A Watery Tale

Last year I got myself into trouble by saying how much I admired the new corten steel signs marking significant spots on the Wild Atlantic Way. My post – Showing the Way – produced howls of protest from many readers who had taken a dislike to them. I may well ruffle the same feathers again when I say that I’m impressed with the information boards which have now appeared to supplement those markers.

Wild Atlantic Way signage at Colla Pier, opposite Long Island

The example above, which we saw today, has appeared at Colla Pier, on the coast road running from Schull round to Crough Bay. The ferry serving Long Island sails from this pier. The board is mounted on a sturdy corten steel frame which should withstand all the elements. The illustration used on the new board (seen in our header picture) is by Sam Hunter and (to my eye, at least) is colourful and attractive. Overall, the panel manages to convey a significant amount of information in a compact design. There is a little Irish lesson (top picture, right-hand corner) and a local ‘story’ pared to the minimum. I was delighted, because I hadn’t come across this tale before. Here it is…

A more detailed version of this story can be read here

So in this short paragraph we find an unusual angle on a very well-known piece of local history: the sacking of Baltimore by Barbary Pirates, which took place 386 years ago, on June 20. Here in West Cork everyone talks about that incident as if it had happened yesterday: it resulted in the decimation of the population of the little fishing village overnight. A hundred and seven people were carried off to slavery in Algeria, and every house was burned.

Upper picture: Long Island Sound, with the white houses of Long Island itself in the middle distance; Cape Clear is beyond. Lower picture: Fineen O’Driscoll’s castle at Baltimore – Dún na Séad (Fort of the Jewels). The clan chieftain was not at home to give help to the beleagured village when the Barbary pirates arrived because he was rowing across from Long Island with the ill-fated treasure stowed on board!

In one version of the story about Fineen O’Driscoll and his pirate treasure, the horde of gold is buried under a house on Long Island – a house where strange lights are seen at night! Presumably it’s still there – or under the sea out in Roaringwater Bay. It’s probably best left wherever it is!

Baltimore at dawn, seen in Finola’s beautiful picture above, reminds me that I have to tell you about another Irish – Cornish link. The village grew around a small settlement of religious dissenters from the west of England established around 1600 and led by Sir Thomas Crooke, a man with Calvanist and Puritan connections. Most of the settlers came from Cornwall and were seeking a haven where they could practice their religion unhindered. It was these people who were stolen away nearly 400 years ago, and ended their days in North Africa. Are you interested in the many historic links between the two westernmost counties of Britain and Ireland – Cornwall and Cork? You can find out much more at the exhibition coming up shortly: West meets West – the work of contemporary Cornish artists, at Uillinn, Skibbereen, from 3 June to 8 July

Connecting with St Ives

Have you ever met a Zorse? That’s a cross between a zebra and a horse. Probably not… But I have met the lady who invented them (above)! And, by quirky chance, she’s one link between Ireland and the group of artists who formed the ‘St Ives School of Painting’, Cornwall, in the twentieth century. You already know from last week’s post that the forthcoming exhibition in Uillinn, Skibbereen – West meets West, opening on 3 June, celebrates the historic connections and similarities between these two western outposts of Britain and Ireland, explored through the medium of art.

I was pleased to find this poster (produced for the London, Scottish and Midland Railway Company) by Stanhope Alexander Forbes, an artist who was born in Ireland but spent most of his long working life in Newlyn, Cornwall

It was the coming of railways from the capital to Cornwall (arriving to Penzance in 1860, and to St Ives in 1877) that opened up the far south-west of Britain to tourists – and to the artists who were drawn to this hitherto remote and unspoiled ‘rural idyll’. They were particularly attracted to the picturesque fishing villages, and rather overlooked the equally interesting and visually dramatic mining communities which were the centre of the county’s economy in the latter years of the nineteenth century.

The picturesque St Ives fishing community as seen in these postcards which served the burgeoning tourist industry in the early 1900s

The first art gallery in St Ives opened in 1887, and an art school was opened the following year. By the time the photographs on the postcards above were taken, there were ten private schools of painting in the town. The development of St Ives as a national (perhaps even international) centre for ‘modern art’ began after the Great War when Ben Nicholson and Christopher (Kit) Wood visited and ‘discovered’ the seafarer and naïve artist Alfred Wallis, who spent his retirement years painting nautical scenes on old fish boxes, driftwood and even scraps of cardboard.  They found his small cottage (now marked by a plaque) filled with these images, many of them (to the artists’ horror) attached to the walls by nails driven through their centres.

