When all the wool becomes a stage

Orla Barry’s farming background has found its way into her current exhibition at the Crawford, writes Colette Sheridan

Orla Barry, centre, with Dick Walsh and Einat Tuchman, who appear in her videos.

RTIST and sheep breeder Orla Barry, sees nothing strange about her unusual two-pronged career. Her exhibition, Breaking Rainbows, at the Crawford Art Gallery, comprises 12 videos with performances by an actor and an actress, who comport themselves on a floor surface covered in sheep’s wool. The wool becomes the stage.

The exhibition, which is challenging and humorous, with peculiar titles given to each video installation, addresses our complex relationship with nature. “The title could be about the fragility of nature or it could just suggest a great image. It’s whatever you think it is once you open your imagination,” says Barry.

Based in Wexford where she grew up, Barry studied art at the NCAD (National College of Art and Design) and the University of Ulster. She attended the artists’ institute, Ateliers, in Amsterdam where she completed her MA before moving to Brussels where she lived for 16 years. She built up her art career in the Belgian capital, mostly doing video and performance.

In 2009, Barry moved back to Ireland. Her partner followed her and they had to decide what they were going to work at. “My father was a tillage farmer. There was no great tradition of sheep farming in the family but we decided to buy sheep. As time went on, I got really addicted to breeding sheep.”

How did Barry’s 100 sheep grazing on forty acres seep their way into art in such a way that her exhibition reflects on both man’s interdependence with and disconnection from the natural environment?

“I became interested in how working with sheep related to my family and to history and to the symbolism you find in the Bible such as the sacrificial lamb. What became kind of a joke was the question: ‘What’s more important? Agriculture or culture?’ We’re a storytelling society and also an agricultural society. The idea of passing on our oral culture has
always been important.

“My video pieces are not autobiographical but there is that story-telling element, some of which is about me. Some things in the videos are totally exaggerated and other things are just there for symbolic effect.”

One of the videos, called The Shepherd’s Singing Competition at the Bottom of the Mountain, refers to the fact that sheep farmers are at the bottom of the mountain as regards making money in farming. “The shepherd’s singing completion goes back to Virgil when shepherds out on the mountains used to come together at the end of the day to amuse themselves.

“They’d have singing competitions where they’d sing about love or their best sheep. In my piece, a man and a woman are singing against each other. The woman is the sun and the man is the rain. It’s about global warming but it’s also about the fights between male and female.”

Barry says that when reading the likes of Wordsworth, “there are shepherds on the hills and there are all these romantic ideas about them, coming from the city into the countryside. “But when you’re actually working with sheep, it’s not that poetic. But I still manage to make work out of them. Through doing the work, I meet people who have a profound effect on how I look at life.”

One of Barry’s concerns is consumerism and our detachment from the land, despite the fact that “twenty years ago, Irish people were only one generation away from a farm. As time goes on, people become more and more removed from the land. Kids don’t really know where food comes from and how long it takes to grow.”

What do Barry’s neighbours think of her artist/farmer act? “Up around here, I’ve always been known as that. I went to art college but I also drove a tractor for my dad. Maybe I’m lucky in that I moved back to my own community. Some of my neighbours have been in my films. They’re pretty used to the two things going on.”

  • To coincide with Orla Barry’s exhibition – which continues until Aug 26 – free felt making workshops will take place at the Crawford on Aug 22 and 24. Also, Orla Barry will be in conversation about her work on Aug 24 at 6pm in the Crawford. crawfordartgallery.ie


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