Last October the words “Granny is orbiting the planet”, spelled out in large-scale metal letters and supported on posts, appeared on a hillside in Inch, Co Kerry. Not quite Hollywood, but structurally similar.
The words, plucked from a poem, were part of Cosmic Granny, an art installation by Laura Fitzgerald. The letters stand on a slope of Moan Laur, part of her father Micheál’s land. (Her father cut out the metre-high letters, with considerable skill.) The materials used – wood, metal, biodegradable water-based paint – are, Fitzgerald says, those typically used on the farm, including to make fencing.
The installation would on one level, she thought, be a landmark for walkers on the Dingle Way and, on another, a tribute to the individuality and resourcefulness of people in the community.
However, an objection was lodged with the council, prompting planning officials to write to her, pointing out that the installation did not have planning permission. It had not occurred to Fitzgerald that she would need permission: the land is her father’s and the immediate neighbours had been consulted.
Also, it should be mentioned, the Arts Council backed the project, which was signalled by an advance piece in Kerry’s Eye; the launch was a communal event in Foley’s Bar in Inch, open to all, with several interested and relevant parties engaged in conversation on the work. And it was never intended that the words be a permanent fixture in the landscape. The aim is that they will stand until autumn (with four additional words, “…with the old days”, though the installation of those words is obviously on hold).
The letter from the planning authority spurred the artist into mounting a defence of her work. She is currently based in Dublin.
Art world as an anomaly
The words on the hillside are but part of the project. It also involved the production of a newspaper, the Inch Conglomerate (deriving from the geological term for the rock on Moan Laur).
It is not surprising that text in various forms is central to the piece given that, sometimes combined with video in the form of monologue or commentary, it’s played a consistently central role in Fitzgerald’s art activities for a number of years.
Also consistent has been her independence of mind. Fitzgerald was initially home schooled, and after secondary school in Dublin she studied at NCAD and went on to complete an MFA in painting at the Royal College of Art in London. But it seems clear that, from the first, the model of art education and art practice through which she was progressing did not rest easily with her.
Rather than blending in and becoming part of the art world per se, she began to make work that satirised and questioned the workings of that world in humorously incisive but also occasionally dark pieces.
One sensed that questioning the very basis of what she was doing, of being an artist, presented a real personal challenge, verging on crisis. Over time, as her recent show, HEADCASE, at the Ashford Gallery in the RHA demonstrated, increasingly she has not seen the art world as an anomaly, but rather as symptomatic of wider issues pertaining to the contemporary social, economic and political climate.
The work in HEADCASE evidenced dismay at the state of Ireland. An Ireland, that is, as a domain of relentless commodification, market forces, a kind of neoliberal playground, with a culture alienated from the better aspects of itself. All of which comes into play in Cosmic Granny and the Inch Conglomerate.
Collectively, the stories in the Conglomerate suggest a pervasive bureaucratic vision that dismisses and disallows “the old days” and the individuals who might personify the old days, Granny included. There’s a denial of rural Ireland as a living environment. It’s become a somewhere else, discounted and wrapped in plastic. Granny in Orbit is a symbol of exuberant, unapologetic endurance on the part of the old days, a gesture of hope in the face of adversity.
In response to the council letter, Fitzgerald assembled a dossier of relevant material elucidating the project and its rationale, including a digital copy of the Inch Conglomerate. Among the supporters she rallied was RHA director Pat Murphy. In the pre-Covid era, he mentions in his letter, he made the journey to Inch to see the work and was glad he had done so. There were other confirmations of support, including testimony from neighbours.
In a way, Fitzgerald’s brush with bureaucracy reflects the spirit of the work itself, of Granny of the old days, rebellious in the face of officialdom.
The saga also illustrates the problems of visibility facing artists during the pandemic. Some artists work, of course, in digital media by choice; the screen is their natural habitat. But many don’t. They make things, and those interested can usually encounter them in reality, in person.
Cosmic Granny is a material presence in a material landscape, at a time when things are largely confined to the depthless confines of a smartphone or laptop screen. Indeed, it is by no means clear when or if one of Fitzgerald’s works in progress, a commission for Limerick’s EVA International, will see the light of day beyond the virtual. She is, as of now, unsure how Cosmic Granny or EVA will fare.
Cosmic Granny, Laura Fitzgerald. Inch, Co Kerry