On a farm in West Cork, a few miles from Skibbereen, is a giant arrangement of monoliths that, if the central chamber were round and not rectangular, you might mistake for an ancient monument.
But the heavily inscribed horizontal slabs at its heart bear messages in modern English. And speaking of modern, the improbable centrepiece of the whole thing is a scaled-down glass replica of an art gallery, London’s Tate Modern.
Nearby meanwhile, even more incongruously, is a leafless tree made from metal, with an outsized, semi-abstract cow stuck in it, upside down.
These are all part of a sculpture garden, officially Reen Farm, conceived and constructed by the Melbourne-born artist John Kelly since he returned to the land of his ancestors some years ago.
Kelly remains better known abroad for his comedic paintings and sculptures, especially involving animals. But in Cork, he seems to have been born again as an artist. And via the Famine, for which this part of Ireland was ground zero, he found a theme he has pursued to mind-blowing extremes.
The sheer size of the stones involved in his main installation is itself worthy of awe. That and the model-Tate notwithstanding, however, and unusually for an art exhibit, the project is dominated by the printed word.
On the floor of the mock gallery, for example, as you would more likely find in a church, is a famous letter inscribed in stone. Dated December 22nd, 1846, it was written by a Cork magistrate, Nicholas Cummins, to the Duke of Wellington (and copied to the London Times, which printed it on Christmas Eve of that year), drawing urgent attention to the disaster then unfolding in the area.
Cummins had already alerted the authorities directly responsible, with little effect, so now turned to the retired, Irish-born war hero and prime minister in hopes that Wellington would use his influence to sound the alarm in Britain. Among the vignettes detailed in the letter, he described his experience of visiting “hovels” near Skibbereen:
“In the first, six famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearances dead, were huddled in a corner on some filthy straw … I approached with horror, and found by a low moaning they were alive … four children, a woman and what had once been a man. It is impossible to go through the detail. Suffice it to say, that in a few minutes I was surrounded by at least 200 such phantoms …”
Cummins succeeded in raising awareness, although we know how limited that success was. A series of other stone tablets placed around Kelly’s monument recall the history of what followed, up to and including the text of a speech made at the site a few years back by anti-hunger campaigner Bob Geldof.
Also now inscribed in stone, as originally printed in the Melbourne Age, is the artist’s tribute to his father, David Benedict Kelly (1930–2017), who emigrated from Cork and spent a lifetime working in rock quarries in England and Australia before dying “at home in Sunshine”, a suburb of Melbourne, aged 87.
As that explains, Kelly snr was the inspiration for one of his son’s monumental sculptures, a version of which stands nearby, of a man lifting a cow. It’s a variation on the myth of Sisyphus but oblique also includes a tribute to the sculptor’s mother, who earned Kelly jnr his art school education via a “make a wish” competition advertised on milk cartons.
This in turn explains the cartoonish (or carton-ish) shapes of his animals in general, with their tiny heads and legs and large, geometric bodies.
As with most modern-day cows, there was artificial insemination involved in the conception of Kelly’s. One of his acknowledged inspirations was the Australian artist William Dobell (1899–1970) who during the second World War made papier maché cows to disguise military airstrips as farmland in the eyes of Japanese pilots.
But Australia is a country where, thanks to extreme weather events, the concept of actual cattle in trees is not unknown. The artist Sydney Nolan, best known for his Ned Kelly pictures, once photographed a bovine carcass suspended grimly from a tree after floods in Queensland.
Kelly’s bovine sculptures tend more towards the humorous and, as with the actual herds that form their backdrop in West Cork, real life sometimes adds to the joke.
A version of Reen Farm’s cow up a tree stood for a while some years ago on the Champs-Elysées in Paris, where it once provided the perfect backdrop to a BBC report on a stand-off between Eurosceptic British MEPs and French police. The MEPs were engaged in an unauthorised demonstration in protest at an EU ban on Britain’s beef exports, imposed in the wake of mad cow disease.