Where Art and History Meet

Perhaps I should say where they collide! West Cork has both, in abundance, and we’ve just lived through one of those once-in-a-lifetime conjunctions of  the artistic and the historical that leave you stimulated, thoughtful and reeling all at once.

Clockwise from top left: Coverage of the Festival in the Southern Star – the headline says it all; Roy Foster delivered an acclaimed opening address; Finola introduces Kevin Vickers, Canada’s Ambassador to Ireland; Canon Salter and his daughter Brigid at the screening of An Tost Fada, perhaps the most controversial (and certainly one of the most interesting) moments of the Festival

First of all, as our readers must be tired of hearing by now, we participated in the brand new West Cork History Festival. It was a great success, with well over 400 people enjoying a huge variety of talks, films, and panels, augmented with lashings of food and drink. It was so well planned, in fact, that the rain showers obliged by only appearing during the talks, and clearing off when it was time to be outside mixing and mingling and moving between marquees. The Festival wasn’t short on controversy. Sparks flew at several sessions, mainly between speakers and audience members, proving, if we didn’t already know it, that history is very much alive in West Cork. Depressingly, it also signals that, 100 years on, some people are still fighting the old battles. However, to judge from the general climate, those folks are in the minority.

John Kelly the Irish/British/Australian artist, and West Cork resident

Two days after the Festival, we moved on to art. Or so we thought. We had signed up for a guided tour of Reen Farm, the Sculpture Garden that is the home, studio and inspiration for the artist John Kelly. This event was part of the marvellous Skibbereen Arts Festival that has been running all week.

Two upside-down kangaroos in the tennis court – don’t ask me to explain this one, my head was spinning at that point

We’ve met John a couple of times and had seen an exhibition of his at Uillinn that focused on his experiences in the Antarctic. We were aware that, as a sculptor, a painter, and a writer John is internationally esteemed and has exhibited world-wide.

The Turrell-inspired crater with passages leading through it to the sea. (We have our reason to relate to John’s version of the famous Sky Garden at Liss Ard Estate in Skibbereen)

You’ve probably all visited a sculpture garden at some point – but I guarantee you, you’ve never had an experience like this. Being led around by John himself was a privilege, but it’s also a must in order to understand his inspirations, because it’s all about history, and eclectic history at that. 

His Tate Modern piece (above) was a response to the famine in his townland, Reen, as reported in 1846 by a local resident, N M Cummins. Now, looking at it, you would never arrive at that conclusion by yourself, but once you stand there and listen to John recounting the grim happenings that took place there 170 years ago and how that led him to contemplating the food abundance that made Henry Tate a millionaire around the same time, it all starts to come together.

Robert and the Cow up a Tree – just to give you a sense of the scale of the sculpture

I won’t recount the story of the Cow up a Tree, because you have to go yourself and hear it from John in all its convoluted glory. (If you really need to know you can read about it on John’s website.) It’s the highlight of the tour, but definitely only one part of a whole fascinating set of experiences that goes on and on. 

Besides the art (some of which will make you laugh out loud), stunning views greet you as you follow the trail, and finally Christina’s garden and John’s studio round out the day. The Garden is now part of the West Cork Garden Trail and is open from August 7th (tomorrow) until the 13th.

Sky Garden

Iris Sky Garden (photo by Liss Ard Estate)

Irish Sky Garden (photo by Liss Ard Estate)

Just outside Skibbereen – a stone’s throw from Nead an Iolair – is a work by Californian artist James Turrell: the Irish Sky Garden. It’s a piece of landscaping which explores light by both night and day: an observatory. The structure is an artificial crater with a stone plinth at its centre from which two participants can view the sky framed by the perimeter of the oval enclosure.

Sky view from the plinth

Sky view from the plinth

In Turrell’s own words describing the experience “…The most important thing is that inside turns into outside and the other way around, in the sense that relationships between the Irish landscape and sky change…”

Turrell CoverJames Turrell was born in 1943 – in Pasadena. His father was an aeronautical engineer and James obtained his pilot’s license when he was just 16. He has been exploring landscapes by flying over them ever since. He studied perceptual psychology, mathematics, geology and astronomy. He enrolled in the graduate Studio Art program at the University of California, Irvine, in 1966, when he began to explore light projections. At the same time Turrell, a Quaker and conscientious objector, was jailed for a year for encouraging young men to avoid the Vietnam War draft.

All the artist’s work is focussed on light and space. In an interview of 2002 for the International Sculptor Center he explained:

“…I was raised a Quaker, and now I have come back to being active. I’m not sure whether that has impacted my art-making, because my work is not about specific issues—perhaps being a Quaker influences how I live my life and what I value. People tend to relate any work in light to the spiritual. I don’t think this is actually correct, yet, in terms of our lives, we greet light in three major ways that aren’t necessarily partitioned. There is a psychological aspect, a physical aspect, and a spiritual aspect. In terms of the physical, we drink light as Vitamin D, so it’s literally a food that has a major effect on our well-being. The strong psychological effects of light can readily be felt in particular spaces…” 

Some examples of Turrell’s work in light and space:

Finola’s post on Liss Ard Gardens gives a good background to the setting of this artwork: a Georgian house (now also an excellent hotel and restaurant – check for opening hours) surrounded by formal and informal landscaping and lakes interlaced by tracks and footpaths which offer ever changing vistas. When she wrote the post a year ago she probably had no idea that it would be the setting for our marriage – which took place this week!