Art in St Ives, Cornwall: upper left – Christopher Wood self portrait; upper right – Alfred Wallis The Blue Ship; lower – Ben Nicholson Mural for the Festival of Britain

As the century progressed and another European war loomed, remote St Ives became home to many artists – some conscientious objectors, others just escapists. It made for a cosmopolitan mix. Ceramicists Bernard Leach and Hamada Shoji arrived from Japan in the 1920s. Many potters from all over the world were apprenticed at the Leach Pottery (which exists today in St Ives and is also now a museum), and spread Leach’s style and beliefs. At the outbreak of war in 1939 Nicholson (then the centre of the London based British avant-garde movement) returned with his wife, sculptor Barbara Hepworth, followed by their friend Russian Constructivist pioneer Naum Gabo and his wife Miriam. To quote the history pages of the St Ives Society of Artists:

…Soon Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, eastern philosophy, true naïveté and the English marine tradition were being discussed behind the blackout curtains of the town. The place was a hotbed of creativity and its importance grew…

Post-war, the artists’ community expanded, and changed. The names we now remember from the mid-century years include Sven Berlin, Peter Lanyon, Roger Hilton, John Wells, Patrick Heron, Terry Frost and many others. A good insight of what life was like there is given in the entertaining autobiographical notes of Irish artist Breon O’Casey, son of playwright Sean O’Casey:

…One day, watching television, sometime in the late fifties, I saw a film about Alfred Wallis, a primitive painter who had lived at St Ives in Cornwall. The film showed St Ives and the studios of some of the artists living there. I realised it was the place for me… Ah St Ives! In those days still a working fishing port, with tourism and art only tolerated, but kindly tolerated. The relief of mingling with other crazy artists was enormous. It was literally as if a great weight was lifted from my shoulders. This is exactly how it felt. One must remember the strong antagonism to modern art then, and the nervous energy used up resisting it… One was with a group of people who were hoping to make a living from their art and indeed some were professional artists. That times were hard mattered little. If no one has much money it doesn’t matter. And I certainly never experienced the depths of poverty and the necessary determination to survive it, that my father had experienced. Nor indeed did I face the privations that, as one reads, Matisse faced, never mind those suffered by the true early warriors, Van Gogh and Gauguin… My studio was in a ramshackle, wooden structure tucked in behind other similar studios facing out over Porthmeor beach to the wide Atlantic. I slept in a curtained off alcove at one end – illegally – and in the winter the thud of the great waves would shake the whole crazy structure like a dog shaking a rat. It was kept standing by the law of inertia which says: if an object has been in one place for a number of years, it will resist, of itself, natural physical forces trying to move it…

Breon O’Casey in 2009: he died in Cornwall in 2011. Right – O’Casey’s Trio

Peter Lanyon was one of the most influential artists in the St Ives School during his working life. He was a native of the town – born in The Red House, Bellyars, St Ives in 1918. Both his parents came from families who were connected with mining. Lanyon was a teacher and an artist. Irish artist Tony O’Malley (1913 – 2003) received his only formal art education from Peter Lanyon and, after Lanyon’s death in 1964, O’Malley dedicated all his work to his friend and mentor. Irish sculptor Conor Fallon (1939 – 2007), a friend of O’Malley and O’Casey, was also inspired by Peter Lanyon’s work and spent some years in St Ives before moving back to Kinsale. Lanyon claimed that he sought in his work to ‘get under the skin’ of his native county and explored it by going underground in the mines and flying over it in a glider. Lanyon died as a result of a gliding accident; the work of one of his sons – the late Matthew Lanyon – will feature in the West meets West exhibition in June this year.

Top: Bojewyan Farms by Peter Lanyon (courtesy Sheila Lanyon). Lower: Lanyon, left, in 1961 – photo by Ida Kar; Irish artists Tony O’Malley (centre) and Conor Fallon (right)

This post is a necessarily brief historical summary of the St Ives artists and their influences on the annals of art in the islands of Britain and Ireland. Many important names have been omitted. But we cannot leave the subject without mentioning Sven Berlin – and coming back to the Zorse!

‘The Dark Monarch’ – a fictionalised novel by Sven Berlin that characterised and defamed many of his fellow artists in the St Ives colony – they drummed him out of town! Right – Juanita Casey, Berlin’s second wife (photo Dolmen Press)

Sven Berlin (1911 – 1999) was a colourful and controversial addition to the St Ives group. Born in London, he came to Cornwall in 1938, meeting with Nicholson and Hepworth and writing the first book on the life of naïve artist Alfred Wallis. While there he met Juanita (1925 – 2012), who was named by her uncle after his favourite circus lion. Her mother, an Irish Traveller, had died in childbirth and her father, an English Romany, had given her up for adoption. She joined a circus at the age of 13, beginning a lifelong obsession with horses. She was a writer, artist and poet and – later – a horse breeder and circus trainer. She spent some years working on boats in Penzance and exhibiting paintings in the Newlyn Gallery, and there she became involved with Sven Berlin; they married in 1953. Soon after, Sven was ostracised from St Ives and they travelled in their Romany caravan to the New Forest and lived for a while in the Shave Green Gypsy community.

