The Cork Midsummer Festival, which was established in 2008, has flourished in recent years and may now be considered one of the foremost events in the Irish cultural calendar. It delivers both indoor and outdoor events, with online talks and screenings supporting live shows and prompting discussions. There is the ‘Crosstown Drift’, a walking and reading event, while theatre, visual art, music and literature have all used Cork’s urban spaces in innovative ways, from the port to the fort. Cultural events are no longer confined to specific buildings, esoteric audiences or sanctioned times; a more democratic dissemination of culture has evolved. As though reacting to months of isolation, the 2021 programme was versatile, regenerative and thought provoking, signalling perhaps a fluid and more flexible approach to cultural consumption.
The Day Crossing-Farm, 2021, was a multi-sensory installation by Marie Brett, commissioned by Cork Midsummer Festival. It was produced with filmmaker Linda Curtin, composer Peter Power and lighting designer Sarah Jane Shiels over a period of two years. Both an in-person and a streamed event, the work examined human trafficking, modern-day slavery and drug farming. The installation took place across 12 rooms in the clandestine location of a derelict city house. Nine screens bombarded the visitor, confronting our privileged existence with the abject reality of enslaved workers. We followed the footsteps, felt the constriction of space, the psychological manipulation, the fear, the entrapment – the slow realisation of the dissolution of sovereignty experienced by trafficked people – as we were lured deeper into the nether world of narcotics. The experience was profound.
Jessica Akerman’s work, Cork Caryatids, wove the social history of ‘the Shawlies’¹ with the symbolism of caryatids – sculpted female figures serving as pillars, columns, or other supportive architectural features – and the misapplication of administrative digital software, to think about ways in which systems of labour and public spaces may be ‘hacked’. Akerman created a series of flags, sited in the Port of Cork, that heralded a new phase in the iterative nature of the labouring female body.
Pádraig Spillane’s work, Define Silver Lining, was an installation in an empty shop unit, in a jaded corner of the city. We sat there in the maelstrom, beckoned by the QR code, and were linked into a soundscape. The exquisite abstract photographs on vinyl covered the shop window. Spillane’s work reflects a trend that desensitises consumers with products that appear to enrich their perspicacity. It engages with sensorial processes to create an aesthetic value that elides the dynamics of a market economy. How to define a ‘silver lining’ in an anxious and chaotic world?
To Hold Still, 2021, by Anne Ffrench evoked the fairy-tale of Sleeping Beauty. The story was one of enclosure, of protection of suspended time – and thorns. This work was a metaphor for the Coronavirus pandemic; it articulated our insecurities about our future wellbeing. We are subordinated – viruses have gained ground – and the struggle rages on. Man against nature. These briars are fashioned to resemble female hair, flowing free in a doll’s house pavilion. Should we infer from this a more feminine approach to averting ecological catastrophe? Swimming with natural flows instead of being adversarial?
As Above So Below, 2021, by David Mathúna and Andrew McSweeney was an evening audio-visual installation, inserted into the glass façade of Cork Opera house. The glass reflected our reality in city lights, while the work considered an iteration of humanity that operates in relation to cosmic and earthly flows, rather than one derived from human fiction. The audio-visual work was based on iterative and generative algorithms, presenting an uncanny reimagining of a hyper-real ocean that seemed to both reflect and become clouds. As each scene unfolded, it generated the formation in real-time of the ever-evolving next vista. The effect was mesmeric and thought-provoking.
A shipping container – a feedbag, inflated and deflated, bathed in the fluorescent glow of UV light, a soundtrack of drovers and cattle in transit. Meatán, 2021, the Irish for methane, was the subject of the living and interactive installation in the Port of Cork by Vicki Davis. Live cattle exports still take place here. Davis designed the work to mimic a prosthetic device that collects methane from cattle with a view to recycling it. The cattle may then become a clean cyborg resource in the neoliberal continuum.
The Glucksman commissioned artist Fatti Burke to create a public artwork with children from different communities. Open Road, 2021, was the result of a series of workshops and was designed to include children in the formation of cultural events. A colourful ground mural was painted in Oliver Plunkett Street (a pedestrian thoroughfare) based on the dreams of these children. It invited every passing child to skip, dance or play hopscotch along its path, thereby acknowledging their claim to the urban environment.
Bassam Al-Sabah’s Longing, Beyond, 2021, was also commissioned by The Glucksman Gallery and curated by Chris Clarke. It was situated in the window of a vacant shopfront. A scaffolding installation housed screens, hand-tufted rugs and sculptural objects. The work reflected on trauma, war, resistance and perseverance. The objects and the animated films hung uneasily together like fragments of a dream or a memory that plays on loop. Reality here is a blend of personal myth, memory and nostalgia. Animation and craft are the therapeutic tools for a new and vital worldmaking.
In Crawford Art Gallery, Laura Fitzgerald exhibited three videos, three drawings (made with Sharpie/Copic markers) and an installation featuring sound and talking hay bales. Fitzgerald uses humour and, in her hands, labelling became a vehicle to chat informally with the viewer. The drawings were consummate works showing fluency and an understanding of the appeal of using unsophisticated means to pack a colourful punch. The work pondered anxieties that are endemic in our times; FOMO, incessant work and unreasonable expectation at the expense of leisure and personal care are some of the themes explored.
Doug Fishbone also utilised humour in Please Gamble Responsibly ,2021. The tone and delivery of this architectural spectacle mimicked stand-up comedy, but the content is deadly serious. The dystopian installation, inspired by the ‘ghost estate’ phenomenon, houses a film. A fast-talking narrator illustrates the vagaries of investment and the treacheries of the global banking system since fiat currency was normalised². The result: escalating chronic debt and increasing abstraction – money has become data and economics precarious. Fishbone advocates for the introduction of a Universal Basic Income as a catalyst for change in the dynamics of neoliberalism. All of the artworks reviewed here would seem to concur in their own way with this sentiment.
Jennifer Redmond is an artist, writer and editor at mink.run and at the unbound.info, an online platform for moving image and hybrid writing collaborations.
¹The Shawlies were working Cork women (circa 1900) who typically wore black shawls, carried heavy loads on their heads, and were the principal wage earners of their families.
²Fiat money is a government-issued currency that is not backed by a commodity, such as gold, and therefore does not have intrinsic value.