The Fertile Crescent – A Review

Just about a year ago I reviewed a most stimulating exhibition which was running in Skibbereen: West Cork Creates. It featured collaborations between local craftspeople, visual artists, photographers and designers – combining their skills and expertise to produce exciting, original work. In my review I asked if there was a difference between an artist and a craftsperson, and this sparked off a lengthy online debate. My favourite sentence from this exchange was penned by Colin Murray, an artist printmaker who had taken part in the Skibbereen exhibition:

…I think all creative workers share the essence of making a lingering dream and the effort of sharing one’s dreams with others is an urgent business of us humans…

All the work in the Skibbereen exhibition was outstanding, but I was drawn more than anything else to the collaboration of artist and writer Brian Lalor and ceramicist Jim Turner. They have continued to collaborate, and the current exhibition at the Blue House Gallery, Schull is an extraordinary display of their combined talents.

One of Brian and Jim’s larger works currently showing in the Blue House Gallery in Schull – a gold capped obelisk

The exhibition has the title The Fertile Crescent, a phrase that might seem strange, at first, encountered on the small main street of a village in the far west of rural Ireland. It conjures up, of course, the images we had in our school text books of the beginnings of human society, including the development of writing, the invention of the wheel, the use of glass – and irrigation which enabled settled agriculture to develop. This led gradually to the exploration of metalworking – some of the earliest figurative bronze work is from the area:

fertile crescent bronze

Not in the Schull exhibition – but original bronze figurines from Tell Judaidah, Turkey. These are the oldest examples of true bronze (combination of copper and tin) known. They are dated to around 3000 BC (photo – University of Chicago)

At school we learnt about this land and its features and I remember the romance of the names that were conjured up: Mesopotamia, Assyria, Egypt, Tigris, Euphrates… geographically far away but important enough to be titled The Cradle of Civilisation. That’s where our ancestors came from, we were told: that’s where our religions began.

great mosque

Minaret of the Great Mosque of Samarra, an etching by Brian Lalor

That geography today is at the forefront of our news. We now think of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Palestine as well as the older names. We now think of idealogical war zones, we think of suffering, of displaced people; we think of bombs, human carnage, ruined ancient sites – and refugees. The mission statement for the exhibition begins:

…In this exhibition Jim Turner and Brian Lalor have devoted their attention to the current tragedy unfolding in the Middle East where the ruins of the civilisations of the past are being destroyed, and the present-day populations forced to flee their homes in fear of their lives, to become refugees in adjoining countries and in Europe. Our world heritage is under threat of total destruction as the cycles of violence recorded by history continue to occur…

It’s this modern view of what is going on in The Fertile Crescent that occupies this exhibition, and for that alone this work is as important on the main street of Schull as it would be in any major world capital.

Children pot

The ceramics – pots and bowls: the decorations on these utilitarian objects portray urgent messages for our society today. Jim Turner is the potter and Brian Lalor provides the illustrations

In the exhibition there are references everywhere to the cultural history of the Fertile Crescent. Jim Turner has made a series of cylinder seals, which involve inscribing a clay roller which is used to impress calligraphy on to a clay tablet; the same techniques have been used to decorate ceramic plaques.

cylinder seal

(Top) one of many ‘cylinder seals’ by Jim Turner on display in the gallery; (above) two of the ceramic plaques with impressed patterns

Obelisks and ziggurats are architectural features which we associate with the history of the Middle East. The two artists have produced a huge array of artefacts using these distinctive forms. Some stand in serried rows like an army (top picture), while other are decorated by Brian with motifs ancient and contemporary. The juxtaposition perhaps sometimes perplexes the viewer but the overall effect within the galleries is arresting and we are left in no doubt that these artists are giving us – Europeans – clear and deep messages, not only about our endangered world heritage, but our own responsibilities towards the chaos that is engulfing The Fertile Crescent in our own time.

Try to catch this exhibition: it deserves a wide audience. Perhaps West Cork is a long way for some of you to come? I hope there will be chances for this work to be seen elsewhere. I know the artists are collaborating on a further venture later on this summer: doubtless that may well reach the pages of this Journal. Congratulations to The Blue House Gallery for providing us with this most thought-provoking and dynamic work.

panorama

poster

A Bell for Bangor

Holg + Donagh 2

The man standing on the platform in the picture is Holger Lönze. You might remember him from Umha Aois, a post I put up last year about a group of artists and ‘experimental archaeologists’ who use Bronze Age metal working techniques to produce replicas of ancient tools, weapons and musical instruments. Holger – a sculptor – is a key member of that group: his workshop is in Schull and he has just completed a commission to make an enormous bell. You can see the project in progress on the right of the picture. On the left is Donagh Carey, another West Cork artist who worked on the casting.