Sven Berlin in St Ives, left, and with Juanita and their family in their Gypsy wagon

The marriage broke up when Juanita met and eloped with a groom, Fergus Casey. While with him she trained and rode zebras and embarked on her project to produce the Zorse – apparently unsuccessful.  Her lifestyle was forever Bohemian. Her obituary in the Independent newspaper observes:

…Casey wrote that her children looked upon her “the way steam enthusiasts admire a hissing antique boiler.” Often, she would be the first to admit, her creativity and spontaneity took over from her domestic duties and responsibilities…

Fergus, a journalist, was drowned in Galway and Juanita, with her daughter, Sheba, continued to travel – firstly to Sneem in Co Kerry, and then to Okehampton in Devon, England where she once again joined the circus, as a horsemaster. I met her in Okehampton when she was in her eighties, and was fascinated to listen to many of her incredible stories – although while telling them she was always keeping half an eye on her television set in the corner, which was always on and always tuned in to the horse racing channels!

Below, Juanita Casey, living in Okehampton, Devon, in her eighties and an illustration from her novel  The Selene Horse

Don’t forget! West meets West – the work of contemporary Cornish artists, at Uillinn, Skibbereen, from 3 June to 8 July

West meets West

Picturesque Newlyn, Cornwall – the fishing village was the centre of a major art movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries

I have been working hard with Uillinn – West Cork Arts Centre‘s fantastic new gallery in Skibbereen – to bring over an exhibition of the work of contemporary Cornish artists, which opens in June. West meets West will be the launch of a continuing programme which sees the art and culture of Cork and Cornwall being shared, to the mutual benefit of all working artists and art lovers – and to residents and visitors.

Greenstone – a canvas by the late Matthew Lanyon, one of Cornwall’s important contemporary artists whose work will be shown at Uillinn in June this year

Why Cornwall and Cork? And, particularly, why these westernmost peninsulas of Ireland and England? Well, as you may have noticed from past posts on this Journal, historic links between the two geographical areas go back a very long way. Starting between three and four thousand years ago copper was mined on Mount Gabriel and was mixed with tin from Cornwall to produce a revolutionary new metal – Bronze. This material was hard enough to make tools and weapons – therefore a practical commodity: also it does not rust. It has, too, been used to make bells for centuries, so its properties include sonority. In fact the word bronze probably originates from the Medieval Latin bronzium, in modern Italian bronzo, meaning ‘bell metal’. Regardless of all this, the important thing we know is that relations between the west of England and the west of Ireland were well enough advanced to set up regular trading between the two outposts in those far-off days.

Tony Lattimer, international award winning ceramic artist based near The Land’s End in Cornwall, whose large ceramic sculptures will be shown in West meets West, Skibbereen, June of this year

In a recent post I alluded to the incredible debt that Cornwall owes to us in West Cork because we gave them their patron saint – Saint Piran. The fact that the gift wasn’t intentional shouldn’t delay us too long: we tied Cape Clear’s Saint (whose Irish name was Ciarán) to a millstone and threw him over a cliff. Instead of meeting his doom he miraculously surfed the millstone across to the Cornish coast, where his landing place – Perranzabuloe – is named after him, and where he is royally celebrated on March 5th every year, with all the zeal that we show to our own St Patrick!

Apart from metal mining and saints, another important connection is shared fishing grounds. From medieval times onwards (and perhaps before) the Cornish fishing fleets put out from Mousehole and Newlyn to follow the pilchard and herring shoals across to Roaringwater Bay. This is really where art comes into our story, as it was the way of life of some of the Cornish fishing communities that attracted artists to that western County of England in the late nineteenth century, once the arrival of the Great Western Railway in Penzance had established the direct connection with London. Newlyn was an early focus, and a young man from Dublin, Stanhope Alexander Forbes, an up and coming young painter in the plein air tradition, made his home there in 1884 and stayed for life. Forbes found in Cornwall a true ‘rural idyll’: an unspoiled countryside where life was simply lived, and a rugged coastline with a magical quality of light. Known as the ‘Father of the Newlyn School’, he gathered around him like-minded artists who recorded (and perhaps romantically idealised) the way of life of the communities there, and that special quality of the light, in canvasses which are highly admired and respected today.

