Plugging the gaps in history's wreckage


VISUAL ARTS:THE SCOTTISH ARTIST, Anya Gallaccio, provides the star turn in the visual arts strand of this year's Kinsale Arts Festival.

Still a fledgling event (this is only the fourth), Kinsale has a major trick up its sleeve in the form of the remarkable setting of Charles Fort, the star-shaped fortress that guards one flank of the harbour and is, despite the depredations of time and a destructive fire in the 1920s, in surprisingly good shape. In fact, now husbanded by the Office of Public Works, it is an architectural wonder, its stone-built ramparts and walls forming a complex of massive architectonic forms that are quite beautiful in a brutalist way. Last year, Eilís O'Connell's work was sited in Charles Fort and this time around, Gallaccio has made a site-specific installation.

She is a Goldsmiths graduate of the same vintage as Damien Hirst and she was one of the participants in his curatorial initiative, Freeze, the group exhibition that put Brit Art on the map, thanks substantially to the patronage of Charles Saatchi. Whereas Hirst, Brit Art's Midas, has been a phenomenally successful artist-entrepreneur, Gallaccio has followed a different path. Not that she isn't successful: she is, but her work has often taken a form that actively resists commodification. She has used such organic materials as flowers, fruit and water, for example, in ephemeral projects that do not give rise to any portable, saleable objects or images.

When she was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2003, one of the pieces that earned her the nomination, Preserve Beauty, consisted of many hundreds of vivid gerbera flowers displayed behind glass, withering and dying throughout the course of the exhibition. The work was recognisably a still life in the classical tradition, a vanitas intended to remind us moralistically of the transience of life and the inevitability of death, with the added dimension of time allowing us to witness decay in action. There was also a certain level of cruelty, even violence, in the calculated destruction of the flowers, and that has been characteristic of several of Gallaccio's works, including a closely related piece, Red on Green, featuring 10,000 decapitated rose blossoms lying on a carpet of their erstwhile stems, forming a grave-like image.

Gallaccio's use of minimal, grid-based structures and patterns, together with perishable materials - materials that effectively dismantle any impulse towards geometric order and clarity through their messiness and their unpredictable physical disintegration - align her with a generation of feminist artists, such as Janine Antoni, who deconstructed the formalist aesthetics of Modernism. In fact, like Antoni, who is known for her use of chocolate, Gallaccio too used chocolate as the primary material in one of her installations.

Her penchant for dramatically multiplying or scaling up her basic unit of material, be it flowers or, in one case, a 30-ton ice cube, recalls the Arte Povera artists, an acknowledged influence.

Her intervention at Charles Fort, If I were a painter, but then again, no . . ., is relatively subtle, perhaps wisely so (why compete with such a spectacular setting?), though it is conspicuous. She has plugged the gaps of the empty window frames in some of the blocks of abandoned buildings within the walls, using Perspex in a range of bright, toy-like colours, including red, yellow, orange and green. As you move around the interior of the fort, your eye is continually drawn to the variable coloured glow emanating from the translucent panels. No artificial light is used. The effect derives from the natural backlight and reflected light and, within the overwhelmingly grey and green (grass grows throughout much of the interior space) environment, it is quietly insistent and engaging.

An explanatory note says that Gallaccio's intervention is about mending, presumably symbolically, the damaged structures. She also had in mind the uncanny lighting often found in the epic, Romantic landscape paintings of American artist Frederic Edwin Church. Also symbolically, she points to Kinsale's position as the threshold of the US for generations of emigrant Irish, so that Church's transcendent light stands for the promise of life elsewhere. But she's not finished yet.

"I also want to remind visitors," she notes, "of the historical function of the fort as a structure of war." This final statement of intention sounds suspiciously like a worthy afterthought. After all, it would be a particularly dim visitor, having arrived in a fort, who didn't realise they were standing within a "structure of war", a defensive fortification, in fact, that signally failed to live up to its original function.

She's surely on a more interesting tack with her musings on Church and the kindly light. The light in Kinsale is given to changing all the time and is hence well-suited to powering the illuminated architectural theatre that she has created. Fortunately, it will extend well beyond the limited run of the festival itself, and it is well worth a visit.

ABOVE A SUPERMARKET in the centre of Kinsale, there is a substantial exhibition of works by members of Cork Printmakers. It was selected by painter Charles Tyrrell, and it features a creditable range of work in several print media, including etching, lithography, silkscreen and monoprint. You could say that Tyrrell's selection was generous, in that it's a fairly crowded show in a capacious venue, but that's a good thing. Speaking at the opening, he said he'd found the experience fascinating.

Ingres famously described drawing as the probity of art and Tyrrell found that, for him, Cork Printmakers were the probity of art in Cork. The fact that the workshops facilitate and encourage activity in so many disciplines, and provide a common space for so many artists, impressed him greatly. Among those exhibiting are Morgan Doyle, Debbie Godsell, Ben Reilly, David Lilburn, Lorraine Cook, Sue Cunliffe, Valerie Gleeson and Frieda Meaney. It's an ideal festival show, providing a valuable introduction to a wealth of artistic possibility.

THREE EMERGING ARTISTS are showing in the Blue Haven Hotel. Allyson Keehan's paintings, which focus hypnotically on the draperies that form the backdrop to classical still-life studies, are outstanding. Mary Clancy showed terrific work for her graduate show at Cork's Crawford School of Art a couple of years back. She has struggled since to find the same form, but that is surely a matter of time.

There is a retro feeling to the work of Brian Harte, a capable painter who works figuratively in a stylised way that recalls aspects of David Hockney in the 1960s with a nod to Francis Bacon. Two photographic shows, by Brendan Duffy and John Minihan, providing vivid accounts of Cuba, are well worth seeing.

• If I were a painter, but then again, no . . ., by Anya Gallaccio, is at Charles Fort, Kinsale, until Sept 7. Kinsale Arts Week exhibitions run until July 20;