley beings to build up the subversive and detailed narrative that echoes the equally subversive and detailed beauty inherent in the decoration that spreads across the work. A Seat at the Table nods to the first studio album of the singer songwriter Solange, an artist known for her use of music to challenge the global institutional racism and violence against people of color and minorities. It could also be seen as a reference to the iconic feminist art work The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago that resides in the Brooklyn Museum, a short train ride from O’Malley’s hometown. It is in this context of defiance against the politically unstable, racist and gendered norms of the global society that we begin to uncover the depths behind the work.
O’Malley’s genesis as a ceramic artist has taken her across the globe and back again, with stop offs around China, Philadelphia and London. She was raised in the small town of Long Island amongst the frustrations of the bigotry and racism that often permeates small town ideologies; as an Irish American, she has always been sensitive to the idea of belonging and the sense of displacement that often resides in immigrant families. As such, she does not shy away from criticizing the indolent refusal of most of her peers and neighbors to recognize the colonial history and damage that modern Western society is built on. A Seat at the Table is her offering to that complicated and problematic (to put it mildly) truth, celebrating multiculturism at the same time as damning the racism on which is was founded and still exists in.
This work is another chapter to a project started at a time of flux and change for O’Malley, and the tensions felt are expressed throughout the installation. A progression of her previous edition Bottom Feeders created over 2014-2016, it is a reaction to the lack of historical awareness and responsibility she discovered across her travels in America and the UK, before returning home. The visual references to decoration, Belleek-ware, 17th - 19th century European porcelain, as well as the use of porcelain itself, are subtle and considered choices that deal with these frustrations head on.
Porcelain has a well-known – though less oft discussed - links to purity, fascism and most importantly when discussing O’Malley’s work, colonialism. The use of this material was not a whimsical or aesthetic decision; it is the bedrock onto which she overlays and builds the rest of her commentary. This material that has been idolized, at one point was more expensive than gold, collected by Hitler, and has an incredibly complicated relationship to race and class, underpins the intentions and inquietude of the artist.
Whilst pointing to all the problems at the forefront of global politics that litter our newsfeeds, O’Malley manages to inject these hard-hitting sentiments with humor. Food is playfully and skillfully used as a metaphor for the cultural melting pot of Long Island and New York, interlacing the natural seaside imagery that is so under threat across the global shorelines with everything from dumplings to bagels to hot dogs. The work uses aesthetics of European porcelain to poke fun at the problems of European and colonial history and modern-day society; it also simultaneously celebrates the cultural diversity that is evolving in her home town of Long Island and seems to suggest a world in which all of these cultures and people can live together.
On closer inspection, O’Malley’s message is ultimately hopeful. Far from being smothered and ruined by the mass of random food stuffs that have washed up on their sea bed, the flora and fauna that grows across her tableware seems to thrive on it. There is nutrients, life and diversity to be found in the assortment of peanuts, pizza, pretzels, fortune cookies and corn on the cob. Octopuses gorge on olives, whilst barnacles find refuge on the surface of a bagel. O’Malley seems to offer a utopian message as much as critic of the current political climate; a seat at a table where all cultures and backgrounds can help each other. This is a table for open discussions that creates space and beauty without hiding or dismissing the ugliness that is many people’s reality every day. It is definitely a table I want to be sitting at.