A preliminary sketch by Stanhope Alexander Forbes for a painting known as On Paul Hill (Paul is the name of a village between Newlyn and Mousehole in Cornwall). Forbes painted in the Plein Air style, out of doors and from real life

I made my home in Cornwall for a number of years, before I decided that I hadn’t come far enough to the west, and followed the pilchards and herring myself to Roaringwater Bay, where I now look down on them from my eyrie in Nead an Iolair (although the shoals are today much diminished). During my years in Cornwall I came to know and respect the stories of the artists from Victorian years up to the present day. The ‘Newlyn School’ which Forbes represented was only one piece of the jigsaw there: we will explore others later. Art is probably Cornwall’s biggest asset. Ever since the opening of the Tate Gallery in St Ives – established there because of that town’s historic links with artists and craftspeople of international repute – ‘art tourism’ has grown to become a major year-round driver of the local economy.

Newlyn old and new: left – Stanhope Alexander Forbes in 1900 painting outside Trelyn, Boase Street, Newlyn – my home for 25 years! Right – Newlyn today is Britain’s largest fishing port

Cornwall is home to a number of artists renowned today in the British Isles. I got to know many of them when I lived in Newlyn. Three of them will be exhibiting in Uillinn from 3 June to 8 July this year: Philip Booth, Matthew Lanyon and Tony Lattimer. Their work is large scale, stimulating and mutually complementary: constructions, canvasses and ceramic sculptures. Please make a note of the dates now: this exhibition is important for West Cork and for Cornwall. Please don’t miss it!

Below: Philip Booth, from Lamorna, Cornwall, will be showing a number of his spectacular relief constructions at West meets West, Uillinn, Skibbereen, in June. This one is titled ‘Formed in Running Water’

Formed in Running Water

A Saint’s Day – Ciarán and Piran

Horse and Cape Clear

I was born in the first half of the last century. Early memories of the 1950s include the regular journeys my brother and I made as small boys on the mighty Atlantic Coast Express via Okehampton to visit, first, our sets of cousins on Dartmoor, and then beyond – via the even mightier Great Western Railway – to our cousins in the depths of Cornwall. The latter visits were particularly idyllic: the cousins (generations older than us) had a small farm and a herd of cows which they milked twice a day – by hand. Following this they cooled the milk in a big steel drum by stirring it with a propellor (we were allowed to do this) before pouring the precious liquid into bottles which were then sealed with silver caps using a rubber device which impressed on them the name ‘Cove Farm’. Then, together, we set out  on bicycles to deliver the bottles to the doorsteps of every dwelling in the small village of Perran-ar-worthal.

Perranwell Station 1950s
Perranwell Station 1950s – disemabark here for Perran-ar-Worthal and Cove Farm! The header picture is a view of Cape Clear seen beyond Horse Island, taken from our own Rossbrin Cove

Perran-ar-Worthal (in Cornish Peran ar Wodhel) means ‘St Piran’s village by the creek’. Who is St Piran? He is the Patron Saint of Cornwall and we’ve met him before, briefly, in my account of St Ciarán, who was born on Cape Clear, and was known as ‘The First Saint of Ireland’. Even before St Patrick arrived to start his missionary work in 432 AD, St Ciarán (according to some records born in 352 AD) had been at work converting the ‘heathen Irish’. Unfortunately, his efforts were not always appreciated and Ciarán was despatched from the top of a tall cliff with a millstone tied around his neck! The story is elaborated by Robert Hunt FRS in his Popular Romances of the West of England first published in 1908. I have the third, 1923 edition on my bookshelves.

Robert Hunt Popular Romances 1923

On a boisterous day, a crowd of the lawless Irish assembled on the brow of a beetling cliff, with Ciarán in chains. By great labour they had rolled a huge millstone to the top of the hill, and Ciarán was chained to it. At a signal from one of the kings, the stone and the saint were rolled, to the edge of and suddenly over, the cliff into the Atlantic. The winds were blowing tempestuously, the heavens were dark with clouds, and the waves white with crested foam. No sooner was Ciarán and the millstone launched into space, than the sun shone out brightly, casting the full lustre of its beams on the holy man, who sat tranquilly on the descending stone. The winds died away, and the waves became smooth as a mirror. The moment the millstone touched the water, hundreds were converted to Christianity who saw this miracle. St Ciarán floated on safely to Cornwall; he landed on the 5th of March on the sands which bear his name. He lived amongst the Cornish men until he attained the age of 206 years…

Left – St Ciarán celebrated in modern stained glass, in the church at Caheragh, West Cork; centre – Ciarán at Rath church, near Baltimore, and right – St Piran is the top figure (with church and bell) in this window panel from Truro Cathedral, Cornwall

So, what is the connection between Saints Ciarán and Piran? Apparently, they are the same person! Charles Lethbridge Kingsford reporting in the Dictionary of National Biography 1885 – 1900 (a 63 volume work!) states:

…PIRAN or PIRANUS, Saint, is commonly identified with Saint Ciaran of Saigir. The names Piran and Ciaran or Kieran are identical—p in Britain being the equivalent of the Irish k. The history of the two saints is in the main features the same, though the Irish lives of St Ciaran do not record his migration to Cornwall…