Left: the original Bangor Bell – the inspiration for the new work – and, right: an early sketch design by Holger of the proposed bell sculpture

The story begins in the sixth century when Columbanus (the Latinised form of Columbán, meaning White Dove) was born in the Kingdom of Meath, now part of Leinster, Ireland, in 543. That’s about 50 years after the death (aged 120) of St Patrick. Patrick, of course, is the best known of the missionaries building up Christianity in Ireland, but he wasn’t Irish himself, having been born a Roman Briton. Columbanus was Irish, and he saw his mission as spreading Christianity from Ireland throughout the Continent of Europe. His mission was successful and St Columbanus is recognised in Europe as a founder of many monastic settlements during his travels in Gaul, Burgundy, the Alps and finally Italy where he established the great monastery at Bobbio, beside the River Trebbia. Columbanus died at Bobbio in 615 and his remains are buried in the crypt there.

Bobbio_bridge

The medieval bridge at Bobbio with St Columbanus’ great monastery beyond (photo by Herbert Ortner, Vienna, Austria)

There are great stories told about the life of Columbanus. When he walked in the woods, birds would land on his shoulders to be caressed, and squirrels ran down from the trees and nestled in the folds of his cowl. He is also said to have tamed a bear and trained it to pull the plough. Wolves would not harm him. He is usually depicted with a book and an Irish satchel, sometimes with sunbeams over his head. I’m not sure why but Columbanus is known as the patron saint of motorcyclists.

Saint Columbanus – left: depicted on a medieval fresco with book and sunbeams (note he is carrying a bell) and, right: sailing off to Europe with his companions

Getting back to West Cork and the bell: Columbanus travelled to Bangor, County Down – in the far north east of the island of Ireland – where he studied in the  Abbey until he was 40. A beautifully decorated bronze handbell was found near the Abbey by gravediggers in the 18th century; it is assumed to have been buried to keep it safe from Viking invaders in the 9th century. The Abbey is seen as the starting point for Columbanus’s missionary work in Europe and the bell (now in the North Down Museum) is associated with him, although unlikely to have been contemporary with his time there. Holger Lönze has always been fascinated by medieval bronze bells and has made replicas of many surviving examples. He cast a copy of the Bangor Abbey handbell using Medieval metalworking techniques in 2012, and the process is recorded in this video.

Holger’s full-sized replica of the Bangor Bell and (right) Holger in his studio explaining his techniques to Robert

The new sculpture – titled Fluctus Angelorum (Wave of Angels) was commissioned by Ards and North Down Borough Council for Bangor Abbey  as one of a series of works inspired by the extraordinary achievements of Columbanus and his companions. Based on the proportions of the original bell, the surface of the sculpture is shaped like the surface of the ocean. The sea-blue patina and breaking waves are a metaphor for Columbanus’ remarkable sea voyage. The 4m high bell was fabricated in bronze plate in West Cork using the ancient repoussé process – by alternating annealing and hammering and finally welding. It took no less than 400,000 hammer blows to transform flat sheets of bronze into this piece of sculpture!

Bell surface

In the workshop: the surface of the 4m high bell reflects the surface of the ocean and (right) the inside of the great bell: it is mounted on a stone plinth and lit at night. Both bells and waves are striking metaphors to mark the Saint’s 1400 miles journey from Bangor to Bobbio – 1400 years ago

The medieval Bangor Bell didn’t have a clapper: it was carried around and hit with a hammer. Taking me back to my days as a percussionist, Holger allowed me to hit the giant bell… It made a mighty sound! From West Cork the bell travelled the whole length of Ireland, passing its 8th Century sister bells in Cashel, Co Meath and Bangor. It is now installed in the Abbey grounds and was formally unveiled on 13th June. The sculpture is not yet complete – Holger is making a number of smaller ‘satellite’ bells which will be set around it, but even on its own it is a most impressive sight: the largest bell ever made in Ireland.

holger with bell

Artist Karen Hendy and Holger Lönze showing the maquette for the bell project in Schull and, below, the bell in its setting at Bangor Abbey

bangor context

I’m often repeating the message but there is no doubt that West Cork is the most creative place I have ever lived! All manner of culture flourishes here and we are privileged to live in a community where we can readily meet and appreciate the work of so many artists; and we have excellent galleries to showcase this work – The Blue House Gallery in Schull (next door to Holger’s workshop), Uillinn in Skibbereen, Catherine Hammond‘s excellent gallery, now also in Skibbereen and The Aisling Gallery in Ballydehob. We are spoiled!