Liss Ard House

Liss Ard House (photo by Peter Clarke)

The name Liss Ard comes from Lios Ard, ‘lios’ being an Iron Age ring fort and ‘ard’ meaning high – hence high fort. The ring fort is still extant as a magical space – a grass circle surrounded by trees; there is also, under it, a souterain – a system of low tunnels and chambers which are often found in association with structures of this type. When we discovered that Liss Ard was licenced to hold weddings – and that licence covered all of the grounds – we jumped at the opportunity to ‘tie the knot’ within an Irish archaeological site…

James Turrell's concept drawing for the Liss Ard project, showing Ring Fort and Sky Garden

James Turrell’s concept drawing for the Liss Ard project, showing Ring Fort and Sky Garden

Our ceremony was simple – a humanist celebrant and just a few guests who have been important to our lives in Ireland. After the official bits we wandered down to the Sky Garden and admired Turrell’s vision from the altar-like plinth. We were blessed with blue sky and sunshine.

Wedding Day...

Wedding Day… (photo by Peter Clarke)

In 1979 James Turrell acquired a vast natural cinder crater located outside Flagstaff, Arizona. This – the Roden Crater – is possibly his best known work, and it is still in progress. He is turning this volcanic crater into a massive naked-eye observatory, designed specifically for the viewing of celestial phenomena. There are other ‘sky’ works in a number of countries: a ‘Turrell Tour‘ has been mapped out which takes in an least 23 of them.

Roden Crater

Roden Crater, Arizona

Skyspace, Scotland

Skyspace, Scotland

Within-Without

Within-Without, Canberra 2010

Celestial Vault, Stroom, Holland 1996

Celestial Vault, Stroom, Holland 1996

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It’s a big leap – from Liss Ard to Arizona and beyond. The full concept of the Sky Garden has never been completed: two more installations were planned. But how exciting that here in West Cork we have a stunning example of the work of this world-renowned artist.

Food Glorious Food

Taste of West Cork

There’s yet another festival on at the moment, and this one is a yummy one: A Taste of West Cork Food Festival. It will culminate next Sunday in a giant market that will take over the main street of Skibbereen, but in the meantime every day brings something new – a farm tour, cooking and fish-smoking demonstrations, walking and boating tours, tasting menus, and special dinners.

Finola and Regina

Finola and Regina

Today we attended a lecture by Regina Sexton, a brilliant writer, broadcaster and food historian. Under the title “Teaching the Poor to Cook in 1847,” Regina led us through the contents of what might have been one of the earliest ever Irish recipe books. Published by a member of the Northern Irish gentry, it instructed the Irish ‘Peasantry’ on how to cook the foods available at the time as substitutes for the potato, then in catastrophic failure due to blight. Revealing as a document of the social and political philosophy of its time, it was eerily poignant given the death toll occurring all around at the height of the Great Famine. I was keenly aware of our surroundings at Liss Ard House, once a mansion where people enjoyed a fine standard of living, while the town of Skibbereen, down the road, had been an epicentre of starvation.

Everything locally grown!

Everything locally grown!

I have written before about West Cork Food (here and here): this really is Foodie Heaven, with fresh vegetables, artisan cheeses, homemade preserves and relishes, breads of every description and a wide variety of seafood and organic meats all readily available not only in the weekend markets but in local shops and supermarkets. To add to this, my friend and neighbour Hildegard has been generous with her garden and we have been enjoying fresh beans, zucchini and lettuce and flavouring dishes with her wonderful basil and savoury.

Robert and I love to eat breakfast out as a treat. On one recent foray I ordered boiled eggs and it brought me back to my childhood and time-honoured rituals. Lift the top off the egg with a spoon, drop in butter and salt and put the top back on. Cut your toast into fingers to dip into the buttery yolk. When you have finished your egg, turn it upside-down in the egg cup and present it to an unsuspecting sibling.

Breakfast in Skibbereen

Breakfast in Skibbereen

Liss Ard Gardens

Liss Ard Estate lies just outside Skibbereen. We were lucky to manage a visit to the gardens on the last opportunity before it closes for the season. Parking inside the gate, we made our way up a lime avenue, the trees starting to show autumn colour. Although there are paved driveways and walks, the way forward wound through a wood and led to the water gardens – a series of ponds and serene spaces with rustic benches and a background of nattering streams. Eventually, we emerged onto the lake where we stood on a tiny pier, looking across the rippling water and listening to the sound of the wind in the tall rushes.

From here we climbed upward through woodland paths to the Sky Garden. An entrancing, curious, confounding construction, the Sky Garden was designed by renowned American artist James Turrell and opened in 1992. It is an oval grassy crater, with an altar-like plinth in the centre. Lying on that stone, gazing at the concentrated area of sky encircled by the walls of the crater is a deeply contemplative experience. Turrell is interested in light above all other considerations. The Liss Ard Sky Garden was the first large scale design to explore his ideas although he has gone on to design more such spaces, mainly in the US. I would love to go back there on a clear night.

Irish gardens come in so many varieties from the formal to the self-conscious ‘wilderness’ to the experimental arboretum to the classical-statued vista; and some gardens encompass all of these styles. Liss Ard invites the visitor to stroll; to see, hear and smell; to luxuriate in the soft carpet underfoot; and to contemplate what lies above as well as around. It is a place of sensual and intellectual pleasure.