Death to elitism: Askeaton's artistic challenge

Art is being taken out of the gallery and put into everyday scenarios in the Limerick town – and the public will be able to interrogate the artists about their work


The antidote to all that is elitist and contrived about contemporary art is to be found in the sleepy, bypassed town of Askeaton over the next 10 days. This north Limerick town has opened its doors each July to artists from around the world since 2006, allowing them to use the town as they wish. Every inch of it, from the friary to the petrol station, becomes a canvas on which they can create.

More than 80 installations have been produced and sited everywhere from the launderette and the local aluminium smelting plant to the supermarket and the bank, by artists from Argentina, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, France, Germany, Norway, Mexico, Sweden, Turkey and the US. The works are often rather cerebral and conceptual, yet there’s a sense of roguery to them, too: a wish to reach out and engage with the local community who have warmly welcomed them.

Askeaton Contemporary Arts is the brainchild of curator and artist Michele Horrigan and her partner, Sean Lynch, the artist whose 2015 Venice Biennale show is now showing at the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin.

The primary aim is to lure art out of its white-box gallery comfort zone into the real world, so it can sink or swim on its own terms in the public realm. The two-way dialogue between art and audiences in a neutral environment is what they hope to foster, whether through the likes of Steve Maher’s installation Sentences in 2014 – in which literary excerpts were programmed into an LED scrolling sign in the forecourt of Twohig’s petrol station, next to SuperValu – the Swedish artist Ilja Karilampi’s performance art piece involving brushing up hair at Ita’s Hair Salon in 2006; or the Catalan artist Quim Packard, who infiltrated the local gun club hunt last year and spent the afternoon documenting his chase along river banks and over ditches after mink and otters.

Building bridges

“There’s nothing else like this,” says artist Alan Counihan, who did a residency this spring in the local Kingspan Aeroboard factory carving surreal headstones. “What’s happening here is so rooted in the community. Building bridges between art and people is the hardest and most important thing to achieve. Developing a level of trust and interest takes years to build up.

“During my residency I turned up at the factory every morning at 8.30am and left at 5pm, when the gates closed. The nice thing was that the art was seen as work. The other workers see that you are not swanning in with a beret. When you meet there is parity. An opportunity like this is pretty unique . . . I’ve wanted for a while to carve a headstone with the words ‘Here rests your gaze’, but I couldn’t afford to do it full-size in marble. Then it dawned on me that here was an opportunity to come to Askeaton and do it in styrofoam. It looks just like white marble.”

Saturday showdown

Askeaton Contemporary Arts arranges exhibitions and publications all year round, but its primary focus is on the annual Welcome to the Neighbourhood festival each July, in which a number of artists set up a studio in whatever spot appeals most to them in the town, be it a factory floor or an abandoned shop. This is done with the understanding that the townsfolk are allowed come and go at will and that there will be an open day at which the art process is presented and explained. Always a bizarre and idiosyncratic event, it’s worth travelling to Limerick for; this year it’s on Saturday, July 23rd.

“The residencies have become part of local life now and are expected every year by the community,” says Counihan. “Sean and Michele are busy artists in their own right, but they both instead focus on enabling other artists to make their work. That’s generous and rare.”

This year’s contingent of artists includes Fiona Marron and Fiona Reilly, from Dublin; Limerick’s Ramon Kassam; and David Bestué, of Barcelona. For each it is a chance to transfer their habitual obsessions and practises to an entirely new and rather unusual environment. Bestué has come straight from launching four separate exhibitions in Spain. Much of his work involves re-siting architectural features or elements of human behavioural eccentricity in unusual settings and, while being guided around the town, he takes copious notes of what he sees and hears.

For Marron, whose work has explored fibre optics and undersea cables, the weather instruments at Foynes Flying Boat & Maritime Museum were a natural draw – a legacy of a time when this region was a pioneering centre of transatlantic travel.

Reilly’s work often focuses on social activism. While washing the windows of her studio – a former hair salon – she met many locals, who gave her a steer on what paths to follow. Kassam works with paint on canvas, frequently in large format. But, having come straight from a residency in Temple Bar Studios, he’s looking forward to doing something different for a few weeks.

Over the next fortnight they’ll be joined by Catalina Lozano, of Bogotá; Filip Van Dingenen, from Brussels; Jorge Satorre, from Mexico; Limerick’s Liz Ryan; and Martyn Turner, cartoonist for The Irish Times, each of whom is developing new artworks for the Askeaton Commune, an off-shoot of Askeaton Open Contemporary that is dedicated to the State’s centenary programme. The Open Day on Saturday represents the epitome of accessible, non-elitist art in Ireland.


Askeaton Art & Europe
Thursday, July 21st
Claire Feeley, from London’s Barbican Centre, will talk about public art in Europe, in the context of the 80 projects that have been realised in Askeaton since 2006.

Open Day
Saturday, July 23rd
Sean Lynch will host a tour of the work of this year’s resident Askeaton artists (Fiona Marron, Fiona Reilly, Ramon Kassam and David Bestué). They are joined by the artists involved in the Askeaton Commune: Alan Counihan, Catalina Lozano, Jorge Satorre, Liz Ryan and Martyn Turner.

Sticks and Stones Will Break Our Bones
From July 28th
At the Limerick City Gallery of Art, this exhibition of objects, drawings and sculptures is based on the experiences of Quim Packard (FirePlace, Barcelona) infiltrating and following a local Limerick minx hunt last year.

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