From the mythic to the modernist


An eclectic visual line-up mixed the traditional with the thoroughly modern at the Éigse Carlow Arts Festival, writes Aidan Dunne

This year's Éigse festival exhibitions are sparer than usual. In the past, St Patrick's College has usually been packed with shows, guaranteeing that there's something for everyone. So there's an oddly puritanical feeling about this year's offering, which treats the building more as a conventional museum space. The curator was Francis McKee, director of Glasgow's Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA), and someone who has been involved with several interesting projects in Ireland. He divides Éigse's visual component into two complementary strands, Forms of Construction and Forms of Exchange.

The former, he explains, concentrates on traditional artistic themes such as "form, geometry, landscape and myth", and the latter on the brave new world of open-source programming and virtual communities on the internet. That said, in the event there is still a casual, almost miscellaneous air to the choice of artists, though they are all interesting artists. They include two notable pioneers in their respective fields, Joan Jonas and Nancy Holt.

Jonas was one of the first artists of her generation to be excited at the possibilities of then fledgling portable video technology. Like Bruce Nauman, she brought the video camera into the studio and became her own performer. The resultant work was something new: sculpture, performance, video and an element of dance. Two of her most celebrated pieces, Organic Honey's Visual Telepathy and Organic Honey's Vertical Role, both from the 1970s, are showing in St Patrick's. Organic Honey is Jonas's alter ego, and in the videos she dresses up, plays different parts and generally treats the studio as a kind of personal theatre, with just a few simple props - mirrors, curtains, water. "I imagined myself an electronic sorceress conjuring the lines," she said later when she partly re-invented the work for a retrospective in Holland.

The excitement of the work has to do with the idea of this womadiscovering a way of articulating and exploring her own imaginative space. It can come across as hugely self-indulgent, because it is self-indulgent, but it is instructively and enjoyably self-indulgent. Holt's Sun Tunnels, on the other hand, is almost classically austere. It documents her mammoth sculptural project of the same name, made on a 40-acre site in the Utah desert between 1973 and 1976. With the frequent use of time-lapse photography, we see the concrete tunnels, arranged in a cruciform and pierced with holes in patterns based on star positions, change with the changing light. It's beautiful and hypnotic. There's a more recent counterpart to Holt in Lolly Batty's pristine white sculptures of geometric solids, arranged on shelves.

Works by Reuven Israel and Mark Aerial Waller, interesting in themselves, tend to confuse rather than clarify the thematic issue. It doesn't help that St Patrick's is not a standard museum, so that the work is dispersed and situated amid various distracting details. Perhaps clearer presentation and contextualisation would have helped.

Forms of Exchange is sited in Carlow IT. There is a logic to this, because pretty much the whole thing is technology-based and presented in the form of computer monitors, flat-screen televisions and DVD projections. There is a logic but also, alas, a drawback, because everything is located in the foyer and adjoining hall of the IT building, and the space is a sun trap. Good weather means that a lot of the material is barely half-visible and the electronics are prone to over-heating.

The three participating artists all work "in the spirit of the open source revolution" - that is, programmes and systems that are freely available and open to collaborative input. The most famous such system is Linux. Simon Yuill's spring_alpha project is a networked game in which the inhabitants of an industrialised council estate try "to create their own autonomous society". There is a graphic inspiration behind the game - Chad McCail's narrative drawings. As displayed on a cluster of monitors, the game-players seem more preoccupied with implausibly melodramatic revolutionary scenarios than with "creating new types of behaviour and social interaction". Perhaps surprisingly, it's reminiscent of the post-apocalyptic fantasies of American survivalists.

JODI (Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans) subvert the working of a vigilante computer game Max Payne. The question here is whether their interventions are as compelling for the game's players as the violent original. There is real appeal, on the other hand, to Heath Bunting's Public Sculpture Climbing, a montage of images in which people do just that: clamber over various monumental pieces of work. Not a revolution, perhaps, but it's a start.

The Open and Local Artists selection at St Patrick's (also made by McKee) is quite a strong show with an emphasis on photography, including pieces by Caroline Tobin, Steve Mynhardt, Yvonne O'Reilly and John Cullen. Also impressive were works by Anthony Lyttle, Tony Gunning, Gary Devon, Niall Naessens, Paul MacCormaic and Majella Clancy. A craft show in St Patrick's also features some outstanding work.

Platform 059 highlights emerging artists, was selected by artist Garret Phelan and Imma curator Maeve Butler, and features work by David O'Kane, Bea McMahon and Gwen Wilkinson. The latter, based in Borris, Co Carlow, shows photographs documenting the culture of nomadic herdsmen and women in Mongolia and the Rapa Das Bestas in Galicia, when the wild horses are brought down from the hills and shorn. The horse is the common denominator, and Wilkinson's ongoing project is the exploration of the cowboy as manifested in various cultures throughout the world.

Adjacent to St Patrick's College, the site for Visual, destined to be the largest single visual-arts exhibition space in the country, has been cleared. Who knows what effect the advent of such a major institution will have on Carlow and the entire region, but it will surely make an ideal venue for future Éigse exhibitions.

Éigse Carlow Arts Festival runs until June 17.