Where in Ireland, in 2021, would you find a freely accessible, temporary, outdoor exhibition of cutting-edge contemporary sculpture in a highly visible location, miraculously free of lockdown uncertainties?
It has to be in Mayo, with its history of really thoughtful public art programmes stretching over several decades now. Tír Sáile and the Achill Sculpture Symposium were the first initiatives, but these were followed in what was a truly radical developmental second round of Tír Sáile in which a younger generation of artists were asked to respond to the original brief – an absolute first in Ireland and not widely experienced elsewhere. This was accompanied by several iterations of the Mayo Collaborative, where, instead of competing with each other, five publicly-supported arts organisations actually pooled resources and collaborated; and a programme this summer that includes the most sensitive curation of artwork related to gender issues (I am what I am, Ballina Arts Centre) that this writer has ever seen, alongside a profile on ageing and collectives involving the New York based Guerrilla Girls (Ballinglen Art Foundation)? And all happening within one brief three-month summer period?
The sculpture show at Westport Quay is the most recent of these events. This is a prime example of Mayo’s cultural leadership, and it comes as no surprise that it is both mindful of the needs of local and visiting communities and of the twelve artists whose work is included in it. This is because the organisers – Custom House Studios – did not require that artists make new work for the generous stipend offered, but only that it should not have been shown before. Most sculptural projects cost far more than the commissioning fee, and in some instances here the work will also have exceeded the amount offered, but the artist retains ownership, can dispose of it as s/he/they choose and will benefit from the exhibition history it will carry away with it.
Commendably, the brief was open enough to entice artists to venture into new areas of practice (Andrew Folan) to attract well-established names from as far away as London (John Gibbons), to embrace the familiar (stone blocks by Eileen McDonagh, referencing Mayo’s heritage), new materials and processes (Emma Bourke, Vivien Hansbury and a blackened, burnt-out comment on what we are doing to the planet by Paul Mosse). (Did he know that as he was installing it Canada would be experiencing devastating heat and conflagration?). It allowed for a variety of responses to the location too. Kathlyn O’Brien’s thoughtful provision of a large, comforting pillow for the ghosts of those who are lost at sea or their families is particularly apt.
That history too, is alluded to in Conrad Gent’s quayside re-creation of the vessels that once left its shelter. Lelia Ni Chathmhaoil/Aoife Casby interweave language and seaweed to remind us of our identity, Maeve Curley makes the infinitesimal nuances of form in a mollusc monumental and Donnacha Cahill brings a welcome comic note to play in Scuba, an extension of his Inquisitive Hare projects.
Sculpture at Westport Quay is a wonderful reminder of the colour and vitality that this place enjoyed when the quay was bustling with native and foreign sailors and ideas fanned out from it across the hinterland just as the work in this exhibition will do. Can we hope that this will become an annual event? Hearty congratulations to everyone involved.
Catherine Marshall, July 2021.