BETWEEN FIELDWORK AND MYTH: LOCATING IRISH ART ON THE PERIPHERIES
– Joanne Laws
Speaking at the ‘Contour of the Commons’ seminar in C.C.A Derry, Northern Ireland, in 2012, Professor Declan McGonagle outlined the socially engaged role of Derry’s former Orchard Gallery during the eighties. With regard to the gallery’s international profile, he discussed the implications of being geographically situated ‘at the edge of an island, off another island, at the peripheries of Europe’, away from the ‘metropolitan centre’. Using the example of Antony Gormley’s ‘Sculpture for Derry Walls’, commissioned by Orchard (N.I) and TSW (U.K) in 1987, McGonagle described how speculation from urban centres (regarding the suitability of the artwork) was futile, given that ultimately, the ‘knowledge and meaning surrounding the city walls could only be generated from within Derry’. With historical and social structures in flux, he explained, it was possible to carve out a new ‘ideological position’, which reframed Derry as the ‘epicentre of activity’ and everywhere else as the ‘periphery’. In the context of the Locis residency programme, and given that the Locis partners in Toruń and Leitrim are geographically at equal distances from their respective capital cities, ‘maintaining a vibrant art practice away from urban centres’ was identified early on as a topic of relevance.
This short text aims to briefly situate the west of Ireland landscape within a long art historical and cultural trajectory, while tentatively outlining the modern day politics of rural art production. Scholarly research pertaining to the Spatial Turn in cultural geography, will reveal pertinent artistic research tools (largely appropriated from ethnographic fieldwork), which have provided important methods for engaging with contemporary rural Irish life. Viewed through this spatial lens, the work of the artists participating in the two Locis Irish residencies will be discussed, informed by the loosely designated annual themes of architecture and socially engaged practice, and the inherent conceptual inquiries that unfolded, including ‘vernacular knowledge’ and ‘mythologies of place’.
IRISH LANDSCAPE AND THE SPATIAL TURN
From my perspective as a Leitrim-based arts writer and researcher (who frequently travels to urban centres to attend meetings, events and exhibitions), I have become increasingly aware of an emerging sensibility among certain Irish artists who are finding ways to channel timely responses to place, be they peripheral, suburban or rural contexts, or other contested spaces including border-zones. For contemporary Irish artists, it has never been easier to live rurally while ‘dipping in and out’ of the centralised artworld ‘hubs’. However the socio-spatial impact of remote living on contemporary visual arts practice has yet to be comprehensively examined. In my view, emerging and multi-faceted ‘ecologies of practice’ in rural contexts, seem to echo significant scholarly developments linked to the ‘Spatial Turn’ in Cultural Geography and Memory Studies, which acknowledge the growing importance of spatiality as an analytical tool for research across architectural, ephemeral, and virtual spaces. This also coincides with a ‘wider recognition of the power of ‘place’ in the constitution and description of society.’
As a spatial designation, ‘landscape’ has occupied a central place in the art historical canon, and by extension, has historically been synonymous with Irish spirit and identity. From Paul Henry’s ‘pure landscapes’ (bereft of human figures, symbolic of poverty, war and emigration) to the primal depths of Sean McSweeney’s ‘bog pools’, historical depictions of the west of Ireland landscape in particular helped forge a visual identity for a newly independent Ireland. For contemporary, post-Celtic Tiger Ireland relationships to the landscape have recently evolved to encompass geopolitics, labour studies, and ecological approaches to sustainable living, against a backdrop of government-imposed austerity and the ‘commemorative landscapes’, which are unfolding with irony, amidst a decade-long phase of pivotal centenary dates (2012-2022). Emerging scholarly discourse seeks to re-construct ‘the West’ away from ‘Romantic nationalist ideas and clichéd tourist[ic] frameworks’, towards modern understandings of what it means to ‘live and practice on the fringes in geographical or conceptual terms’.
In an extended essay ‘On the Edge: An Exploration of the Visual Arts in Remote Rural Contexts of Northern Scotland’ Anne Douglas argues that while ways of working in metropolitan contexts have become the dominant model for contemporary visual arts practice, such systems of production are not transferable, or indeed appropriate for remote rural contexts. Within rural art production, Douglas argues, artistic roles tend to be more blurred. The audiences are not specialist interest groups but an aggregate, with relationships defined by qualities of closeness, familiarity, and participation, rather than distance, anonymity and spectatorship. Concurring with Declan McGonagle’s views on emphasis on ‘local knowledge’ and ‘embedded practice’, creative methodologies in rural contexts, Douglas explains, often need to be developed from within, based on local interest and issues.
Locis 2013 was thematically underpinned by explorations at the intersection of art and architecture, prompting wide-ranging artistic investigations across site-specific themes such as ‘vernacular architecture’, rural and suburban ecologies, linguistics, ‘support structures’ 9 and public space. Led by Polish artist and architect Jarosław Kozakiewicz, whose practice encompasses sculptural installation, land intervention and bio-architecture, the 2013 Irish residency group presented newly developed work at an exhibition entitled ‘SECOND [SIT]’ at Leitrim sculpture centre in November 2013 to coincide with the Locis seminar.
