The distance between place and people; land and memory; the physical and the conceptual are spaces in which magic can occur. The Irish poet William Butler Yeats knew this truth, as did his contemporaries creating art in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This inexplicable and wondrous place, one of memory and rurality, is well-known to Irish artists—then and now.
In the exhibition Liminal Spaces: Art, Architecture and Place we can consider the notion of the conceptual site/s (place, land, memory) as positions that mirror the interface between art and architecture—a small but powerful space. The starting point of the Liminal Spaces project is the poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree by W.B. Yeats. This essay discusses a process that embodies the magic of a specific site in Sligo—the Isle of Innisfree—which is both a physical and conceptual place. How did artists, architects and the public unpack ideas of this indescribable esotericism of a place? How did the curatorial collaboration prioritized process and therefore activate a creative space? As a process situated within a specific place—the town of Sligo, in Northwest Ireland—how do we re-position the idea of regionalism and notions of the rural as radical spaces for artists, architects and the public that resonates locally, regionally, nationally and internationally?
Through a 10-month period, the curatorial team met and discussed the project from conception to production. The project was centered on two strands: providing space to produce open-ended and site-specific responses to Yeats, the island and the poem; and secondly about the collaboration between the practice of architecture and art. On this premise, the exhibition was not to be approached in a linear fashion, but aimed to integrate work of different disciplines based on commonalities in theme or conceptual approach taking up issues of the dialogical, encouraging activation via social engagement; process and poetics of place. The Liminal Spaces project was open-ended and non-prescriptive. So rather than working within a constructed framework, the slow, dialogical process opened up liminal spaces, which lie between the conscious and subconscious. The framework was also intentionally non-binary (rejecting the notion of art on one side and architecture on the other), favouring instead a rhizomatic meandering. This allowed for an exploration of the spatial convergences between architectural and artistic practices within the project, which in turn activated a creative space.
Central to the evolving curatorial premise was the Process Room. The gallery space had multiple foci, including 100 architecture submissions, dozens of photos and drawings documenting of the process, didactic labels, and the original letter and correspondence to and from Fergal MacCabe to Sligo County Council. The robust and active physicality of the hang of multiple objects, via varied viewpoints, added a sense of urgency and energy to the exhibition. Importantly, each room included both artwork and architectural drawings. The multi-disciplinary hang of the works was both part of the dialogue while also playing central protagonist role within the production of the exhibition. The tempo and rhythm of the executed curated spaces became another layer of the dialogical process. For example, the agitated Process Room was in direct opposition to the cerebral and quiet moments in other rooms in the exhibition, while reflecting collaborative, rhizomatic and organic processes.
As an architect and town planner Fergal MacCabe brought an observationalist perspective to the project. His artefacts, including letters, text, correspondence and writings in relation to the 1970s dialogue with local and national government bodies were incorporated into the Process Room. His contribution to the process through discussions and emails was an outrageous and cheeky sense of humor and poignant conceptual repartee. You can read his reflections in his Artist Biography and Work Details. Yet for all of the humor of MacCabe’s antics, one can’t but wonder if he was also making a more subversive political point. Just as Yeats used poetry to elucidate political points and pose skepticism of the nature of Irishness, was MacCabe also asking the difficult question—who owns land in Ireland and who owns our memory of that land? Thoreau also posed this question 76 77 in Walden to the townspeople. The idea of society’s role in place, in land ownership, and the utopian idyllicism is a continual thread throughout the exhibition.
For example, Maurice O’Connell, a Devon-based, Irish artist focuses on experimental installations, architecture, theatre and socially engaged projects directly connecting with communities. For more than ten months, O’Connell was thinking, talking, observing, swimming and making art in response to MacCabe’s proposed dilemma. For this show, O’Connell created Should I stay or should I go now, 2015, a demonstration and talk as a dialogical site-specific performance. Created as a re-enactment of his conversations in Sligo while in residency for Liminal Spaces, his storytelling performance and traces of left-over detritus elaborated on the complex and often complicated relationships that go into to supporting or contesting a notion or imagined place. O’Connell’s proposition is to highlight this power struggle in the form of a collection of small moments with his opening night illustrated talk leaving dialogical remains as exhibition artefacts. The blackboard utilized the poem and theoretical formulas, planning regulations, the constitution as well as ideas regarding the “idyll” and” the sublime” in direct and indi – rect dialogue with the audience. Key ideas for O’Connell were the notion of the idyll, wilderness, community purpose and sublime as a contested space. Like many of O’Connell’s other works, the Liminal Spaces installation is both site- and time-specific. The exhibition room that held O’Connell’s work was painted an institutional green—and was marked with graffiti-like writings enquiring into Yeats’ dilemma. Arrows and text ask further questions of the artist; of the viewer. Bright green tarpaulin strung up with blue cord flaps off one wall with Yeats’ poem written upon the surface but then marked with illegible edits. Is this defacing Yeats? It certainly penetrates the viewer thoroughly, begging the question—will you look critically at this text? At me?
