Monday, 30 March 2020

Folklore and Fairytales - Artists in Residence 13 January to 17 March

Responding to this year's theme, “Irish Folklore and Fairy Tales” of Skibbereen’s St. Patrick’s Parade, artists Ana Ospina, Alice Halliday and Michael Stephens were commissioned by West Cork Arts Centre and awarded a funded residency at Uillinn from 13 January to 21 March, in partnership with Skibbereen Chamber of Commerce and Cork County Council. Together, the three artists created an engaging and explorative approach towards Irish mythology, inviting the staff of Field’s Supervalue as well as members of Skibbereen’s community to participate. Over the last two months many workshops took place at Uillinn West Cork Arts Centre at which people came together, creating and crafting beautiful costumes to add on to the parade.

But wait a second. Folklore and Fairy-tales. St. Patrick was Christian, wasn’t he? Christianity and Paganism, how does this work? These were my thoughts when I heard of this year's theme for St. Patrick’s Day. 

Irish Folklore dates back millennia, Ana told me, transmitted orally, shaped and changed over time. Only since the Christians arrived in Ireland, the stories were written down - by monks, ironically. Some of the pagan gods and heroes were adopted as saints by Christianity, similar to the Romans adopting Greek Mythology. 

Artist Alice as Brigid

One great example for that is Saint Brigid. In pre-Ireland she was the great Goddess of spring season, fertility, healing, poetry and smithcraft. According to Cormac’s Glossary (that’s the one monks wrote when they arrived in Ireland in the 10th century) Brigid, Goddess of Poetry had two sisters: Brigid the Healer and Brigid the Smith - a triple deity? That sounds very similar to the Christian triple deity of God, if you ask me.

However, in Christianity there is only one God. Luckily, the old Christian monks did not simply wipe out all the old Irish gods and forced people to believe in something completely different, like it sadly happened during colonisation so many times. Forcing people to ignore and forget their cultural heritage is not what the monks had in mind. Instead, they were more considerate and allowed these old Gods a place as Saints in the new Christian world. Arguably, that is how Brigid became a Saint, too. This way, Brigid is kept alive and can be worshipped until this very day. When I researched this, I couldn’t help but be amazed by how respectful of each other's culture people were back then, compared to what I know about colonisation. Religions were merged rather than one forcefully substituted by the other. And I think I better understand now, why this Christian holiday celebrates folklore and fairy-tales: as a reminder of Ireland’s cultural roots, which certainly have a place in today’s Christianity. 

Head Pieces for Main Characters

So let’s get back to the artists in residence at Uillinn, Ana, Alice and Michael who have put so much work and energy into this great project. Many workshops have taken place, and even in times of COVID-19 and the cancellation of parades planned for 17 March, the creative team continued building beehives, sewing costumes, painting masks, crafting bluebells and grain ears and so much more - and they never have stopped smiling and keeping a positive attitude towards the situation, always welcoming those of the community who wanted to contribute while respecting the new social distancing and hand washing directives as they began to role in.

Costume Draping Bee Hive in the Making
Artist Ana making Bluebells Stitching Flowers

At the heart of their creative vision are main characters based on traditional Irish folklore - Puca in the shape of a fox, the mermaid, Goddess Brigid, the Green Man and Gobnait, queen of bees - which will be supported by minor characters and surrounded by spectacular props during the parade.

There have been positive responses from so many people, keeping spirits up during these difficult times. Thanks to the artists’ great stamina and the community's engaging work, we can all look forward to finally seeing the colourful outcome of the project. Once the situation allows, the costumes will be staged in an on location photo shoot, the results of which will then be displayed in a virtually for us all to see. For a live experience we can happily await next year's St. Patrick’s Day, where the costumes are likely to be paraded. Until then, stay healthy!

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Committed to Falling - Gabhann Dunne

The James O'Driscoll Gallery
29 February to 4 April 2020

Gabhann Dunne's painting installation comprises almost one hundred small oil paintings of migratory birds that are known to visit Ireland, accompanied by a new series of panels depicting extinct or non-native but naturalised plant species found in West Cork.

Gabhann creates eclectic narratives to show how Ireland’s wildlife and human inhabitants have dealt with previous climate change and how we are responding to the climate challenges we are now facing. In the past, hyenas roamed Munster but in the future, water will be diverted from the Shannon to be consumed by millions of citizens in the greater Dublin area – an undertaking with profound implications for the environment and Irish culture. Gabhann says “the commodifying of a resource like the Shannon with all its natural and historical associations was the starting point for reflection on changes wrought by the journeying on water and the migration of wildlife and what they tell us about their identity”.
May you never see the corncrake again!’ (Nár fheice tú an traonach arís) was once a way of wishing someone bad luck or worse, since you were hoping they wouldn’t live to see another summer. The imprecation implies a culture familiar with the corncrake and its distinctive call, and perhaps, more significantly, with the knowledge that it was a summer visitor. Once common throughout Ireland, the corncrake is now almost extinct due to human and climatic factors that stretch from here to its wintering habitats in Africa and the migration routes in between.

Gabhann reflects on changes wrought by the movement of water and the migration of wildlife and what they have to tell us about our identity. He uses colour and gesture to evoke the vulnerability and energy of his subject and asks the viewer to think on issues of emigration, migration, absence and our changing climate.

