Visual: a richly textured, intense and unpredictable show

Summer exhibitions invite us to consider our relationship to the land around us

Encountering the Land: Artworks 2018
Presented by Carlow Arts Festival and VISUAL Carlow
Visual's programme of summer exhibitions looks to the gallery's location in a way that has not really happened up until now. Not so much its immediate setting in Carlow town, rather its rural surroundings and the fact that, although it is a cultural facility on a national scale, it is outside of Dublin and Cork. For the annual open submission exhibition, artists were invited to consider our relationship to the land. Artist Orla Barry, IMMA's Sean Kissane and Visual's Emma Lucy O'Brien made the selection, and added 10 works from the Arts Council's Collection.

These 10 works contribute greatly to what is a richly textured, intense and, in ways, an unpredictable show. Two concurrent solo shows, by Katie Watchorn and Deirdre O’Mahony, serve to anchor the whole enterprise in the practical and historical reality of Ireland’s agrarian world and, in Watchorn’s case, the local agricultural economy – she was brought up on a Carlow dairy farm and, from her outstanding NCAD degree show not that far back, she has drawn her approach, materials and imagery from farming life.

Dairy farm

It's not as if Irish artists and writers have generally turned their backs on rural life. Far from it, but it is still startling – and enlightening – to see, in an august gallery interior, the paraphernalia and elements of a functioning dairy farm, marshalled with a restrained, impeccable sense of form and an instinct for metaphor. That's Watchorn's BalehomeBalehome.

A length of yellow hose forms a sinuous line of beauty across the floor. Cast concrete steps and a section of feeding trough become elegant sculptural forms. Footage of the calving shed suggests continuity, nurture and vitality. An austerely, ambiguously beautiful, marble-like block of cow fat extends along the ground. All of these things come with several layers of association, some of them uneasy.   In a way Watchorn’s work hinges on the problematic conjunction of two words: agriculture and industry. Care and empathy meet the harsh pragmatism of market economics. Taken to extremes, as it can be, there is something nightmarish and unconscionable about agribusiness.


The mass-produced sandwich

Lisa Fingleton anatomises one offshoot in her exploration of the many components of that urban lunchtime staple, the mass-produced sandwich, positioning it in a globalised industrial system, a system that has been criticised and condemned by many commentators, not least sociologist and writer Raj Patel in his 2008 book Stuffed and Starved.

His critique applies equally to the subject of Maria McKinney’s video. The work features a Belgian blue bull; its back adorned with a candy coloured mass of tubing offers another slant. The tubes are semen straws, colour-coded for purposes of artificial insemination, the stud bull’s assigned role in life, one that undercuts the heroic mode of representation to which McKinney alludes.

That mode is also evident in Madrid-based Curro Rodriguez’s enigmatic, slightly troubling photograph of a horse in profile, swathed in clear plastic sheeting – why? – and wearing a bridle.

Equestrian experience

The everyday equestrian experience is given an aspirational gloss in Martin Gale's My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys, one of the pieces from the Arts Council collection. Another is a terrific Nano Reid painting, a Cubist-influenced evocation of the historically dense terrain on her home ground, the Boyne Valley. Bernadette Kiely's expansive midlands view brings things dispiritingly up to date with its panorama of flooded fields.

Vicky Langan and Maximilian Le Cain's experimental 70-minute film Inside eludes categorisation. It occupies an indeterminate space that includes aspects of film, from fiction to essay film, and performance art. Focusing with unwavering and unnerving intensity on Langan as the main protagonist, it is largely static but hypnotically watchable.

The setting is an isolated rural dwelling and one commentator suggested that we are watching a woman in the process of “psychic breakdown”. Certainly, we are led to feel a claustrophobic closeness to Langan’s physical being and to her inner life – the long final take is particularly remarkable – but there may be no breakdown, just being. In her meditative, melancholy stillness Langan is both contained by and incredibly open to her surroundings.

From psychological immersion in the landscape to a more allegorical account of the relationship between technology and nature; that, at any rate, is one way of interpreting Saidhbhín Gibson’s fine sculpture. Two informal grid blocks, composed of oak twigs, sit atop Perspex pillars. The slick day-glow pillars contrast with the organic character of the oak constructions, which are highly organised but devoid of straight lines and right angles. They could be read as nature precariously balanced and at odds with a technological juggernaut.

Rise of the potato

Deirdre O'Mahony's The Persistent Return is a two-screen video installation with the potato as its subject. It does not focus, as you might expect it would, on the Great Famine directly, but muses on the rise of the potato in 17th and 18th century Europe. In the specific Irish historical context, the potato's qualities as a crop led to a disastrous monocultural dependency. And O'Mahony subtly implies that tunnel vision is still a risk, and experience and personal judgment can never be safely discounted.

A visit to Visual takes time, given the durational works – funniest work prize goes to Laura Fitzgerald, incidentally – and given that the static pieces too require some careful consideration. Despite the overall theme, there is a refreshing lack of unanimity in tone. The ideas come thick and fast, and lead the visitor in multiple directions. All of which makes for a challenging, enriching experience.

  • Visual Centre for Contemporary Art, Old Dublin Road, Carlow. Until September 2nd; The Persistent Return until September 9th.