‘The City is Never Finished’ at St Francis Abbey, Kilkenny, on 13 August 2021

St Francis Abbey, one of the oldest buildings in Kilkenny, clearly hasn’t seen much love in a while. The roof and windows are long gone, and the medieval stonework has defied restoration for over a century. That the structure still stands at all is partly thanks to ugly and inauthentic concrete brace-work inserted into the entrance portal under the main tower. On the grounds of what used to be Smithwick’s Brewery, the whole area is now in the process of redevelopment to become the ‘Abbey Quarter’. For now, it’s a building site, with uneven ground, warning signs, and security fencing. This layered place is where ‘The City Is Never Finished’ happens. It is an installation designed and directed by Peter Power, with sound and light, combined with the site itself.

The idea might suggest something that will sweep one away, an all-engrossing re-imagining and re-enlivening of an abandoned city space. But if the promise of transformation was the lure, the experience proves far more self-reflective. The audience is led to walk around the former church, as if on a secular stations-of-the-cross. While waiting at the entrance, and again at the next ‘station’, messages are beamed on digital traffic signs, like placards in a Brechtian theatre piece. The east end of the abbey is dominated by a huge willow tree, and we are invited to face it and even walk through it, jungle-like, bringing us closer to the stone structure itself. Lighting on the tree and the stone of the abbey adds to the sense of distancing, with slabs of colour and shifting patterns revealing strangeness.

It is honest and transparent: rather than use the abbey as some stepping-off point, the focus returns to the viewer. What need is there for framing devices, technological or otherwise, to justify or finesse an ‘experience’? There is no disguising the fact that we are in a work site, and that the ruined abbey and wild tree are just things to light up and set sounds going through. There is something consciously transitory about it all, and it’s interesting to see people reach for their phones and take pictures, like they want something to hold onto. We hang around, in case we might miss something. A pianist comes out and improvises in the undergrowth. Further around there’s a speaker, then, at the western arch, a drummer.

The digital signs point to ideas of ‘home’ and ‘memory’ and suggest that the mental space of the city is becoming more alien, where memories cease to function. Is it the requiem of a dream? An ode to abandonment? Ecology and loss go hand in hand in this concreted, broken spot of useless-yet-valuable land, occupied for now by a band of experimental artists, playing the kinds of in-between music heard before or after big stadium concerts. It points to a time of transition, the perpetually liminal. The city is never finished, but are we?

The City is Never Finished
Concept, Design, Text, Direction: Peter Power
Music Composed by Peter Power and Michael Gallen
Video Design: David Mathúna; Lighting Design: Sarah Jane Shiels; Sculptural Design Realisation: David O’Brien and Sophie Gough
Produced by Sparsile in association with Kilkenny Arts Festival and Once Off Productions

Images by John D Kelly and Michael Lee