Critique | ‘Sweeney’s Descent’

An Táin Arts Centre, 15 July – 28 August 2021

‘Sweeney’s Descent’, 2021, installation view; photograph courtesy the artists and An Táin Arts Centre. ‘Sweeney’s Descent’, 2021, installation view; photograph courtesy the artists and An Táin Arts Centre.

Telling a story over time enables it to take on different forms, as the various voices pass along the tale. The group exhibition, ‘Sweeney’s Descent’, presents such a polyphonic presentation of the medieval Irish legend of Buile Shuibhne, Mad King Sweeney. Comprising a wide range of media (including painting, sculpture, moving image, sound and various conglomerates between) the exhibition comprises an uncanny impression of the legend that matches its content – the story of a man descending into insanity.

The gallery is located in the basement of the An Táin Arts Centre, with low curved ceilings that wrap downwards, crouching over the viewer who engages with this rich and complex collection of artistic works. The exhibition contains over 50 artworks by members of the Shore Collective – an artist-led initiative with a studio base in Lurgan, Northern Ireland. 

The legend offers a range of entry points for the artists to engage with the tale through its rich matrix of themes. As such, the exhibition is full of colour and texture, with fragmented images and forms, overlaying scenes, and tensions between obfuscation and revelation contributing a dynamic quality to the works overall. While some artists, such as Chris Dummingan, convey scenes from the legend, other artists, including Sandra Turley, diffract themes through nuanced interpretations. Dermot Burns’ contributions involve various iterations upon a theme, with each work encapsulating repetition with a difference, conveying sensations that border on obsession and are themselves evocative of insanity. 

The sense of walking through the work is more affective than representational. In the digital poem, Sweeney King 1, which was the instigator for the exhibition, layers of Maurice Burns’ moving images and the sounds of Mark Skillen complement the words of Tony Bailie. The patterns and forms of Burns’ images take on a painterly quality, which is enhanced when stepping back from the screening room of Sweeney King 2, 3, & 4, as Nuala Monaghan’s paintings, On My Back and Calls of Crow, on either side of the door come into view. 

These connections are present throughout the exhibition, with works intermingling visually as well as conceptually. Exceeding the frames of each piece, the works bleed into one another. As such, there are moments of synchronicity between image and sound, texture and story, leading to an uncanny quality that is haunting, yet also invites closer engagement. As a whole, the exhibition is fragmented and amorphous, enabling multifaceted and ever-changing engagement with the tale.

Curating an exhibition with so many participants is not an easy task, but the number of participants contribute to the polyphonic success of this telling of the story of Mad King Sweeney. Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin uses the term ‘polyphonic’ to describe the writing of Fyodor Dostoevsky, which he defines as enabling the co-existence of many voices in the telling of a story. The co-presence of these voices exist alongside each other, engaging through subject-to-subject relations as different consciousnesses and individual fields of vision “combine in a higher unity”¹. This unity comes from the dialogue between the different voices, which do not undermine the distinctive features of the individual, but enable connections through interaction that incorporate the viewer as a participant. 

Thus, the unique qualities that the artists introduce – such as the liminal features of Carol Willey’s sculptures, the opulent layers of Louise Lennon’s paintings, Ciaran Maginnis’s slippage between representation and abstraction, the tonal complexities of Julie McGowan and Aislinn Prescott’s collaboration, Gemma Kirkpatrick’s surreal juxtapositions, and the delicate features of Sandra Turley’s textile work – meld, yet do no dissolve, through the experience of the exhibition as a whole. Whispers co-exist with screams. 

‘Sweeney’s Descent’ was delayed for over a year due to COVID-19. Even though the exhibition was conceived and developed prior to this ongoing global health crisis, the past year has shifted and informed the interpretation of the work and the legend of Buile Shuibhne. While the prospect of wandering Ireland as a bird may have been meant as a curse, it has some appeal in our time of travel restriction and prolonged crisis, which in itself has been a slow, grinding descent into who knows what.  

EL Putnam is an artist-philosopher and Lecturer in Digital Media at the Huston School of Film and Digital Media in NUI Galway. She also runs the Irish performance art blog, in:Action.


¹Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p16.