Seán O Sullivan is a writer and curator whose work focuses on the politics and preservation of localities. He has curated projects and written critical texts dealing with community, ecology and the bonds between people and places. He holds an MA and a BA in Visual Arts Practices from IADT, Dún Laoghaire. He is a former chair of Black Church Print Studio, Dublin. He is Visual Arts Adviser to the Arts Council of Ireland / An Comhairle Ealaíon.
This page: A report on ‘Shapeshifting’, an Askeaton Contemporary Arts project that took place in March 2014 and was curated by Michele Horrigan.
On the long weekend in March, Michele Horrigan invited a group of twenty artists, curators, writers and educators to visit Askeaton for a project called Shapeshifting. It was an opportunity to introduce current and past projects in Askeaton to a visiting audience, and a way to talk about how art can become embedded into particular places, and into the sense of how places retain their own meanings, cultures and traditions. Saturday morning began with a sequence of early trains and car journeys. On the way through Limerick we pulled into a side alley near Henry Street. The back wall of Mill House has two lines of signage painted by the artist Lawrence Weiner in 1996. They read: Stretched as Tightly as Possible / (Satin) & (Petroleum Jelly). In Askeaton, the weekend’s schedule began with a walk around the Desmond Castle led by local historian Anthony Sheehy.
The contrast between the castle and its surrounding town is fairly pronounced. Modern buildings tend to have the owner’s name or address written on the outside – maybe it was natural that the advent of writing would lead to people sticking their names on things they built. But at the time, a castle represented the kind of power that didn’t need signage and the kind of owner whose identity was not in question. Anthony explained that the building spent 800 years passing through the hands of earls, kings, Cromwellians and eventually to conservationists from the Office of Public Works. The banqueting hall is unusually intact for its age; its size and quality was politically important because it demonstrated the town’s capacity to welcome visitors. The current job is to preserve the castle’s architecture as an example of our shared heritage. The parapets and the murder hole have stopped performing the task described by their names, but they do still have a gesture of historical power about them. Their function might be spent, but at least their form is saved.
The group spent a good portion of Saturday in the community centre. Deirdre O’Mahony spoke about working in Kilnaboy, Co. Clare—a village near the Burren that has been farmed for over 6,000 years. She took over the local post office after the death of the previous postmaster, Mattie Rynne, and discovered that Mattie had spent years secretly taking correspondence courses, setting crosswords, and learning to speak five languages. He hid his talents from most friends and acquaintances. Being the postmaster meant developing different kinds of relationships with different kinds of people.
It was helpful to refer back to that story about Mattie during the next few days. His post office was an important piece of infrastructure for Kilnaboy, a place where people could pass a few words back and forth, but also a place to interact with the wider world. In that context, it was easy to understand why he kept his interest in language hidden – infrastructure and culture can be an awkward mix. Michele Horrigan and Anita Guinane both spoke about the history of Askeaton Contemporary Arts, and in a related sense, about their work in the local community. There is no formal art gallery in Askeaton, and artworks commissioned there are usually embedded into public spaces like streets, banks and bars; it took a few years before people got used to seeing artworks in ordinary places. Nuno Sacramento described the relationship between the Scottish Sculpture Workshop and its hometown of Lumsden, saying that the workshop is part of the same infrastructural fabric as a library or a university, part of a wider idea of the commons that is worth investigating and safeguarding. Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes talked about a project named Politics Plus, in which she brought an exhibition of small-scale artworks to Northern Ireland’s parliament buildings at Stormont. The exhibition met with an unexpected mixture of resistance and avoidance from the politicians who were its intended audience.
Seanie Barron’s first solo exhibition opened in the Askeaton Civic Trust building that evening. Seanie is a local craftsman who taught himself to carve walking sticks and pipes from roots of ash and blackthorn pulled out of the ground. He left the sticks with their natural twists and splits, and decorated the handles with grips made of bone or metal. Nowadays, walking sticks can be machine-produced on the cheap, and it’s rare to find someone reviving the tradition and craft of making one: using material from the ground to walk the land. It was the first time that Askeaton Contemporary Arts produced an exhibition by a local artist.
