Swords proves a sharp choice for the AIB Prize

 

THIS IS the 10th year of the AIB Prize, the annual award of €20,000 to a visual artist. Mark Swords won, from a shortlist that also included Aideen Barry, Niamh McCann and Richard Mosse. It’s no exaggeration to say that all of them are strong, distinctive artists with substantial bodies of work and a great deal of potential, but it’s in the nature of awards that someone has to win, writes AIDAN DUNNE

At €20,000 (with €1,500 for each of the runners-up), in terms of its monetary value the prize pales into insignificance compared to the kind of figures routinely thrown around in news bulletins. Besides which, it’s not a case of giving an artist €20,000 and wishing them all the best.

Artists are nominated for the prize by publicly-funded venues planning exhibitions of their work, and the award is aimed at those projects. It goes towards the costs incurred and offers a chance to produce a substantial publication, an essential stepping-stone career-wise.

So it’s an award that actually encourages artists and curators not to rest on their laurels but to work more and work harder. Looking back on previous winners, they have on the whole worked extremely hard.

Wexford Arts Centre nominated Swords for a future exhibition, a continuation of work he has made related to the life of an historic Wicklow figure, Captain Robert Halpin. Halpin, born in 1836, was the youngest child of an innkeeper and his first sea-going experience reputedly began when he was just 11 years-old. A natural mariner, he had many voyages to North America and Australia under his belt by the time he took on his first command, when he was still in his early 20s. He, and his crew and passengers, survived running aground on the Newfoundland coast, but his license to command was temporarily suspended. Which may be why he became involved for a time in shipping supplies for the Confederacy during the American Civil War.

Halpin’s fame, however, rests on his role as first officer and then captain of the Great Eastern, the gigantic steamship designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, as it laid cable across the Atlantic between the United States and Ireland, France and Brazil, and from Bombay to Suez – some 26,000 nautical miles in all. He became something of a celebrity, eventually retiring to Tinakilly where the house he built is now a hotel. He died in 1894.

Swords, who completed an MA at NCAD in 2004, lives in Wicklow. Halpin is a celebrated Wicklow-man and a memorial to him was built in Wicklow town at the end of the 19th century. Still, given the nature of Swords’s work, a figure from the heroic age of Victorian technological achievement does not look like an immediately obvious subject. That’s because Swords has tended to refer to craft and domesticity in his unpredictable, mixed-media pieces. He’s also an exceptional painter. He has deployed elements of embroidery, tapestry and woven carpet in beautifully judged works that subvert our expectations of craft idioms, without for a moment being condescending about them.

Rather, the language of everyday craft processes, as well as our domestic environment becomes implicated in the conventions of “high” art. In one small previously exhibited piece, surely related to Halpin and titled Shipbuilders, a purposeful industrial scene is, on closer inspection, composed of embroidered thread.

Another piece perhaps spells out Swords’s attitude to Halpin more clearly. Staircaseis a spiral staircase that is symbolic of vaunting ambition. Life-sized and 4.2 metres tall, it is constructed from a vast number of lollipop sticks.

It is a symbol, recalling Kant’s definition of art as something possessing purposefulness without purpose – you wouldn’t get far if you tried to climb the staircase. It’s also a feat of home-made engineering. When he made his staircase, Swords was thinking of the incredible intricacy and the simultaneous strength and fragility of natural processes, specifically the way the vulnerable, delicate form of a growing sage plant is the expression of an organic process that spans seasonal extremes and physical obstacles. That applies to human enterprise as well.

Halpin was highly regarded for his delicacy and precision, and was reputedly tactful and sensitive in his dealings with people. On one voyage, he climbed into the rigging and carefully talked down a panicky crewman when failure would have meant death for them both. Then, in a feat that makes finding a needle in a haystack look easy, he managed to locate a sheared cable-end on the seabed in the middle of the ocean, quite some time after conventional efforts to recover it had completely failed. It sounds as if he was a man after Swords’s own heart.