As an artist, O’Connell had a multitude of roles in these processes—as a practitioner, facilitator, athlete, a traveler, a confidant. As a performer he invited audiences to recon – sider the unreasonable certainties of: utopian and artistic ambitions; to question the role in unreal constructions; to imagine a power struggle to create misunderstanding; the prominence of landscape in Ireland; the role of the state in supporting the imagined spaces; and of the artist’s role in the deception of all of these points. And through the pro – cess, the audience garnered the ability to navigate towards self-determination. There is also another important element here—one of generosity. For noted curator Mary Jane Jacobs, “generosity exists in exchanges, like conversa – tions, and within temporal experiences shared by a social or communal body, which are conceived as art, crafted by artists, though these generous acts might not look like art, or in fact be art but become art-like moments”.
In a more formal and delicate approach, Felicity Clear created ‘My Own Private Analogue Island’, 2015. The work is an example of the shift in her practice in which she investigates abstract ideas of structure, stability and failure. The process begins with the making of wooden structures that are intuitive and quickly constructed and reference architectural models. Studio lights cast two-way shadows of the models back onto paper, which are then drawn in pencil. For this exhibition Clear created an island-shaped sculpture, referencing both the urban architecture surrounding her inner-city studio while also inverting the notion of the rural idyllic island of Innisfree. The sculpture sits on a large-scale drawing, the shadows from the sculpture mixing with the mark-making in a slow process that is a methodical and intentional mapping of memory and place. Clear is interested in interrogating the process of drawing and its relationship with time. The rigorous, large-scale installation / sculpture suggested a mass—subtly and poetically reminiscent of Innisfree. Clear describes the drawings as structures that are untenable, and ambiguous as to their beginning, middle and end. The physicality of Clear’s improbable sculpture and the notion of the folly portend the illusion of what is reality or not reality. In this way the work conceptually connects to Yeats in a longing for the improbable and the not real—a memory constructed from the subconscious. This tendency, one of the observations of nature that is not neutral or scientific but rather a moral or philosophical significance to elucidate, is also found in Thoreau’s Walden. The quiet, poetic moments are inter-related through writing, visual art and architecture. This creative free will is found throughout Clear’s work, and in other artworks in the exhibition, and we can see a childlike freedom of roaming and building and dreaming.
The work “Untitled, 6 drawings for Sligo”, by Corban Walker continues the artist’s ongoing investigations of perception of scale and architectural constructs. Not limited to a specific medium, Walker has worked across a broad range of media, including painting, drawing, photography and sculpture. Here the artist used the context as the threshold to explore a particular material as a brick form. The assemblage or construction of these works is deliberately limited by latitude combined with a mercurial dislocation to an elusive site. The result is a journey of fragmented moments. Embracing concepts of both architecture and minimalism, Walker uses specific local and cultural philosophies to encourage viewers to re-examine the way they conceptualize, navigate and interact with their surroundings. The works shown here look weighty and weightless; light and dark; smooth and organic. Walker is a master of dimension, form and evocative materiality. Yet there is something deeper going on in these works. The notion of the monumental or memorial is often inverted in Walker’s work, in a direct affront to the default proposition. There is a criticality of memorial—to or from Yeats and the Isle of Innisfree— posed here. The fragmented moments combine to signify what we might see; what we might remember. Memorials in Ireland are contested, troubled spaces physically as well as conceptually. Irish memorials are not like those we see in Washington, DC. Rather, our Irish memorials are burdened with contestation, deliberate obtuseness, and complicated histories. In relation to Yeats’ Isle of Innisfree, there is a contested space—for us, for history, for being Irish, and for our own memories.
Although Michele Horrigan primarily works in photog – raphy and video, the work created for Liminal Spaces is at one time cheeky and clever while also being kitsch and critical. The name Innisfree has grown to span many sur – prising contexts in the years since Yeats dreamily put pen to paper. Horrigan’s new installation Search for Innisfree, 2015 examines the various manifestations of Yeats’ ideal. Upon a series of table tops positioned in the gallery, she amassed a range of artefacts; make-up and lipstick range produced in Korea, information on meteorites, matchboxes from greasy spoon cafes, ash trays, perfume, documentation of car ferries, housing estates and pubs and more, all bearing the Innisfree moniker. Here, Innisfree is far from a dreamy utopian ideal, Horrigan’s ethnographical process reveals it to be entangled and embedded into the texture of the everyday. It now appears as a motif occurring in various guises and shapes across society, each time reinvented into something anew.