The artist believes all of these ideas can be mediated through painting without resorting to conceptual conceits. “Gabhann Dunne’s work does not deal in conceptual irony,” Seán Kissane, curator of exhibitions at IMMA, has written, “he is a story-teller and his narratives are those of nature and the world around us. In this he can be compared to Scottish Canadian artist Peter Doig, who demonstrates a similar preoccupation with nature in his painting. Doig, like Dunne, works in a style that straddles figuration and abstraction but he said of his practice, ‘All painting is conceptual. Every painting is an idea. Conceptual art just removes the pleasure of looking – colour and beauty, things like that’. Despite the tragic themes underlying much of Dunne’s [work] he revels in these ‘pleasures of looking’.”
From Co. Kildare and now living in Dublin, Gabhann Dunne is a former winner of the RDS Taylor Art Award and the Hennessy Craig Scholarship at the Royal Hibernian Academy. He studied Fine Art Painting at the Dublin Institute of Technology and at NCAD, Dublin. His recent shows include When the wolves own the island, Molesworth Gallery, Dublin (2019); Crossing the Salt, Limerick City Gallery (2018); In the Presence of Birds (2017) and The Flower’s Pilgrim (2015) at the Molesworth Gallery, Dublin, and Magenta Honey at The Lab, Dublin (2015). He was described by Cristín Leach – writing in The Sunday Times in May, 2015 – as ‘one of the best Irish painters of his generation’.

Friday, 20 March 2020

Identity and the Natural Environment: Land Walks, Land Talks, Land Marks - an Exhibition by William Bock

Environment. This big word we encounter everyday. We are assumed to be aware, treat it kindly and with respect. Our negative impact has become uncomfortably apparent over the last decade, as reports about climate change have become louder and louder. One reason things have come this far might be our neglect of the fact that our relationship with the environment is not one-sided. Nature has an undeniable impact on our identity, whether personal, national, cultural or otherwise. With our behaviour towards the environment we do not only directly shape nature itself, but consequently our own identity. One thing we need to remember is:  “We are nature, too!”  as the current Artist in Residence at Uillinn studios, William Bock points out. However, we seem to be so disconnected from our environment that we view the natural landscape as an alien space, a counterpart to our usual life. 

On 29 February 2020 William Bock’s exhibition Land Walks, Land Talks, Land Marks opened together with Gabhann Dunne’s exhibition Committed to Falling at Uillinn West Cork Arts Centre. William uses this opportunity to raise our awareness to how entwined our human world and the natural space actually are.

At the opening event, two artists held an engaging conversation about both of their works, inviting all guests to join in, comment and ask questions. William described his approach in using walks through the landscape as a basis for his current artwork. Over the last year of his work, which was finalized during his one month residency at the West Cork Arts Centre, William Bock initiated many walks around West Cork with diverse groups of people in the locality inclusive of asylum seekers based in Clonakilty. Along the way, he recorded their conversations and nature’s sounds and collected different materials found in the landscape - all of which is exhibited in this current show. 

Within the gallery, William Bock creates a whole world linking the outside space to the inside. By beautifully installing inconspicuous objects, plants and paintings the artist uses the gallery as a stage to give a voice to things that are often overheard. This idea is taken literally during the opening as William asks Composer and Musician Justin Grounds to play on a flute that was made out of wood collected on one of the walks and is now displayed in the exhibition. As visitors we are encouraged to take along Bocks many walks and discover what wonderful things our environment has to offer. Alongside a beautiful display of reed one can find a delicate bevy of Fuchsia, a plant from Chile named after the German herbalist Leonhart Fuchs. Next to it there is a leaf of the Giant Rhubarb or Japanese Knotweed. Both Fuchsia and Knotweed are widely spread all around West Cork. Once foreign to this country, they nowadays are a defining feature of Ireland's landscape - a visualized metaphor for the diversity among West Corks people and their various backgrounds.

William Bock’s exhibition talks about our environment and its impact on our identity. His family’s history is one shaped by migration, flight and movement. Being of Jewish, German and Swedish Background and having grown up in West Cork William Bock is very connected to the idea of leaving. But leaving one place also means arriving at another - and William appears to really have arrived at this place. His works express a deep appreciation of West Cork’s landscape, an environment that he himself calls his ‘natural workspace’. Visitors are invited into this workspace and experience nature, its colours, its sounds, its smell. 

Among all the natural materials we also find relics of human presence: a boot, a mirror, a glove. Here William expresses that we often have a false idea of nature. There is no romantic landscape as a counterpart to our human world. Quite on the contrary, we are inevitably linked to one another. Our concept of nature is a constructed one and there is no such thing as untouched landscape. Everything surrounding us is shaped by people. Especially Agriculture has influenced West Corks environment fundamentally. Therefore, traces of humans within landscape as a part of nature are the most natural thing. The only question we have to ask ourselves is in what way we want to shape it. In this exhibition William Bock suggests that we should try and listen to our real environment, not cling to some romantic fantasy that only exists in our head.

As the focus draws on the colourful pigments collected during his walks and later used for the paintings exhibited in the gallery, people were especially fascinated. To paint with such simple and original colours is not something you encounter every day. Paint usually comes in a tube or bottle, at least that is what we are used to. But in fact, people have used these ‘natural’ materials for centuries. Gall ink, as Bock explains, is one of the oldest inks ever found in historical writings. Again it becomes apparent how disconnected from nature we really are. However William does not point fingers. Rather he opens up the chance of having a share of his thoughts and rethink one’s own ideas of the environment in a peaceful and homey atmosphere. As wooden furniture invites us to sit down we can simply listen and let his beautiful exhibition work on us at its own pace.

Photographs by Stella Gilfert and Maik Gödecke