The 12 artists in this group show curated by Miriam O’Connor and Paul McAree, refigure the Irish rural landscape as a provisional habitus caught in a state of suspended animation. ‘This Rural’ (20 May – 16 July 2023) investigates the temporality of life away from the cities, over geography, with photography very much the favoured medium. Where landmarks appear in this exhibition, they tend to function parodically. The rough finish of Lismore’s old mill, with its poured floor, pocked whitewash, agricultural lighting, and ivy trailing in through the industrial windows, showcases this work to stunning effect.
Walk in the door and Ruby Wallis’s glossy black cat stalks towards you. By far the largest piece here (150 x 250 cm), its scale unsettles expectations of the space while inverting gendered narratives of predatory behaviour. Taken from her series of nocturnes, A Woman Walks Alone at Night, with a Camera (2022), Wallis’s inclusion gestures towards the experiential knowledge and embodied practices evident elsewhere.
The archival displacement of rural sociologies preoccupies Katie Watchorn, Laura Fitzgerald, and surfaces again in Ciarán Óg Arnold’s award-winning series documenting nights out on the lash in Ballinasloe. Two vitrines display the accumulated records of the dwindling dairy herd belonging to Watchorn’s father in County Carlow. A list of names – ‘Doubtful Heifer, Long Face’ – amounts to a sorry roll of honour amid the later dockets that simply give tag numbers and carcass weight, some annotated in red: “Had dead calf in Well Field, 1994”. A quiet grief at the cold impact of modernisation on her family farm animates the visual restraint more broadly typical of Watchorn’s sculptural work.
Watchorn, Laura Fitzgerald, and curator Miriam O’Connor (a visual artist who also runs her family farm in Cork) appeared together in last year’s stellar exhibition at the RHA: ‘A Growing Enquiry: Art & Agriculture, Reconciling Values’(18 February – 24 April 2022). Here in Lismore, Fitzgerald’s newspaper dispenser injects a jaunty shot of felt-tip blue into this tonally subdued show. Three euros in the slot buys a copy of The Inch Conglomerate. Printed on the same salmon-pink newsprint as London’s Financial Times, articles on the liquidation of rural life achieve a manic comedy by pushing bureaucratic process to absurdity. A headline reads “Grannies fail their National Person Test (NPT)”, while ‘Public Art Emergency’ declares the artist’s own redundancy. Ireland enjoys a vibrant tradition of rural absurdism – Beckett, O’Brien, Milligan – and this fine publishing project repurposes Flann O’Brien’s bicycle to negotiate the yawning potholes in the road to rural obsolescence.
In equally satiric vein, Michele Horrigan’s video, shown on a tiny Panasonic TV, re-enacts the hit dance sequence from Flashdance (1983). What a Feeling! (2014) relocates this sexploitation tale from the steel mills of Pittsburgh to Aughinish, where waste from the aluminium factory contaminates the Shannon banks. Horrigan’s enthusiastic performance (in leg warmers) is powerfully diminished by the industrial plant behind her – effectively curtailing Irene Cara’s promise that “in a world made of steel, made of stone, you can dance right through your life.”
Ciarán Óg Arnold also challenges pastoral assumptions about the state of nature in rural Ireland. Synthetic materials catch the eye in two grainy prints from his monochrome series, I went to the worst of bars hoping to get killed, but all I could do was get drunk again (2015). Fake foliage attracts dust in a corner of the function room, where the synthetic highs have long worn off. In contrast, Patrick Hogan distils a sense of Germanic angst in his study of a coniferous glade. The moss glows with diffuse light providing a forest refuge from the open day, just glimpsed at the edge of this beautiful photograph.
Ailbhe Ní Bhriain’s impressive work approaches nature by deconstructing the archival impulse that threatens to displace the phenomena it records. Inscriptions (1) (2017) features a ferny cliff and forest-scape viewed through a filmy shape (a plastic bag, perhaps). Incongruously, a strip of creamy masking-tape appears to dangle from the black and white print. Inscriptions (8) (2017) has a display of hawks largely obliterated by a sheet of white mypex. Ní Bhriain’s exciting use of collage techniques complicates her depth of field, making it hard to decipher the landscape. Implicitly this work subverts realism as an appropriate documentary aesthetic for representing ecocide.
Half the pieces here emerged during lockdown, when foreclosure on the view refocused our attention on plain objects, close at hand. Caoimhe Kilfeather’s monochrome prints, delicately hung on the rough whitewash, part two sheets on a washing line to reveal a glimpse of blurry hedge limiting the sky. Erica Van Horn’s calendar neatly records the visual puns identified on her daily round: an empty spreader, fashioned from a blue drum, accompanies her neighbour’s complaint that, with the pub closed, the chance to spread a good story is gone.
A pair of dead chaffinches, printed in exquisite colour by Samuel Laurence Cunnane, nods to the lurid morbidity of the pandemic before bringing us inside where his portraits of Izzy, a woman capably engaged in household tasks, intimate his bemusement at the sudden monotony of life. Brian Mac Domhnaill and Tom Keeley each document country roads where the crossroads run out of purpose amid a cluster of signs. “Border Communities Say No to Brexit” features on a banner in one of Keeley’s images, indicating a breakdown in communications, evident too in the satellite dish and aerial, mounted on a white bungalow in Mac Domhnaill’s close studies of rural anonymity.
Dr Selina Guinness is a lecturer in Humanities at IADT, Dún Laoghaire.