From the mountains of Iceland to the sea at Galway


Today is the last chance to tke in the superb selection of work at Tulca 2012 in Galway. writes AIDAN DUNNE

For its 10th birthday, Tulca, Galway’s late-season visual-arts festival, enlisted Gregory McCartney as curator. He has a good track record, not least for his involvement in Abridged, the innovative “poetry, art and design” magazine based in Derry.

His Tulca title poses a question: “What became of the people we used to be?” It’s derived, prosaically enough, from the theme song of the 1970s sitcom Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?

In his introduction to the exhibitions and related events that make up Tulca 2012, McCartney elaborates on his intentions. The choices we make change not only the world around us, he points out, but ourselves as well. He quotes Lewis Carroll’s Alice: “I can’t go back to yesterday – because I was a different person then.” The artists he has invited to take part in Tulca “all articulate or create a particular landscape; subtle little worlds”. If visitors can immerse themselves in “the environments these artists create”, they can perhaps gain something usable, something that will change the world around them a little – and, of course, themselves.

Landscape is a key motif

In the event, Tulca 2012 is terrific, with many fine artists from Ireland and abroad showing very good and for the most part extremely approachable work. The setting, too, is as atmospheric as one could wish for: watery Galway poised at the edge of winter. What of the audience, though? Or, to put it another way, what of the audience beyond the core art audience? This is a general problem for contemporary art in Ireland. The wider public hasn’t bought into contemporary art as it has, to some extent, in London or elsewhere.

This is particularly unfortunate as the potential visitors who might but probably don’t go to Tulca and comparable events would find that they are well equipped to gain from what’s on offer. Fine artists are routinely working in media and forms that are entirely at home in the context of mainstream popular culture. In the work in Tulca, photography, film, television documentary, animation and music video all feature in entirely familiar ways – as do painting and sculpture, incidentally, which is not a given these days.

One keynote work is Elena Näsänen’s The Spell. It’s a sumptuously delivered video. There’s a flicker of movement, but it’s painterly in effect. In a darkened, richly detailed interior, a group of revellers are slumped in the midst of a party that seems to have fizzled out. It can be read as an allegory of Europe’s economic unravelling, or indeed much more.

That unravelling is specifically treated in Duncan Campbell’s film Arbeit (Work), which is styled as a pastiche of a television documentary but, it becomes clear, has a serious intent. It brings us to where we are now by tracing the story of one of the architects of European monetary union, the German economist Hans Tietmeyer. Archive footage and other elements are used in conventional ways, but we gradually realise that something is awry as the narration develops.

Aftermaths of one kind and another recur throughout Tulca. Emily Richardson’s film Over the Horizon explores the desolate landscape and crumbling interior of an abandoned Cold War facility in Suffolk. Louise Manifold’s photograph of a crumbling dwelling in the west of Ireland is scarred by gunshot damage sustained, strangely enough, during its exhibition history. Even stranger, the bullet pierced the image at the point where a shattered window features.

There’s a melancholy stillness to Niamh O’Malley’s hypnotically sombre film Island (appropriately screened in the Nuns Island theatre). The camera tracks slowly across sections of the pilgrimage island of Lough Derg, out of season and deserted. The sense of loss and aftermath here are not so much related to economic as spiritual and religious collapse.

Daniel Seiffert’s vibrant, close-in photographs capture the volatile energy of youth in the context of small towns in the southeast corner of Brandenberg in the former East Germany, once a major industrial centre, now in steady decline.

The Coventry painter George Shaw, on the Turner Prize shortlist in 2011, uses enamel colours intended for model-makers in his series of studies of a piece of anonymously drab suburban terrain, No One ’Round Here Knows You. He began making the paintings after he came across photo after photo he’d taken of the same place again and again for reasons he could not remember.

The Icelandic landscape is extraordinary looking, stark and elemental, and it’s even stranger in Pétur Thomsen’s large-scale photographs. Since 2003 Thomsen has documented the progress of work on the controversial Kárahnjúkar Hydroelectric Project in what was Europe’s second-largest tract of unspoilt wilderness. The vastness of the undertaking, designed to power an aluminium smelter, beggars belief. Sigur Rós number among those who’ve come out against it. Thomsen doesn’t offer an opinion, but his images provide a startling vision of the earth being treated with something very like brutality.

In Brigitte Zieger’s witty animations, a tank appears clanking through a wall decorated with pastoral-patterned wallpaper, and the appearance of protest posters signal unease in utopian forest vistas. A degree of serenity returns with Patrick Hogan’s eloquent, meditative visual essay on daily life, with most of his recent, fine Gallery of Photography show transposed to Galway from Dublin.

And Tulca even boasts a gift shop, although Fiona McDonald’s gift shop is only trying to sell us one thing: the idea of gifting. You can take whatever is on offer, provided you undertake to pass on the giving.

Tulca 2012 is at various venues, Galway. Ends today.

Location, location, location

Tulca has three main venues: an unoccupied commercial unit on Fairgreen Road; the Arts Centre on Dominick Street, a handsome space predictably flattering of whatever is housed there; and the Niland Gallery on Merchants Road.

Not for the first time, the latter, a fairly spartan interior, comes up trumps in terms of installation. If you get to Tulca, make sure you visit it. In the half-darkness, Siobhan McGibbon’s weirdly mutated, half-human sculptures, Richardson’s film and Manifold’s shot photograph are all eerily potent.

Another strong feature is Joanna Karolini’s glowing Zarathustra’s Scale, a straightforward but very effective sculptural installation, a haunting miniature landscape formed from a thousand shards of shattered crystal.

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