Galway’s festival of pictures, pop, opera and soundscapes

Broad in scope and well presented, the exhibitions of Galway International Arts Festival reward visitors of all stripes


Patrick O’Reilly is never one to shirk a challenge. In his exhibition Prelude, the sculptor takes on Tristan and Isolde, Wagner’s groundbreaking opera of desire tormented and thwarted. It’s home is the cavernous, corrugated structure of the Shed gallery space, right in the middle of Galway’s docks.

Epic as his vision is, O’Reilly is for a time upstaged by an adjacent mountain of crushed, scrap metal. With much screeching and roaring, often drowning out the strains of the opera’s prelude in the Shed, cranes dismantle the mountain bit-by-bit during the opening days of the exhibition, transferring it to the hold of a freighter moored alongside. It is disruptive, but so much in keeping with the mood of O’Reilly’s work and his theatrical flair that he could plausibly claim credit for it.

Inside the Shed, the two lovers of the title, or perhaps the ideas they embody, are visualised in Thorn as wild, dark, abstract, spiky forms emerging from opposite walls, resembling vastly enlarged masses of iron filings aligned with each other by magnetic attraction but, in keeping with the spirit of the story, forever held apart. Wagner was inspired by his own, vain longing for absolute love, and Schopenhauer’s ideas on the impossibility of fulfilling our desires in the world of appearances that stands between us and an unknowable, underlying reality.

In Wagner’s dramatic scheme, appearance is light and reality is dark, and O’Reilly plays on this notion in a procession of works that alternate freely between representation and abstraction, fairground playfulness and formal austerity and all of it is good.

If there’s a problem, it’s that he doesn’t know where to draw the line. Perhaps he couldn’t decide between making one all-enveloping installation, a Wagnerian total work of art, or an exhibition featuring a number of individual pieces with each given room to breathe. As it is, the Shed is big, but feels crowded, even at quiet times of the day.

By contrast, Janet Cardiff’s installation at the Aula Maxima, NUI Galway, is positively stripped down. Enter the gallery and you’re greeted by an empty space. Arranged around the edges of the room are 40 identical Bowers & Wilkins stereo speakers mounted on stands. Bundles of speaker cable snake out from behind a screen to feed sound to the speakers. The Forty Part Motet is an unusual 2001 recording of a performance of Thomas Tallis’s celebrated Spem in Alium.

Written in the latter part of the 16th century for eight choirs of five voices each, it’s not unlikely that Tallis’s motet was conceived as a sound installation as much as a piece of choral music. It seems entirely plausible that the arrangement of the choirs and the use of individual voices were intended to provide a spatial experience from the beginning. The work opens with a single voice, develops to involve one choir, then passes around the sequence of choirs, and back again, culminating in all 40 voices singing in unison.

Spatial experience

In one of its permanent homes, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, Cardiff’s installation is sited in the Rideau Street Chapel, which has been rebuilt in the gallery. The Aula Maxima is a good alternative. The idea is that you can move through the space as the music unfolds, hearing each individual voice and group of voices, enhancing your spatial experience of the performance to an unprecedented degree. It’s memorable, though it should be said that the credit remains firmly with Tallis, and hi-fi reproduction is not the same thing as a live performance.

Hi-fi speakers and recorded sound also play a part in Liam O’Callaghan’s exhibition. The “again” in its title, If and then . . . (again), refers to the fact that it was previously seen at Kilkenny’s Butler Gallery. Now, in slightly altered form, it is a perfect fit in the Galway Arts Centre. O’Callaghan is an inventive, resourceful sculptor, known for his ingenious use of materials, including himself, in works both static and time-based. What they share is a distinctive mood that is not easy to categorise.

It could almost be comedic, but it’s tinged with something sad and dark, something like Emily Dickinson by way of Buster Keaton. Dickinson because O’Callaghan is ruthlessly sparing in his approach. At first glance , his pieces can appear simple, even banal, in their use of ordinary, everyday materials and objects and in the ideas they enact; but they then resonate and deepen. Take, for example, the chair spinning on one leg in an empty room in Nothing Forever. In the perpetual motion of the video loop, the chair doesn’t fall over but seems to spin on forever. The longer you look at it, the stranger it seems, the more touching and unsettling.

