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

Sat, Jul 19, 2014, 01:00

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.

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