Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Baffled then Inspired at Tulca Contemporary Art Festival, Galway

by Róisín Curé in Galway


The Tulca Festival of Visual Arts takes place in Galway every November. it consists of two weeks of contemporary art exhibited in lots of venues throughout the city, from galleries to public buildings. You can find exhibits in University College Hospital and in the James Mitchell Geology Museum, as well as in more well-known gallery spaces around town like the Galway Arts Centre, Nuns' Island Theatre and more. The old Connacht Tribune print works on Market Street is the main gallery of the festival and was where the opening was held. On opening night I braved the cold, wind and and rain to attend, with the intention of sketching what I saw and soaking up the atmosphere.

The exhibition is called Seachange and aims to draw attention to climate change - and the concomitant disappearance of islands - using the mythology of Hy-Brasil as a motif. The exhibits all referred in some way to the fragility of our existence here on Earth. It's a sort of make-believe sunken island off the south-west coast of Ireland...but any more than that and I'm in unknown territory.



At first the crowd was quiet and well-behaved but the volume rose as the wine and beer began to flow. The dress code was Arty: floor-length black leather coats on some of the gentlemen, opaque black tights for the ladies, black trousers and jackets for nearly everyone. Scarves were worn with aplomb. A man lay down and did some impromptu yoga - you can just about make him out behind the group on the left. Another man struck a funny pose and asked me to draw him, which I did. I recruited a very pretty young lady with huge blue eyes and blonde curls to Urban Sketchers Galway: all she did, poor creature, was admire my sketching bag (plus she had had one or two by then) and I wasted no time in telling her how she should join us. 
Over the course of two days and in two of the venues I drew some of the exhibits. I must ask for tolerance in my interpretation: I was inclined to cynicism, and I'm on the opposite end of the art spectrum (I interpret nothing, they interpret everything), but I did try to get help with interpretation, from no less a personage than the curator. Nonetheless, I wasn't always the wiser.

First I drew something that looked like an umbrella covered in symbols of the euro, by a duo called Culturstruction. This the curator's explanation:
"It's a sort of superhero cape," she said. "A place of shelter and protection. The euro symbols refer to the collective assumption that that currency would save us."
Further reading on the web suggested that the piece was supposed to appear to levitate, a bit like a distant island, and indeed the suspension lines were so fine as to be invisible.


The next piece was about a nuclear holocaust, or more accurately, about a government leaflet that was circulated in the 1960s. This was part of a series of pieces called How Will I Know When To Go Indoors? and it was by Dennis McNulty and Ros Kavanagh. I didn't find out exactly what it meant, although I did try. To give you an idea of scale, it's about head-height at the top.


The next day I called into the Galway Arts Centre on Domick Street to see what was on offer there. I was very taken by the piece I drew, for no reason other than I liked the way the microphone hung over the rock. I liked the vintage, shiny look of the microphone. Naturally, the rock was silent - now. There was a recording of just such a rock type being formed...at the bottom of the sea at the Mid-Ocean Ridge in the Atlantic Ocean. The rumbling noise it made was very soothing. The piece (and its companion, a short piece of film) referred to the demise of another imaginary island called Nuuk Island. I looked it up and Nuuk is still part of Greenland, so I'm confused. The artist was called Anaïs Tondeur and the soundtrack to her film had some lovely, very French piano music. I was there two days after the Paris atrocity and I welled up for all things French...I lived in Paris many years ago and was in love with the place from the moment I arrived until the moment I left a year later. 


The woman you can see reading in the background was manning the desk. I asked her if she could help me interpret the exhibition. She did her best, and then recommended a piece back in Market Street. 
"It's called The Water Glossary," she said. "It's a collection of archaic words for weather, and water, and the sea and that kind of thing. The idea is that language is intimately connected with climate and psyche."
She was speaking my language, so to speak, as I am a dilettante linguist and have strongly-held but ill-informed opinions on that sort of thing. It got better.
"It takes the form of a booklet. It's displayed in the gallery and there's abench next to it - you can sit and read it," she said, "at least I think you can, and you can buy a copy too."
I went back to Market Street to the main gallery space and bought a copy of The Water Glossary, by Carol-Anne Connolly. In the absence of a drawing of the booklet (which wouldn't tell you much), here are some of the terms I read:
fiachaire: raven-watcher, weather forecaster
lá idir dá shíon: a day of unseasonably dry, warm and bright weather. In the middle of the wet harsh days of Irish winter, meaning day in between two weathers.
salachar báistí: drizzling mist or rain
síor-uisce: constant rain
maidhm báistí: cliudburst
scim: veil of haze or mist
criathróir: animal surefooted on boggy ground
slograch: sink hole, or a wet boggy corner of a field

These descriptive words about weather and rain and clouds conjure up so many snippets of my life, from early childhood onwards. Our climate stamps us with an indelible mark and it's one of the things we long for when we're far from home - at least, I do. Once, I leaned out of the window in the Wicklow hills, on a September night, having returned from a few weeks in the desert of Los Angeles. I wonder is there a word for the gentle hiss of rain accompanied by the distant bleating of sheep, with honeysuckle on the air?

I had no idea what to expect from Tulca 2015. I think some of my prejudices about contemporary art have fallen away. All it took was one or two pieces to make me think afresh about art - and to remind myself that there's room for all of us. 

Tulca Festival of Visual Arts is on until 29th November. Details from Tulca.ie.