On Sunday we drove out towards Aughinish and parked by the alumina refinery for a picnic and a tour of the area led by Limerick artist Carl Doran. The Aughinish refinery is positioned just at the edge of the Shannon Estuary: it processes about two million tonnes of alumina every year, and puts a metallic taste in the air in the meantime. We walked to a stone bird hide by the water, which was built as a neighbourly gesture to smooth over the addition of a refinery to the local biosphere. In February, an Atlantic storm dragged clouds of artificially bronzed earth up towards the mainland, tanning the bungalows. It was difficult to decide whether those of us temporarily visiting the refinery could justly complain about its impact on the landscape, particularly when we buy things made from its aluminium. The moral equation for judging the refinery’s desirability is equal parts dull and distasteful; ultimately, its existence is economically pragmatic.
On the drive back to Askeaton, Liz Ryan gave the history of a roadside carving called ‘the stony man’. Sean Lynch told a story about James O’Shea, a Cork stonemason who hustled his way into a job carving the facade of the Oxford Museum of Natural History during the mid-nineteenth century. O’Shea cut monkeys into the window inlays, but was forced to give the monkeys cat heads after Charles Darwin’s then-newly published Origin of Species offended Oxford’s archbishop. Amanda Ralph gave a primer on the tradition of Sean-nós singing, and talked about the culture and historical context that had fostered that tradition up to the present day. John Plowman described his work as a curator with Beacon, a Lincolnshire-based arts organisation that commissions projects near heritage sites, and seeks audiences through rural societies, interest groups and local newspapers. He explained that Beacon tries to find people who haven’t been to an art exhibition before. Stephen Brandes spoke about a collaborative project called the Domestic Godless, which experimented with the look, styling and culture of food: he showed images of a dinner party where guests ate mushroom flavoured toothpaste using toothbrushes as cutlery.
Adrian Duncan had undertaken a month-long artist’s residency in Askeaton, and spoke about an ongoing body of research into Ireland’s thirty-seven year programme of rural electrification. This segued into a discussion about the history, culture and architecture of bungalows and the related convention of hanging a framed aerial photograph of one’s home and fields in the living room. Valerie Connor presented a brief history of wealthy entrepreneurs who bought and flattened swathes of land in Paris and Venice to make way for enormous art museums. Martin McCabe responded to the weekend’s discussions with varying contrasts and comparisons, saying that despite the explosive growth in museum construction since 1945, there is no way to meaningfully capture, frame or institutionalise an experience like Anthony Sheehy’s castle tour. And even though that fact is obvious, it remains shut out of our official knowledge. It is instead stuck in the category of what we really know. It asks where tradition should reside, and leaves the answer hanging in the air.
Monday was St. Patrick’s Day, and twin parades in Rathkeale and Askeaton brought the customary mix of civics and theatre: there were boats from a dive and rescue unit, a football club, and a fleadh on a flatbed. In Rathkeale an apparition of the Virgin Mary had appeared in a local tree stump. In Askeaton a pack of hunting hounds caroused down from the top of the town.
Jeronimo Hagerman travelled to Askeaton in early-March to begin work on a project that would double as an artwork and a parade float. He devised a ceremony called Mirror/Men, in which six people walked the streets wearing tall mirrors wrapped around their bodies like sandwich boards. The six switched through marching formations, pushing out to interact with the crowd and rotating back into a circular phalanx. People standing on the sidelines saw images of themselves reflected as part of the parade: they checked their hair and took pictures. The reflecting was an appropriate gesture considering the way that parades need so much cultural and infrastructural work from so many people—it’s important that everyone sees themselves as being part of it, even those who are just seeing it.
Shapeshifting ended with the parade. And inside or behind whatever light touch is needed to get new audiences interested in contemporary art, there are consistent and irresistible questions around context. It’s not just that idea of context that asks where culture is positioned in relation to locations, traditions or people. It’s also an idea of context that asks about the way we grow into reading and enjoying art. That good relationship depends on repeated and unexpected encounters to shake off the sense of unfamiliarity that accompanies new things. In the example that Shapeshifting laid out, there’s contextual potential built into a refinery, a castle, a parade or a walking stick: built into the kinds of things that previously seemed familiar—things that don’t necessarily need to represent anything, but things that have always meant something.