Probing notions of ‘place’, visuality and citizenship, the 2013 Irish residency group developed lexicons for approaching issue of local and public space, linked to the overarching architectural theme. ‘Discursivity’ as a facet of ‘community engagement’, has been widely cited as a method for encouraging participation in art since the sixties, and has increasingly become a defining feature of rural art production. Whether as a ‘soft knowledge exchange’ or democratic device, establishing dialogue through conversation is perceived both as a shaping force in society, and as a catalyst for developing extended definitions of art.
Engaging with the local community in Manorhamilton, Niall Walsh worked with a ‘Men’s Shed Project’ to develop solutions to perceived short-falls in basic amenities within the town. Walsh’s Sentries project comprised hand-crafted benches, project documentation, and photographic portraits of local men, whom he considered to be the town’s ‘gatekeepers’, based on their tendency to congregate and ‘pass the time of day with their fellow townspeople’. Ulrika Larsson’s project Borders and Aesthetics probed the contemporary resonance of the politically burdened Irish expression ‘Tiocfaidh ár lá/Our day will come’. Informed by conversations with locals about the contemporary implications of this loaded phrase, issues relating to active and/or passive living in a consumerist society became important, reclaiming language and prompting her textual response ‘Our Time is Now’. Employing psychogeographic methods in her film Second Sight/Site, Kathy O’Leary journeyed through both urban and rural landscapes to examine public access and inclusivity within the built environment, from the perspective of a wheelchair user. Meanwhile, Natalia Wiśniewska mobilised a different set of tools pertinent to artistic research in rural contexts. Informed by local historical records, oral history and photographic archives, she conducted research on a derelict former church, tracing ‘episodes of small town community life’ and transforming the ‘afterimages of history’ into a modern day, active spectacle.
MYTHOLOGIES OF PLACE
A similar set of spatial propositions permeated the Locis 2014 residency, which sought to examine socially engaged, self-organising artistic activity. Led by Swedish artist Johan Thurfjell, the 2014 Irish residency group convened on three separate occasions in Leitrim, using the geographical location as a starting point for devising individual and collective responses to their rural setting. During their first session, the group embarked on numerous visits to collectively suggested sites of interest. As a result of these ‘walk-abouts’ in the rural Irish landscape, ‘mythologies of place’ began to emerge as a common theme. Adapted from ethnographic and geographical fieldwork, walking has been well documented across a range of 20th century art movements as an increasingly important artistic research tool. While much of this activity has previously focused on cities and urban space, there is now a growing curiosity about the significance of ‘art walking’ for suburban, rural, periphery, border and other contested landscapes. The grounded act of walking reveals alternative routes, incidental materials, unexpected encounters and conversations along the way, which reach beyond the logical confines of existing maps, requiring more intuitive methods of orientation. Generally, these ‘speculative journeys’ through particular landscapes – often accompanied by narration or parallel narrative inquiries – aim to side-step pre-determined notions of place, probing instead a ‘range of inter-connected ecological, historical, mythical, visual, archaeological, scientific, cultural, linguistic, and intuitive elements associated with place’.
For the Locis 2014 Irish residency participants, these speculative journeys through the west of Ireland landscape produced wide-ranging inquiries, which probed ancient Irish folklore and mythology made visible through explorations of nature, magic, ritual, funeral rites and the Occult. While Johan Thurfjell extended his longstanding interest in mythology to examine the Irish myth Dobar Cù/The ‘Dark Wet Hound’ (creature of The Underworld), Julia Adzuki used the pagan iconography of Sheela na gig to articulate the passage of life from which we emerge and eventually return. Other artists devised tentative links between the rural Irish landscape and their own native terrains. Using peat – a material resource common to both Ireland and her native Poland – Karolina Żyniewicz created sculptural artefacts including ‘Peat Cemeteries’ (simple tombs made from peat briquettes) and ‘Pantry/ Cemetery’(experiments, involving the preservation of various foodstuffs in peat) to highlight similarities between the ancient funeral rites and cultural practices of the two countries. Unexpectedly, Brigitta Varadi found that the residency process caused her to reflect on issues of personal identity. Through the visiting artists’ fresh impressions, she began to reconnect with the time when she first moved to, and fell in love with, the west of Ireland. Conversely, Linda Shevlin used the residency process as a catalyst to reassess her relationship with her immediate terrain, probing historical accounts of Ireland, and the paradigm shifts that occur when facts and mythology converge.
As a concluding thought, it would be fair to suggest that many of the research and production methods employed by the artists participating in the Irish Locis residencies broadly reflected many of the ‘fieldwork’ practices that have become increasingly commonplace, both in Irish rural art production and further afield. From archival research, discursivity and community engagement to speculative journeys, walk-abouts, and material and conceptual engagements with the landscape; these processes offer fresh insights into the differing economies, infrastructures and audiences in rural areas, while ultimately highlighting the role of artists in responding to these places. Interestingly, the art residency format itself provides further access to a broader paradigm shift within contemporary practice: the re-emergence of ‘art of the everyday’. Encompassing many non-art processes such as living, working, cooking and eating together and the reciprocal exchanges that emerge out of extended discussion and skill-sharing; art of the everyday draws on artistic precedents such as the ‘dematerialised’ art practices of the sixties and seventies, revealing new tendencies in modern life. If art can be perceived as a vehicle for cultivating ‘life practices’ – from the ritualistic to the ad-hoc – then there is certainly scope for interest and further research on the contribution that rurality can make to this debate.
Joanne laws is an arts writer based in the Northwest of Ireland.