'What do you think of my chimpanzee muff?'

'What do you think of my chimpanzee muff?'

The strange world of American artist David McDermott in his Mullingar mansion by Rosita Boland - 12 August 2016

Artist David McDermott wants to show me something. I’ve seen a lot already in the rambling rooms of Bellmount House, near Mullingar, which McDermott has turned into a kind of Gothic art installation, rooted in the Victorian era. I’ve seen a rodent, which is unsurprising, because this is a house with a lot of hidey holes and gaps in the walls. I’ve seen the commodes that are in every room, and that McDermott chooses to use instead of a flushing toilet. I’ve seen the cubby hole upstairs that is earmarked for “the servant” to sleep in, once someone suitable is found for the role. I’ve not yet seen one of the many bats I’m told are constantly falling down the chimneys or roosting behind mirrors or in the folds of the, formerly grand but now torn, window drapes, and I’m rather hoping I won’t. 

“Look,” McDermott instructs. I’m looking. He’s holding a tall cylindrical box, which he opens with a flourish. What emerges is a floppy piece of shiny black fur. It’s a muff, with which, at one point in time, ladies used to keep their hands warm. McDermott bought this vintage muff in its original box long ago in New York. “Chimpanzee,” he says, stroking the object.

The muff made of chimpanzee fur is just one of the many esoteric objects crammed into every room of Bellmount House. American-born David McDermott, who collaborates with his New York-based partner, Peter McGough, in various photography and installation projects, has been renting the house for close on two years. He has been gradually bringing it back in time, to reflect the fact he chooses to live a life that has as little to do with modernity as possible, “the arrestment of time,” as he puts it.

Cold comfort

An Aga is the sole remaining appliance in the kitchen, for example. The fridges, microwave, kettle, toaster and all other electrical items have been moved to a shed outside. “A fridge is similar to some kind of crypt,” he says sternly. The freezer, however, McDermott kept. He doesn’t use the freezer to store food in; he uses it to freeze a bucket-sized piece of ice. He then prises the ice out of the container, and puts it in the top of what he calls “an icebox fridge”. This is a wooden locker where he stores perishable food. The ice melts and drains off underneath. It’s quite a palaver. 

So he uses a modern freezer to make ice to create an old-fashioned icebox? I ask if this doesn’t seem like a contradiction. “I’m using and abusing the present to get to the past,” is how McDermott explains it.

It’s not just the feather mattresses, the commodes and the clothes McDermott wears that are from another era. His turn of phrase also has a period ring to it:

“Shall we alight the stairs?”

“I don’t drive an automobile.”

“This is a temporary abode. It is the conclusion of my second summer here.”

“I am the dilettante of dilettantes.”

The house came unfurnished, which was fortuitous, because McDermott has an abundance of furniture and objets d’art. Each room has a multitude of things in it. There are pieces of rococo frames, porcelain, card tables, mirrors, candelabras, chairs with the stuffing falling out of them, rolls of hand-painted Chinese silk wallpaper, small bright-coloured birds under glass domes. They are just the objects on show. 

Chests of drawers, wardrobes, armoires and cupboards contain many, many more items. One drawer is full of antique neckties. Another is full of women’s Victorian hats and hoods, one of which McDermott decides spontaneously to model, doing a little twirl in the process. “All these things are my friends,” he confides, patting a hat as if it were a small pet. “I have conversations with them. I don’t need human friends when I can have discourses with these things.”

He opens door after door, drawer after drawer. There are trays of birds’ eggs, cupboards of porcelain dinner services, antique bedding, children’s clothes, a man’s Victorian two-piece bathing suit, made of wool, and full of holes. “Moths,” he says sadly, shaking his head. “They took my vintage sock collection too.” The armoire in his bedroom, which has stuffed toys on each of its twin beds, contains vintage tweeds and trousers from the 1920s. And all this is only part of his vast collection. “I have 10 containers in storage at a facility where myself and the Natural History Museum are the only clients.”

Continue reading at The Irish Times

Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Photograph: Bryan O’Brien