Mary Sullivan

Mary Sullivan
From the Inside Out and the Outside In

11 November to 23 December 2023

You can download the exhibition information and gallery guide pdf here. 

Mary Sullivan lives and works on Bere Island, off the south coast of Ireland. Her work turns a critical lens on the complex history of women's labour, island life and identity.

From the Inside Out and the Outside In is a new body of work which started as a direct response to observations of the community of Bere Island during the initial Covid -19 lockdown in 2020. The work focuses on the fragility of the island people while at the same time highlighting their strength and resilience. This exploration is set against the backdrop of Mary’s previous work around gendered labour, female narratives and the military sites on Bere Island including At Home, At War which won the RDS Taylor award in 2018.

The military occupation of Bere Island is a recurring theme of Mary’s work and she continually explores the former military buildings and sites to actively engage with particular experiences of life as lived from a domestic, female and island perspective.

Artist Statement

From the Inside Out, and the Outside In reflects on the realities of island life that are often obscured by romanticised notions of islands and island communities. While islands are often perceived as safe havens for those escaping the hustle and bustle of mainland urban lives, for island dwellers, the experience extends far beyond the safety net that comes with being enclosed by the sea. Importantly within this context, isolation, which is typically associated with vulnerability or a lack of safety, is translated into strength through preparation, communication and exchange.

Through sculpture, performance, video and drawing, From the Inside Out and the Outside In represents the strength of island networks at a time of extreme social isolation and fragmentation. It seeks to draw out the tension between transparency and opacity that has historically structured mainland / island relations, capturing the ebb and flow of its journeys on its way.

These characteristics were thrown into sharp relief in 2020 when the world was stricken by fear and chaos at the emergence of the Covid 19 pandemic. Preparing for emergency and unpredictability is part and parcel of island life and the pandemic was typically met with a pragmatic and practical response on Bere Island. This situation provided a unique opportunity for the community to come together around collective acts of reciprocity and generosity and the eight works developed for this exhibition are inspired by the power and nuance of those actions. For example, the unity of the artwork Glass Houses, represents the strength of island networks at a time of extreme social isolation and fragmentation, while also highlighting their fragility at the same time.

Routes/Roots I & II addresses the often romanticised but necessary journeys that island people take to go about their everyday lives, sea crossings that are dictated by ferry timetables, tides and weather. This work is based on the trips that I was required to take between the mainland and the island from 1 January to 31 December 2022. The constant movement inwards and outwards, while interesting to look at, has the effect of making the viewer feel oddly disoriented, in constant motion, but never actually arriving anywhere.

References to the influence of the British military on the island include The Red Line I & II, which relates to the structures marking the boundary that was imposed in the early 1900s to exclude the islanders from the military areas. Everything east of 'the red line' was purchased by the British military placing everyone that occupied that part of island on a temporary lease where occupants were considered a 'tenant at will' subject to eviction at 24 hours-notice. It is said that island children raised at the west of the red line in the 1920s and 1930s were taught by their parents to treat this boundary with the same respect and caution as is afforded to an international border.

Fishing and foraging have a long-standing tradition in island culture, with many islanders continuing the work of their parents, fishing for income, food and for enjoyment. This reliance on nature and the sea has seen island women take on additional roles to their mainland counterparts. This was something that I learned when I first moved to Bere Island and saw the work of my mother-in-law, not only at home and on the land, but also on the sea. Capturing this experience, the performance video, The Fine Line focuses on the often unseen, labour, resilience and self-reliance of island women, while also considering what goes unseen behind closed doors and in one’s head.

From the Ouside In I & II takes a closer look at the perceptions that mainlanders often have of island people. As these are typically perpetuated by the media, without a clear input from islanders themselves, it is often difficult to gauge how accurate these perceptions are from the outside in. It is as though people are trying to peep through the curtains to uncover what life really looks like, and which naturally, causes their view to be obscured. Illustrating how half-truths are always formed through ocular-centric techniques, From the Outside In I & II draws out the tension between transparency and opacity that has historically structured mainland / island relations. The work visualises two very different groups of people trying to share a confined space, the island, the mainland or both.

Reminiscent of my feelings and experiences upon first moving to Bere Island, these works are shaped by my understanding of island life as being simultaneously defined by openness and limitations, community and autonomy, roots and routes.

Mary Sullivan graduated from the BA (hons) Visual Art Degree Programme, Sherkin Island in 2018. She was the first recipient of the RDS Taylor Art Award as a graduating student from TU Dublin for her work At Home, At War. Mary has exhibited in institutions in Ireland and the United Kingdom, most notably in the RHA (Royal Hibernian Academy) Gallery, Dublin and at The Leydon Gallery, London. In 2019, she produced and exhibited her debut solo exhibition Breathe in the underground rooms of a disused military shelter on Bere Island which received critical acclaim. In 2019, she was awarded the Graduate Research and Development Award with mentoring from artist Jesse Jones by Create, Ireland’s national development agency for collaborative arts.

This exhibition is supported by the Arts Council /An Chomhairle Ealaíon, a Cork County Council Arts Bursary and Creative Places: The West Cork Islands.


Image: Mary Sullivan, From the Inside Out and the Outside In (detail), glass spheres, metal table, 2022, image courtesy of the artist


WCAC acknowledges the financial support of Arts Council Ireland and Cork County Council in making these exhibitions possible.

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