Many writers make the same assertion about the orthophony of the name but – to be fair – others, including some saintly hagiographers, do not agree, suggesting we are talking about two different saints. As someone who has a birthday on 5th March (today) – the Saint’s Day for both Ciarán and Piran – I have no doubts about the matter. Here’s another source that concurs with the view that they are one and the same saint – The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Volume X (1874):

The labours of St Kieran were not confined to Ireland. He passed several years on the western coast of Britain, and, as we learn from Blight’s “Churches in West Cornwall,” his memory is still cherished there. Four ancient Cornish parochial churches bear his name : these are Perran-zabuloe, or St Piran-in-the-sand; Perran-arworthal; Perran-uthnoe, situated near the coast opposite St Michael’s Mount, and St Kevern, or Pieran, which in Domesday-book is called Lanachebran. St Kieran’s holy well is also pointed out on the northern coast of Perran-zabuloe. The parish church of St Keverne stands in the district called Meneage, which terminates at the Lizard Point, the southernmost land of England. The name Meneage is supposed to mean, in the old Cornish dialect, “the deaf stone”, and the reason given for it is that, though there are several mineral veins or lodes in the district, on trial they have been found to be of no value, and hence are called deaf or useless. Tradition tells that St Kieran inflicted on the inhabitants, as a punishment for their irreligion, that the mineral veins of the district would be un-productive, and the old proverb is still handed down, “No metal will run within the sound of St Kieran’s bell”…

St Piran's Church, Perran SandsAn image of St Piran’s Church which was built in the 12th century on the dunes at Penhale Sands, Perranzabuloe Parish, to replace the Saint’s original oratory which was buried by the shifting sands. The sands encroached on this church, too (the sands can be seen in the picture), and it was dismantled around 1800 and stone from the site was then used to build another new church two miles inland which was dedicated to St Piran in July 1805

To complement that little story of the saint in Cornwall, we have to visit Ossory, an Irish diocese which encompasses parts of Kilkenny, Laois and Offaly. There they also celebrate St Ciarán of Saigir on March the fifth: he is said to have returned from Rome after years of study, firstly visiting his native Cape Clear, then commencing his travels through Ireland until his bell rang of its own accord – this happened at a small hamlet in County Offaly, now known as Seir Kieran. There he set up a foundation, the remains of which are still visible – as is a holy well, a holy bush (bedecked with clouties) the base of a round tower, the base of an ancient high cross (now holding water which has curative powers) and a holy rock which was once said to have displayed the hand print and knee prints of the saint, now completely obscured.

barry-cotrell-st-piran

St Piran’s journey to Cornwall: “The millstone kept our man afloat” from The Discovery of Tin – a collection illustrated by Barry Cottrell

One of my favourite stories about St Piran tells of how he discovered tin smelting. He used as his hearth a piece of local stone; when he lit a fire on the hearth the veins of tin ore in the stone melted and a stream of silver ran out across the black rock, in the form of a cross. From that day to this the flag of Cornwall is a white cross on a black background, and Piran is the patron saint of tin and tinners.

marching-and-flags

Just about now in Cornwall a great celebration is going on in honour of the saint. There will be a procession to the original oratory buried in the sands, led by the Grand Bard of the Cornish Gorsedd. Cornish flags – and the Cornish tartan – will be very much in evidence. The Cornish people have a great nationalistic spirit and have called for the 5th March to be an official public holiday. In a recent debate on Cornwall some interesting views were expressed on the place of Cornwall in a post-Brexit world, and the attributes of St Piran were symbolic of this – his inventiveness, his love of nature, and his belief in the inclusivity of all peoples in an international community.

Left – Geevor Mine, in West Penwith, one of Cornwall’s last working tin mines, now a museum of mining; right – an incarnation of the saint: Cornish author Colin Retallick stands in front of St Piran’s ancient cross on the saint’s day

St Piran lived to a great age. They say in Cornwall that he was ‘fond of the drink’ and met his end by falling into a well when walking home from a party. I hope it was a holy well! Today, seventeen centuries after St Ciarán / Piran was thrown from the cliffs of Cape Clear I am looking out to that island: …the winds are blowing tempestuously, the heavens are dark with clouds, and the waves are white with crested foam… There have been so many links between Cornwall and West Cork, ever since the Bronze Age, when Cornish tin traders brought their metal to mix with copper mined above us here on Mount Gabriel. Watch out for more posts about these links, and mark your diaries for an exhibition coming up in June in Uillinn, West Cork’s fine new gallery, of the work of artists from Cornwall. This will be followed next year by an exhibition in a Cornish gallery of the work of artists from West Cork. West meets West will forge new and lasting links between the two communities: links which would have warmed the heart of our shared saint!

