Metamorphosis: in the beginning was the art, and then the word

Mia Gallagher on how she chose artworks as inspiration for a special EBCF short story

Partly Alone, 2013, Oil on board by Sonia Shiel. Collection of the Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaíon

Partly Alone, 2013, Oil on board by Sonia Shiel. Collection of the Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaíon

 

Ennis Book Club Festival commissioned writer Mia Gallagher to curate a special show from the Arts Council Collection in Visual Arts to exhibition at glór and to write a short story inspired by the artwork. Metamorphosis: Characters in Collision is the title of the show she has created, including works by Alice Maher, Dorothy Cross and Brian Maguire.

Mia and festival artistic director Paul Perry will discuss the process of the project from its genesis to its curation to the writing of Mia’s story at 2pm on Friday, March 6th, at 2pm, in the studio at glór. The aim is to give people the opportunity to see artwork by some of Ireland’s best artists and to follow the creative journey of the project.

Mia will read her short story in three special performances on Saturday, March 7th, from 5 to 7pm in glór, where audience members are free to come and go as they please.

mark word breath
In late 2019, Paul Perry, poet, fiction writer and director of the Ennis Book Club Festival, came to me with a proposal. How would I feel about curating an exhibition of visual art from the Arts Council’s collection? The show would run in Glór, I would write a new story responding to the artworks, and during the festival audiences at public events could hear Paul and me discussing the experience and watch me perform the new text live.

It was an invitation I couldn’t resist. I’m married to the painter Seán Molloy – and come from a family of visual arts practitioners. I worked as a life model for seven years and have also had the pleasure of collaborating with many visual artists on publications and performance pieces.

The first step was for Paul and I to meet Eamonn Maxwell and Ben Mulligan, who look after the visual art collection. We talked about many things. Transformation. The body. Land, cows, stones and trees. Women. Place. Impermanence and permeability. Equality, Irishness and othering. Shapes started forming in my mind, rooting back to half-baked stories I’d left on the hotplate of my unconscious – months, years ago.

Mia Gallagher: I worked as a life model for seven years and have also had the pleasure of collaborating with many visual artists o. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne
Mia Gallagher: I worked as a life model for seven years and have also had the pleasure of collaborating with many visual artists o. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne

Eamonn and Ben began to mention specific artists as wediscussed the importance of including the unexpected, different mediums, old and new. In what way could the show speak to the issues of our time: climate catastrophe, migration, direct provision, the tension between conservativism and progressivism, town and country?

Eamonn asked us for some text so he could send us a longlist of images. I crafted a paragraph, thinking of those half-baked stories in the back of my mind. Transformation would be a theme, conducted by force and often violence, enacted on and through the body.

“The body in the story is a character,” I wrote, “but also a site … dripping with history, imbued with the stories that have been handed down by its mothers and grandmothers. It is not neutral ground.”

I told Eamonn I might be working with mythologies, Irish or 20th-century European. Dogs might feature. Warping would probably be a theme, and resistance.

Eamonn sent us his longlist. What a treasure trove. Over 80 works, covering a spectrum of mediums, time period and scale, and gender- and ethnically diverse. I had to narrow them down to a shortlist. I found myself drawn to isolated bodies of non-specific gender, often torqued or undergoing change. Also pulling me were meetings between life-forms, orhybrid thing-beings – like Alice Maher’s Nettle Coat and Richard Gorman’s playful Tricycle. Place seen in an unexpected way drew me too, like Vukasin Nedelijkovic’stroublingly elliptical photographs of Direct Provision centres.

My shortlist included these creatures and places, but also human nudes – women photographed by women, Brian Maguire’s feverish dreaming father. Videos, objects and sculptures attracted me, and the past found its way in. James Dixon’s jewelly landscape gave me the dog. I went for pieces that drew me in their own right, that spoke to the story ideas fermenting in my unconscious, but also that talked most with other works, both visually and conceptually.

Our next step was a site visit to Glór, where Paul, Eamonn and I met Bridget Ginnity of the festival committee, Glór’s director, Orla Flanagan, and technical manager, Sinéad Cahill. Then the hard bit began.

Some works weren’t available, they’d been snapped up for other shows. Others – like Kathy Prendergast’s Hair Bonnet or Colin Middleton’s exquisite Desert Rose – were just too delicate to lend or too expensive to insure. Daphne Wright’s startling strung-up Pig and Doireann O’Malley’s bleakly beautiful installation Prototypes II needed specific exhibition requirements we couldn’t guarantee. There were other challenges too. Was there a wall in Glór big enough for Paddy Graham’s To Lovers, a space secure enough for Janet Mullarney’s Look Back in Anger? For these, thankfully, we came up with solutions.

Once home, I made a cardboard model of the exhibition space and printouts of the works, all reduced to scale. Knowing the narrative of each work and having a general sense of how they might speak to each other was one thing. Seeing how they might work in the space was something else. Visual dynamics – size, texture, style – occupied my mind. Wanting more colour tension, I adjusted my selection; as I did, I felt the connection with my unwritten story change. I hadn’t accounted for this. I felt thrown in the deep end. And just like that, a possible first sentence suggested itself to me.

I knew I had shortlisted more works than the space could hold. I agonised over what to let go. Selecting from Christine Mackey’s Seedboards was tough. I wanted Rye because I baked with rye, but I needed Borage because it was so green. I put Rye to one side and felt terrible loss. Something else I hadn’t accounted for. Then: Oh, I thought, writer-head on, maybe I could use this? Rye came back in when I saw a close-up in higher-res, but its imagined loss may still flavour the story.

At the time of writing this piece, I’ve chosen the works that will travel to Glór. The show looks perfect. It’s got flow, texture, colour – as well as visual and conceptual motifs that clash and nuzzle up against each other. But it’s still only a model. In two weeks’ time I’m heading back to Ennis, and there – confronted by balconies and ceilings and the other dynamics of a real space – I may have to make another painful choice, say goodbye to another treasure from Eamonn’s trove.

I’m worried about writing a story that responds to a work that may not be in the final show. But that’s art; a thing you can’t account for. I have to trust the works I’ve chosen, listen to their call, and write. In two weeks’ time, if I have to make any more changes, I need to trust that process too, that, like all editing, it will serve only to enrich both the newborn story and the final, luminous exhibition on Glór’s waiting walls.

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