Performance Art | Ritualistic Repair


Noel Arrigan, Healing Point, 2022, durational performance; image courtesy the artist and Interface. Noel Arrigan, Healing Point, 2022, durational performance; image courtesy the artist and Interface.

In the late 1980s, on the shores of Derryclare Lough in Connemara, a salmon hatchery was built. Commissioned by the cigarette company Carrolls, it was conceived as the most advanced facility of its kind. The word ‘facility’ extends from the word ‘facile’, which means “the ignorance of an issue’s true complexity.” Built too high above the lake, the circulation of water to contain the salmon proved too costly to maintain, and it was decommissioned. A modernist industrial shell was left nestled in the hills of the Inagh Valley. It has since been re-conceived by the Inagh Valley Trust as Interface – a shared base of aquacultural scientific research, and a studio and residency programme, lovingly hosted by Irish artist, Alannah Robins. 

‘Performance Ecologies’ was a series of performance works commissioned in response to this placed history, and ecological futurity in the wake of climate change. The event took place during the last weekend of August and was curated by Robins and leading Irish performance artist, Áine Philips. A group of artists spanning Ireland, Sweden, and America, convened for the weekend in this storied place. 

In The Microecologies of the Inagh Valley (2022), artist Eileen Hutton led participants in a kick-sampling workshop. Using a net to dig beneath a riverbed, Hutton demonstrated the collection and identification of tiny marine life as a means of gauging a river’s ecological stability. The specimens were placed onsite under a stereomicroscope, whose contents were reproduced as images on acetate. The process entrusted individuals with a creative means of inquiry into their respective environments, with curiosity posed as a methodology of ecological rejuvenation. 

Swedish artist Gustaf Broms conducted the durational work, There Is No There There (2022), throughout the afternoon. The artist donned a denim uniform, imbuing the environment with his body. At one point this body was tied to a stake in the ground, which it circled in a clocklike formation, pointing at everything and declaring “I am that; I am that; I am that.” At another point, the body fixed numerous dead roots to its head and extremities, walking backwards out of the valley at a pace akin to the roots’ growth in life. The unfurling work evoked the words of Cézanne: “I am a consciousness. The landscape thinks itself through me.” 

My own work, A Fish in the Shape of a Voice (2022), took place inside one of the former salmon tanks – large, cylindrical fibre-glass structures now empty of water. Reclining naked, invoking Magritte’s The Collective Invention (1934), I spoke through a microphone, the tank amplifying the sound upwards towards the sky. The words, a product of my mind and hands, returned to the body optically and aurally in a feedback loop. The words detailed the valley’s history in a stream of consciousness, linking the salmon’s reproductive cycle with the fish’s place in mythology, and addressing mythology itself as a reproductive cycle, with sounds hopping across time and space from one human vector to another. 

In the darkness of the main facility, where salmon eggs once hatched, were two film screenings. First was Polypropylene II (2022), from American artist Elizabeth Bleynat. The frame gazed through the perforations – the eyes, one might say – of a commercial fishing net underwater. From there, the net emerged from the sea, clinging to Bleynat’s body, which walked towards the camera – towards land – interspersed with geometric arrangements of the fishing plastic. Next was Coming Full Circle (2021). A drone aerially documented the long-term disrepair of UK land artist Richard Long’s Circle in Ireland (1974), a stone circle on Doolin Point at the Cliffs of Moher. Through these shots, we follow a group of the Burren College of Art’s students and staff, clad in grey, mirroring the landscape they traverse as they begin the gradual, ritualistic repair of Long’s intervention. 

Over the course of the day, Noel Arrigan performed the durational Healing Point (2022). As one entered the grounds, a trapezoidal metal frame overlooked the lake, a diagonally angled bed of nails chained to the structure. Over the course of two hours, Arrigan’s body, clothed in plain linen, reclined upon the nails. His hands gradually pulled at the chain which looped beneath his groin, so as to draw the bed down horizontally and back up again, slowly, centimetres over time, a metronome executing a single, prolonged swoop. The work functioned as a living timepiece, the organism and the product of its labour meeting in pain. 

In the cool of the evening, the crowd was gathered in the largest of the salmon tanks for Tadhg Ó’Cuirrín’s I Hear Voices (2022). A karaoke machine was stationed in the middle of the tank, the microphone and the vocals it mediated passed from body to body. The artist surrendered the work to his audience, who each surrendered themselves – each body sharing the role of spectacle, each imparting the intimacy of singing its favourite song. It can, after all, be just as vulnerable to be joyful before an audience as it can to be in pain. ‘Performance Ecologies’ was brought to a close the following morning. Artists and audience alike sat and broke their fast together, in a mutual generosity of thought and food among nature. The art theorist and perceptual psychologist Rudolf Arnheim once described space as an “image of time”. The spatial image that Philips and Robins composed, together with the artists, the landscape, and the audience as their medium, was one of hope.

Day Magee is a performance-centred multimedia artist based in Dublin.