Below – St Ciarán by Richard King, painted for the Capuchin Annual in the 1950s

Richard King Ciaran

Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone – a Review

ball graphic

The current exhibition at Uillinn, the West Cork Arts Centre gallery in Skibbereen, is a ‘must’ for anyone interested in contemporary artistic expression – but be aware it’s challenging. Having seen the exhibition being assembled before the opening I decided that I would visit it twice – firstly without giving myself any prior knowledge of the subject matter – and then once more, following a gallery tour led by Alison Cronin of Uillinn and a gallery talk by Jennifer Mehigan, one of the participating artists.

large reflection

I’m very concerned, nowadays, by how ‘art’ is presented, especially ‘art’ which seems divorced from traditional expectations (painted pictures, sculptures etc). I’m fine with all fresh forms of art – and frequently excited by them – but I sometimes wonder whether our artists think about their communication with us… Do they feel that the work should in every way be self-explanatory (we will come away fully informed just by looking at, taking in and understanding the work) – or should their sometimes complex ideas and presentations be explained by accompanying texts, gallery tours, catalogues etc? So I tend to approach every new exhibition with an open mind, hoping for clarity but – firstly – looking for impact from the work. I suppose, at my age, I still think of ‘art’ as being something which should initially stir me, excite me or overwhelm me just through the visual sense: I’m perfectly happy to stand back and look through complex layers of understanding (if necessary) to find the reason for the existence of the artwork, provided it has initially given me that excitement – or whatever emotion – because it will then have drawn me in and made me curious. Some contemporary exhibitions do leave me flat and unstimulated (not many!) and then I have no desire to probe them any further: for me they have failed, but that’s only me, I know. Ultimately, ‘art’ is probably the most subjective of cultural expressions. And that’s all good!

spectators 3

John Russell’s huge backlit print – and two of Eva Fàbregas’s beasts that move around the gallery floor, apparently with a life of their own! 

So – how did I react to my initial, completely unguided, tour of Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone? I’m pleased to say that I was stimulated – and positively so. I’m always attracted visually by large scale, colour, and things out of the ordinary: that gives you some clues! There are certainly unexpected experiences here. You walk into the first gallery and are hit with a huge print vibrating off the wall, its boundaries emphasised by coloured light behind it. It’s a riot of red – half-human and half- beast figures in a sort of Star Wars tableaux. But then, once you have taken that in you realise that the floor is alive – crawling with more strange beasts that look as though they have had another life as something mundane and practical and are now reincarnated to follow you around the gallery – perhaps to threaten you. What are they? Gallery assistant Kevin enlightened me when he came in to dismantle and repair the mechanics of one of these errant aliens: they are all made from packaging materials fitted with electric motors, and their trajectories across the gallery floor are completely random, referencing, perhaps, their previous lives travelling unsung and unrewarded all around the world. It’s funny how we give life to inanimate (but in this case animate) objects that appeal to us: perhaps it’s a jump back to childhood days when we made things from cereal packets and egg boxes but were then convinced that we had breathed existence into the monsters, dragons, spaceships, princesses (maybe) that we produced. Talking to the gallery staff I was fascinated to hear that some visitors were absolutely convinced that these pieces of mobile packing were imbued with very sophisticated artificial intelligence and really did follow them around and confront them! Remember, this was still before I had any knowledge of the intentions or stimuli behind the exhibits.

balcony capture

Moving upstairs to the second gallery I found the walkway obstructed by rotating panels of some material (was it glass?) that seemed to be engraved with semi transparent images: they looked like iconic landscape scenes. As I watched, I realised that at certain points in their spinning I was able to see through them, but at the same time also see reflections on their surfaces – of me, of the gallery, of the view through the windows… I liked these very much, and the dymanic nature of their movement and the unpredictable refractions and reflections. I was keen to know how their conception fitted into what I had seen previously downstairs, but I couldn’t guess.

The spinning panels – ‘Orphan Transposition’ – are by Alan Butler and feature acrylic panels laser-etched with images of Yosemite National Park: they also have an intentionally accidental life of their own through the changing surface reflections

The second gallery held more surprises – and delights. Approaching through a narrow corridor I could see layers: more big, colourful panels on the far wall, more hanging, spinning sheets of opaque transparency, and a very contrasting soft, organic shape seeming to slither across the floor. As I came closer I realised that this shape was not slithering – or moving at all, disappointingly: it was a way of seating people in front of a screen, and was linked in to an array of very funky ‘designer’ headphones (white) by a jumble of thick, red chords.