There’s a hint of Keaton in the physical comedy of it, and even more so in another video, Ordinary Man Series (the rise and fall of a man kinda), in which O’Callaghan, transformed into a four-legged creature, exasperatingly goes through a repetitive, farcical routine of rising, lurching, colliding, falling. Again it’s simple, but increasingly disturbing as it goes on. Seen in conjunction with a fine free-verse text piece, Route (a Winter’s Work), you get a sense of his take on the absurdity of habit and routine, the way structure and convention thoughtlessly embraced can drain life of meaning.

In Stacked, a pillar composed of the aforementioned hi-fi speakers periodically bursts into a quick, noisy crescendo that might well be a gesture of protest or frustration.

John Kindness’s Odyssey, already explored in these pages earlier this week, is the largest exhibition at the Absolut Festival Gallery. It’s a visually generous, witty, richly textured, multi-media reworking of episodes from Odysseus’s circuitous, 10-year voyage home to Ithaca. It’s also a tribute to Kindness’s chief inspiration as an artist; James Joyce. And, as with Joyce’s prose, it’s densely layered with levels of meaning and reference and focuses on the contemporary through the classical. Give it the time needed and it’s extremely rewarding.

The Festival Gallery, centrally positioned on Market Street, occupies the former printing facility of the Connacht Tribune. It’s a beautiful industrial building with a saw-tooth roof, the optimum structure for natural light, which serves Odysseus and the other exhibits, with the exception of Room 303, well.

Written by Enda Walsh, designed by festival director Paul Fahy with painter Ger Sweeney as scenic artist, and performed by Niall Buggy, Room 303 is an installation centred on a monologue delivered by a disembodied voice. The setting is a dingy, worn bedroom of a seaside hotel and, as with Prelude, some darkness is essential. In not much more than 10 minutes it has the heft of a full-length play but uses other means – scale, atmosphere, just a few observers rather than a general audience – to get its point across.

Appropriately sited next to it, Leonie King’s Inextricably Linked is a “visual family tree”. Based on family photographs, it exemplifies our efforts to flesh out the past and our personal histories.

Pop Art pioneer

An extraordinary, larger-than-life figure, Eduardo Paolozzi (born in Scotland in 1924 to Italian immigrants, he died in 2005) was one of those promiscuously creative personalities whose sheer versatility can mean they are underestimated. He was certainly a major pioneer of Pop Art – one of the works in his Bunk portfolio coined the term. Bunk (shown in Galway with creative responses by contemporary artists) was introduced by the artist at a 1952 lecture and was startling at the time. His other exhibited work, the 50 screenprints and lithographs that come under the title General Dynamic FUN, was much later and comes across as dated, partly because it anticipated the pervasive nature of disposable imagery in the digital age.

Galway’s pioneering contemporary art venture 126, on Flood Street, hosts its seventh members’ show, curated by Paul McAree. It’s a gem, a term that shouldn’t lead you to think it’s cosy, because it’s not. From Nora Duggan’s impeccable Hotel Penn with its JG Ballard references, via Inguna Gremzde’s exquisite, painted, found plastic bottle caps and Ruby Wallis’s composite Autowalks, to Jane Quelly’s chillingly domestic Call of Duty Polaroids, it conspires to make us feel disoriented but energised.

The Norman Villa hosts its virtually resident artists, Brian Bourke and Jay Murphy, documenting their immediate landscape in Commonage. At the University Hospital, Karen Conway’s work in An+Aisthesis was inspired by the anaesthetic department archive. Also worth seeing, though perversely closed on Mondays during the festival, is contemporary art from Gaza, curated by Felim Egan and hosted by the Galway City Museum.

In a change to the published programme for the museum, Music on the Water with paintings by Maurice Quillinan, explores the golden sectiona great title, and ideally situated.

Galway International Arts Festival exhibitions run until July 27th.

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