With many thanks to Holger for allowing me to use some of his own images of the work progressing…

The Fastnet Short Film Festival

Our Village is Our Screen Schull has been getting ready for this Festival for months. Everyone we know seemed to be volunteering or involved or just, like us, planning to cram in as many films and events as they could. The town was freshly painted (yes – the whole town! Well, it seemed that way), banners and streamers flapped gaily along the main street, and cinemas popped up everywhere. The church hall became The Adelphi, Hackett’s Bar became The Carleton and Grove House turned into The Palace. You see – Schull doesn’t have an actual cinema!

But lack of facilities has never stopped a West Cork town intent on hosting a world-class festival. They have come up with the most ingenious method of screening and watching that you can imagine. For the duration of the Festival, the films are hosted on a server and the whole village becomes an intranet. While the main programme runs at the Adelphi, all the pubs, cafes, shops and premises on the intranet have large screens where you can watch the movies. Some are playing the ones on the programme, and others are hosting re-runs so you can catch up on what you’ve missed. You can sit with a coffee and a scone, or a pint and a sandwich and watch whatever’s on screen. You can drop in and out, all for free. But there’s more: you can bring your own device – computer, tablet, phone – and log into the intranet and watch on a park bench, or sitting in your car, or while shopping, if you want. The marvellous Whyte Books hosted a story telling session, and The Blue House Gallery got in a load of bean bags so you could lie on your back and watch movies on the ceiling.

Robert, Chris O'Dell (Festival Artistic Director) and young Austrailian filmmaker Jake Zappia

At the Opening Reception: Robert, Chris O’Dell (Festival Artistic Director) and young Austrailian film maker Jake Zappia

The opening party was at Grove House – the sun shone, much Corona was downed (the generous Festival sponsor), and then it was off to The Adelphi for The Lord’s Burning Rain, filmed in West Cork and based on the Aeneid – a coming of age story with echoes of Ireland’s War of Independence, the effects of which still resonate in this area. This was followed by a Q and A with the filmmaker, Maurice O’Callaghan, hosted by the excellent John Kelleher. With our Canadian visitors in tow (Alex and Mavis, enjoying it all hugely) we took in some shorts the next day in Newman’s restaurant and that night attended the second featured film, Living in a Coded Land. The Q and A session afterwards was enjoyable and stimulating – the director, Pat Collins, expounded on his vision and his influences, and the host, Aidan Stanley, drew him out with thoughtful questions and directed traffic as audience members got into the conversation.

Our most unusual experience of the festival came on Saturday. We took the ferry to Long Island and watched movies in the bedroom of a beautiful island house courtesy of the owners, Maurice and Helen. Long Island has a year round population of under ten people. A local film maker, Helen Selka, has made it her focus. Although we didn’t get to see her longer piece, Bleak Paradise, we watched a shorter one called The Polling Station. In the film, nothing much happens beyond a handful of people coming to a cottage to cast their ballots in a referendum – and yet it was funny, charming and poignant. We also watched one of the eventual Festival winners – a closely observed tragicomedy called Breakfast Wine. The set finished with a gut-wrenching, wonderfully conceived and acted piece called Stolen. I was glad I brought along kleenex for this one. 

There were celebrities to meet (David Puttnam, Steve Coogan and the team from Philomena, Stephen Frears), events for children, lots of technical sessions for the hoards of young filmmakers invading Schull for the festival, and forums and clinics on all kinds of topics. But mostly there were the films – in turn quiet, ambitious, animated, provocative, amusing, youthful-but-showing-potential, soulful, well-written, cleverly directed, beautifully shot. They left us marvelling that powerful stories with fully realised characters can be told in a few precious minutes.

Superlatives fail me – especially when I think that this was all accomplished by a dedicated group of volunteers! Well done indeed Schull and the Fastnet Short Film Festival Team!