upper gallery close

phones and cables 2

I sat and watched the ‘show’ – and listened to clunky music and a strange commentary – and then realised I was completely out of my depth! I had no clue what was going on. My attempt to experience the exhibition without any preparation or foreknowledge had failed. This applied to all the other work in the upper gallery also: superb large graphics on the walls and floors, printed acrylic sheets suspended on smart steel stands, and, in a darkened cubicle, a film of puppets which reminded me completely of ‘Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men’! Now, how many of you remember them, dear readers? I don’t suppose any of the contributing artists are of my generation – so, is that pure coincidence? Anyway, I could not feel a sense of connection between the exhibits: but I liked the experiencing of them, nevertheless.

okea projection

puppet show

Upper – Eva Fàbregas’s The Role of Unintended Consequences (Sofa Compact) – which can be enjoyed on the comfort of a squishy serpentine furniture sculpture – and, lower – puppets feature in Andrew Norman Wilson’s Reality Models

This is the point where anyone who doesn’t want a ‘spoiler’ had better stop reading. Perhaps you want to try and respond to the exhibition without any prior understanding of it, as I did, in which case off you go now, to Uillinn, and see how you get on…

ann and jennifer 2

Gallery talk: Director Ann Davoren (left) with artist Jennifer Mehigan (right): Jennifer’s startling work is in the background – and on the floor

For me, back to square one, therefore, with the gallery tour and artist talk (having first read an accompanying written commentary). Wonderful! It all began to come together and make sense. The title of the exhibition – Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone – which I only knew as a childhood game (and one which I played with my own children) is also the title of a science fiction novella written by Ian McDonald (from Belfast) in 1994. It’s evidently something of an iconic work for those who follow the genre (I don’t particularly, although I have read a little sci-fi). I now know that the participating artists were asked to familiarise themselves with the book and respond to it in a way which they feel comments on our present times: there was no collaboration as such between the artists on the overall exhibition (as I understand), but the curators have put the work together in a way that does begin to set out a narrative.

digital panels

In the optional (€12) catalogue that accompanies the show, Alissa Kleist & Matt Packer (the curators) write an introduction. I was struck by this paragraph:

…From an artistic perspective, Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone [ie the book] can be read as a wishful fantasy of artistic power. It describes visual art without recourse to the systems of academic analysis and understanding that have defined the art-history books for the past century and more; instead it promises an encounter with art that frees the ‘rapture’ that Jean-Francois Lyotard describes as being harboured within art itself: an art that hits us straight to the core of our physical being…

cow pic 3

Wow! isn’t that what I was trying to say about my approach to new exhibitions – looking for impact from the work, being stirred, excited or overwhelmed before having any understanding of it? It’s a wonderful way of putting it: …the ‘rapture’ harboured within art itself… Suddenly, I realise that I’ve approached this exhibition exactly as the curators would want me to: first I have the visceral experience, then comes the understanding! Or is it that I have now walked into the exhibition and become a part of it?

Back to the book (via the catalogue):

…In the book, McDonald tells the story of a young student, Ethan Ring, who develops the ability to create digital images that bypass rational thought and control the mind of the viewer…

I’m worrying now – am I being controlled by the digital images in the exhibition?

…Ethan develops a technology of ‘fracters’ – mind-controlling images that have the power to heal, cause pain, induce tears or ecstasy. The utopian promise of this image technology is short-lived as Ethan finds himself blackmailed into employment by the ‘Public Relations’ department of the ‘European Common Security Secretariat’, who demand that he uses the fracters for the purposes of interrogation and assassination, as and when they require…

This is frightening stuff. The book was written in 1994 but in our own time we are suddenly being confronted by concepts of ‘fake reality’ – and aren’t we shocked by governments who seem to be veering off into nonsensical directions, apparently against the wishes of the public majority? Suddenly, I’m seeing an uncanny relevance which these artists – inspired by the concept of the book – have made to our own predicaments. From the catalogue again:

…In a way that is typical of the cyberpunk genre of science fiction, Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone is written with the strategy of combining prosaic everyday miseries with the ‘cognitive estrangement’ of a world that has been accelerated beyond our control…

cow stuff

A detail from one of Jennifer Mehigan’s stunning prints made from collages of three-dimensional digitally generated models: this one illustrates the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy virus – better known as Mad Cow Disease

Lastly, I should mention the gallery talk by Jennifer Mehigan. She has only been involved in the Uillinn, Skibbereen, iteration of this show. Knowing that now, I think the overall exhibition will have been considerably poorer without her contribution. I think my strongest instant reactions (rapture?) have been to her large digitally produced panels. Now that she has explained their conception I am even more impressed. She asked us to consider the cow…

The cow is an unnatural beast. Human intervention keeps it permanently fertile so that it produces food for us. It gives us its milk: it dies for us. But also – again through human intervention – it eats itself. This generates the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy virus – better known as Mad Cow Disease. This kills humans. Be afraid…