As an instigator and co-curator of the Liminal Spaces project, Cléa van der Grijn has been a guiding visual force of intentionality for the overall project. Her work Magical Thinking I, 2015, and Magical Thinking II, 2015, anchor the exhibition conceptually combining both a nuanced physicality of mimetic objects and materiality with the cerebral poetics of the metaphorical. The two objects—are sited in a bespoke vitrine, lovingly placed as if to carefully preserve these objects. The gold leafed bean ball adds intrinsic value while poetically connecting in concept to the Yeats poem. The highly polished cast-bronze beans lay collected in the 19th century bowl—harking back to of Thoreau’s Walden. Like the modest bean cultivation that provides the nourishment and subsistence in Walden, the works by van der Grijn evoke a more spiritual nour – ishment for the artist and the viewer. The beans become a metaphor, intimate with time, mediation and thought; of reflections, dreams and temporality; of mediation, growth and transience. Both Thoreau and Yeats were interested in the notion of place, using metaphors such as the beans as a magical, utopian place. Through the process of growing, connecting to the earth, beans become an opportunity for thought. For the artist, it was important to go through the same temporal process as the writers in order to better understand the place. In doing so, van der Grijn captures a creative osmosis through this process of empathy gathering. The ball is a repeated metaphor in van der Grijn’s practice—repeated, reinterpreted. It is another metaphor for no beginning and no end; and therefore for the artist it is on ongoing process without an end product. The ball and beans become vessels; a conduit through which van der Grijn connects to Yeats and Thoreau, effectively re-imagining their experience today.
Artist Andy Parsons work for Liminal Spaces also con – nects to the ideas of the rural idyll found in both Yeats and Thoreau. Parsons’ works in a variety of media, including painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture, artists’ books and projects that engage directly with the public. For this exhibition, his works reflect the breadth and depth of this artist’s oeuvre. There are eight works or bodies of works, including the striking intervention sculpture Raft, 2015. This homemade raft was designed and then floated with planters and beans, sewage pipes, rope, abandoned paintings and wood. Other works include paintings, which serve as both objects from observation and plywood signs. Homemade bean wine and adapted labels also underscore Parson’s ongoing interest into the improbability of access and a state of incompleteness and yearning. His post-colonial intervention serves as a conceptual connection to the folly of Yeats’ memory of the idyllic isle. The purpose of the raft is to carry rows of beans down the river. This action is also a folly as it may sink or float. The raft is a deliberately obvious metaphor for the island, its’ vulnerability, impermanence and multiple layers refer to the difficulty of responding to such a culturally iconic text.
Both van der Grijn and Parsons directly connected to the Waldenesque idea of nature being endowed with larger, deeper meaning often spiritual or psychological. 79 ART Additionally, like several artists in the exhibition, Parsons was inspired by the notion of a folly—the action of doing something without a practical purpose. The manifestation of folly can be seen in relation to Sligo, the Garavogue River and the purpose-built follies found at the base of the river leading into Lough Gill where the isle of Innisfree is located. In the open, non-linear exhibition format these two seemingly opposing ideas—of deep meaning and folly—sit in dialogue quite comfortably.
Although coming from different places, the artists and architects represented in this exhibition use various vehicles for approaching the process. The outcomes— drawings, concepts, artworks or experiences—become more about feeling and evoking knowledge. Scholar Erica Doss explains that there is “a cultural shift toward public feeling, toward affective modes of knowledge and comprehension” that blend physical experience and emotional response and that are perceived as being more substantial, more genuine. Liminal Spaces embraces the notion that open-ended processes offer up serendipitous opportunities—something which is necessary for activating potentialities in quiet, slow and meaningful ways.
The experiments—as architectural submissions or the commissioned artworks—delineated the more subtle effects unearthed in the site and embody more complex psychological nuances. Therefore, as products of their physical and conceptual visual landscapes, the artworks in Liminal Spaces could be described as, according to Doss, “works of art that are the physical and visual embodiment of public affect”. She explains that these works “are repositories of feelings and emotions that are encoded in their material form, narrative content,” and utilize “the practices that surround their production and reception”.
This activated space—physically and conceptually—can be facilitated for artistic responses to re-conceptualize our understanding of that place and the region. As a re-imagined space, in the exhibition or in the gallery, the work falls into place, unfolding in this exhibition like the three stanzas and 12 lines in Yeats’ poem—unconsciously of course—for us the viewer. The works are generous acts, elucidating ideas and evoking memories. They reflect generosity in spirit, in the making of objects and in the connection with place. The works are presented and fall into place, into peace, dropping gradually; for peace comes dropping slow.