Artist goes to bat for a flying friend

A Kerryman with a bat flapping in his kitchen? When that familiar situation occurred in Austin McQuinn’s home, he was inspired to try and get inside the mind of these unappreciated creatures, writes Mary Morrissy

Austin McQuinn at the opening of his solo exhibition, Vesper, at Triskel Christchurch, Cork. Picture: Denis Minihane

TWO years ago, artist Austin McQuinn woke to the sound of his cat yowling. “She has a particular bawl, when she’s caught something, something that she wants to leave me as a present, usually a mouse.”

Half-awake, McQuinn (50) stumbled into the kitchen, switched on the light, and, sure enough, there on the floor was a tiny, seemingly dead creature. He bent to examine it and suddenly it came to life, or at least he got an impression of flap and wings, as it took flight, veering around the kitchen.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of You Tube will know that, last year, a Kerry family became overnight stars — including appearing on the Jimmy Kimmel show — when a video depicting Derry Fleming, trying to liberate a bat trapped in their house, went viral.

It’s a panicky situation that McQuinn can relate to. “I opened the windows, in the hope the bat would find its own way out. I tried to catch it in a towel, but nothing worked. Then, I stopped and thought: ‘How do I deal with this, how do I think like a bat?’”

Bats are nocturnal creatures and, like whales and dolphins, use echolocation, a sophisticated form of sonar, to navigate their way in the world, and for hunting.

They emit calls — in the case of bats, a kind of hissing tut-tutting — and listen to the echoes that return from various objects. “I realised that the light was driving the bat mad, so I switched off all the lights and stepped back,” says McQuinn.

Very shortly afterwards, the flapping stopped. “I knew, then, the bat was gone.” Kerry-born McQuinn’s exhibition, entitled ‘Vesper’ (an archaic word for evening and for the most common species of bat), explores the shadowy world of bats in watercolours and oil paintings.

When he was invited to celebrate Triskel’s 40th anniversary this year, he went back to his beginnings. (His first solo show was as an art student, in Triskel, in 1991.) McQuinn was inspired by the Triskel’s gallery space in Christchurch, which is sandwiched between the belfry and the cavernous basement.

Artistic director of Triskel, Tony Sheehan, who launched the exhibition recently, was quick to reassure the assembled company that there were no bats in the Triskel, bar the images on the walls.

If the trapped bat in the kitchen was the starting point for McQuinn’s exhibition, he has drawn on an eclectic range of sources to expand his vision. He used photographs and memory — one watercolour shows a glowing cave, with a huge colony of bats suspended from the vaulted roof (bats sleep upside down, with their vast wings cloaked around them). Another, which shows bats hanging from trees, like strange, pendulous fruit, was inspired by fruit bats he saw in Sydney’s botanical gardens.

He also drew on more scholarly sources, such as Irish Bats in the 21st Century, a recent report by Bat Conservation Ireland, and the seminal essay, What is it like to be a Bat?, by philosopher Thomas Nagel.

McQuinn has taken this up as a challenge. “Do animals feel joy? We know they feel pain, that they suffer. But do we know how they feel? Do insects play, for example? What’s it like to be a spider? Do we know?”

And, furthermore, he’s asking, do we care? Or do humans just presume that we’re the superior species and don’t need to know?

Human-animal relationships have always been central to Austin’s work: ‘Ape Opera House’ was an installation/performance piece he created in the ESB substation on Caroline Street in Cork, examining the role of the ape in our culture, for the Cork City of Culture in 2005, and it is the subject of his recently- completed PhD.

But McQuinn’s aim is not just to raise awareness and change perceptions. “It’s a question of stretching your imagination to consider the inner experience,” he says.

To that end, McQuinn offered a performance piece at the launch of the exhibition. Swathed in a bat costume he made himself, he stalked the gallery barefoot, skirting the quarried limestone rocks — millions of years old — strewn around the exhibition space, which was painted a striking vermillion to recreate the primeval element of the bat’s existence.

The splashed rocks mirrored the images on the walls, which show the mouths of the bats (through which they sense sonar vibrations) as glowing red, like a vision of the molten centre of the Earth.

MCQUINN’S depiction was a far cry from the more familiar image of a cloaked superhero — although, at least, the figure of Batman accentuates the positive about the flying fox, as bats are sometimes called.

In many cultures, bats are associated with darkness, death, witchcraft, and malevolence. They also blur boundaries by being mammals who can fly.

Although bats live side by side with humans, we know very little about them, except for some ill-informed superstitions and unfounded fears.

“The history of personifying bats as ugly, secretive, pestilent and vampiric, loads this small creature with well over its own weight in metaphor. The truth is that bats live alongside us, quietly. By cleaning the air of insects at night, digesting populations of midge-infested streets or fields, bats live with us and without us,” McQuinn says in his mission statement for the show.

Their habitat is the church tower, the cave, the attic or the basement, where they have an alternate existence, out of sight.

While their population is stable, says McQuinn, bats are being driven out of their city haunts, as modern buildings become more regulated and sealed.

After two years in the bat world, McQuinn has come, if not to love bats, then to admire them, and to appreciate their contradictions.

“They’re living against nature — upside down for a lot of the time. They are so small and yet, in caves in Argentina, their colonies can be numbered in the hundreds of thousands.”

And he isn’t finished with them. “I’m thinking of pursuing them further, right into their caves — they’ll become my cave paintings,” he laughs.

Vesper runs at Triskel Christchurch until Saturday, April 28

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