Jennifer’s gorgeous panels are made using a highly complex technology – 3 dimensional modelling software. With this software she has constructed a cow’s stomach, bacteria found inside the human gut, the mad cow disease virus, and Drombeg Stone Circle (that’s the link to human intelligence). She’s put all these things together into bizarre, visually stunning collages and presented them to us as compelling two-dimensional images leaning up against the end wall in Uillinn where they sparkle and shine in the sunlight: we are seeing the fracters and, behind them, the government departments who are manipulating world perceptions of reality.

from above

Powerful images from a strong exhibition. Step beyond the images and we see power – or a commentary on power. Statements are being made here – perhaps subversively – about the world in which we live today. That’s great – that’s art.

resting

The exhibiting artists are: Alan Butler, Pakui Hardware, Jennifer Mehigan, Andrew Norman Wilson, Clawson & Ward, Eva Fàbregas, John Russell

Scissors Cut Paper Wrap Stone is on at Uillinn, Skibbereen until 25 February 2017. The gallery is open Mondays to Saturdays from 10.00am to 4.45pm: there are guided gallery tours on selected Saturday mornings – check with Uillinn: enlightening and well worth attending! Here’s Alison Cronin in action:

in the gallery

Dancing Cappaghglass

Cappaghglass by Emma Jervis 1

When you love the place you live in – really love it, in your bones and your heart, how do you express that? How do you convey to others the feeling of waking to the sun rising over Roaringwater Bay and sinking back into the sea behind Long Island after a day of sparkling colour and rural rhythms? How do you represent the sense of coming home after a lifetime of being an emigrant? How to talk about what persists of the Ireland of your youth and what has changed irrevocably, for better or ill?

Fields of Cappaghglass

The green fields of Cappaghglass in evening winter sunlight

I suppose, like the Bee Gees I would turn to words, but Tara Brandel took on that challenge with Cappaghglass, her final piece of choreography and dance performance at the end of her two year residency at Uillinn, the West Cork Arts Centre.

Reaching

I’ve written about Tara’s dance performances before – her Bridge two years ago in Ballydehob left us speechless and profoundly moved. She has performed numerous pieces in the meantime as part of her Uillinn residency, sometimes solo and sometimes with her company, Chroí Glan. This dance has been gestating all that time.

Mining area

Mine houses and a fenced-off shaft – echoes of mining heritage

Cappaghglass*, where Tara lives and where we also are currently putting down roots, is undoubtedly beautiful, peaceful, pastoral and scenic. In the past it was also heavily industrial, with 400 tons of copper mined every year, and a population of several hundred people. It had a ‘Big House’ and a hotel: no traces remain of either. It had a dozen farms: now there are two. There are twenty homes in the townland – and another twenty holiday homes that remain empty most of the time.

Cappaghglass by Emma Jervis 2

I gratefully acknowledge Emma Jervis, whose photograph this is, along with the first one in the post

Tara danced it all for us. We watched as she explores her environment as a child, then takes the first tentative steps to leave. Buffeted by the world, she returns to the freedom and the green fields, and always the sea heaves in the background and the Fastnet Light turns on the horizon. She switches effortlessly, with a twitch of a scarf and body movements, from a young, then an old Irish woman to a Syrian refugee, inviting us to consider the experiences of displacement, migration, loss and belonging.

Road through Cappaghglass

The high road through Cappaghglass

Her body speaks to us, but she also uses words and song. She sings – simple repetitive chants – and uses technology to loop the sound so it repeats. Then she records a further piece and then another, and so layers of sound start to build and this provides the music to which she dances.

Gorse Tree

Visual layers are added – projections on the wall of a map, the sea, waving grass, and finally the Fastnet Light.

Fastnet in the sunset

Tara’s dancing is athletic and graceful. Her hands assume critical importance in conveying action and emotion. Clothing is donned and shed in a shorthand for identity.

Clothing is used

In  a final brilliant move she approaches the barre, over which is draped heaps of material. Reaching into the mass of cloth she ties two lengths around her waist and moves towards us. It is then we understand, as the material slowly slides away from the barre and follows her in an enormous train, that this is Cappaghglass – the whole townland spread out behind her, claiming her, rooting her, her home, her place.

townland train

We  walked the townland today in the fading light of late afternoon and we saw it afresh. Like Tara, like so many people, we have experienced migration and displacement. But this is home now and we find it rare and precious.

Ruined ivy-clad houses and the traces of tiny fields hint at families for whom this was home

Only art has the ability to reach down into you and clutch at your soul and make you think and feel in ways you haven’t thought and felt before. Tara did that for us with her dance. We are grateful for her gift.

Cappaghglass sunset*Cappaghglass, in Irish pronounced cappa gloss = the Green Tillage Fields