When worlds collide: art meets science in Dublin Bay

Projects between artists and scientists on the bay’s northern shore have shown how fruitful collaborations can be

Sat, Dec 7, 2013, 01:00

We often think of the worlds of science and the arts as mutually exclusive, even antagonistic. But both are born of a similar impulse of wonder, and moved by a similar desire to understand the world by ordering it, or reordering it. This desire takes artists and scientists in different directions, but their paths can converge again in remarkable ways.

For two years the Red Stables Summer School, based at St Anne’s Park in Clontarf, in north Dublin, has produced productive dialogues between artists, ecologists and the public that have demonstrated these links in vivid and compelling works of art.

Dublin City Council has just published the second book based on these encounters, giving a welcome opportunity for more people to explore their themes. (I had the pleasure of launching the book last week.)

The Red Stables Artists’ Studios are an ideal location for such a school, not only because St Anne’s is a fascinating park in its own right but also because it is just a short walk from the Bull Island, a key site for seeing biodiversity up close.

Is it the artist, or the scientist, within us that draws so many people to this island, and keeps them coming back? Or is it always some combination of both? The book is little more than a pamphlet in size. Yet it manages to offer us half a dozen rewarding ways of considering these questions. And it comes with beautiful images, and two online films, to complement the text.

As a child I first came to the Bull Island to see birds I had known previously only from the illustrations of Archibald Thorburn in a Victorian guide. Thorburn’s illustrations were both scientific, in that they were rigorously accurate, and artistic, in that they were windows on worlds of mystery, wonder and imagination. They lent an aura of the unicorn or the griffon to birds with strange, evocative names, such as the godwit or the peregrine. I had never seen these creatures before, and I was not quite sure if they really existed.

To watch a real godwit in three dimensions, moving through the salt marsh or the lagoon, with its long legs and curiously uptilted bill, was not unlike seeing an actor, previously familiar only from photographs, on stage for the first time. And then the godwits and myriads of other wading birds took off and flew, wheeling in kinetic flocks across the sky, pursued by a barely visible peregrine falcon. I learned that birds could be dancers, that their world is an intricate ballet, a drama where life and death are always intermingled.

This childhood experience sprang to mind when watching, on Vimeo, the dancers of Interpretive Project, choreographed by Janna Kemperman for the summer school. It shows a dozen performers, mostly from Showtime Theatre School, in Clontarf, dancing on Dollymount Strand. Their black-and-white costumes, and their movements, mimic the plumage and behaviour of brent geese, which are among the most familiar waterbirds to visit the Bull in winter.

Rhona Byrne, Vaari Claffey and Ciara Moore refer to this performance in the book, reflecting playfully on six days on the island. They found novel uses for the stuffed animals in its interpretative centre, setting up a half-buried oystercatcher as a performer in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. They turned birds into authors – JG Mallard, WG Seagull – and fantasised about visits to the Bull by James Joyce and Joseph Beuys.

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