A small town in the south east corner of Ireland is an unusual place to find exhibitions of internationally renowned contemporary art. However, this is exactly what Lismore Castle Arts in the town of Lismore, County Waterford has been presenting to local and international audiences since the organisation was founded in the town’s historic castle in 2005.
The success of an organisation like Lismore Arts attests to the widespread flourishing of arts programming in regional areas in Ireland and the UK in recent years. This can be no bad thing. As culture is continually edging out and moving beyond increasingly economically unviable centres, new fertile ground is being found in these unassuming parts of the world and artists have been moving too, of course. This shift also means that people are more willing to travel to see art and they certainly have come in force to Lismore for the opening of the two major shows, alongside many people from the local area.
There are two exhibition spaces, one in the castle itself and one situated close by in the town. St Carthage Hall is a former church tucked away behind Lismore’s main street. It is a small yet strangely imposing space that conveys a sense of age far beyond its Victorian construction, and it is here that the Italian/British artist Enrico David presents a site-specific sculptural installation, titled ‘autoparent’.
It’s a rainy, dark Irish day and there are no electric lights on inside. The only source of illumination comes from the watery afternoon light trickling through the high stained glass windows on the far gable end wall and those to the right-hand side. These murky, chilly surroundings immediately create a solemn atmosphere.
In the middle of the hall a strangely elongated human figure is wedged between the opposing thick stone walls of the structure. It sits low between floor and ceiling so that you have to duck and walk beneath it to reach the other side of the hall. Negotiating the figure feels dangerous. Thick twine hangs from it like barbed wire that could all too easily be knocked in the half-light.
The tomb-like resonance of the hall with its obvious religious connotations lends the scene a sense of ancientness or even timelessness; the figure could be a sacred High King of Ireland lying in state. Paradoxically however, there is too something very present and pertinent about this strange body. Its contemporary visual context identifies it as a cruel victim of the all too visually familiar refugee crisis, an allegory perhaps to the tragic bodies of displaced people washed up on European shores.
This tangled figure, then, is one of those bodies pulled from the sea and transported to a church; a place of sanctuary reached far too late, a sad lament to our political paralysis around this devastating global crisis.
The theme of migration touched upon here is further explored in the group show on display in the castle itself, ‘A Weed is Plant out of Place,’ curated by Allegra Pesenti.
This show explores the duality or paradox surrounding how value is assigned and how perceptions of value can change according to different socio-historical contexts, specifically in relation to current migration. Weeds are employed as a device then for thinking about weightier concepts relating to our current political climate that places value on certain groups of people according to their geopolitical status and their economic viability or ‘usefulness.’
Weeds in the hands of these artists are hardy settlers in often-hostile foreign lands, tough, beautiful and useful. Like the victims of the refugee crisis who, can regularly be described as all of these things too, they are typically portrayed negatively, a narrative of fear surrounds and they are forcibly discouraged instead of nurtured and enabled.
There are some stunning works here that explore the overlooked intricacies of weeds with an emphasis on drawing through a range of media. Michael Landy’s series of etchings ‘Nourishment’ act as a lynchpin to the exhibition. They are subtle ‘portraits’ of common weeds, magnified and seemingly suspended on paper, rendering these organisms delicate and beautiful.
Another stand out piece is Matt Collishaw’s light box featuring seemingly swaying submarine weeds displayed in a corner tower just off the main gallery. It is at least five degrees colder in this space and the small work animates serenely in the half-light of the tower, situating it somewhere between the warmly digital and the coolly medieval.
Both exhibitions are extremely visually and intellectually rich, acting as points of departure for the exploration of pertinent issues brought subtlety and beautifully to the fore. If you should find yourself in this lovely part of Ireland, then they are definitely worth the trip.