Bernadette Cotter is an artist comfortable in her own skin

Bernadette Cotter during her performance of 'Skin to Air & Edge of Absence'. Picture Catherine Ketch

‘Skin to Air & Edge of Absence’ is an exhibition by Bernadette Cotter at the Sirius Arts Centre, Cobh, and represents three and a half years of intricate work in textiles and on paper.

The detail in Cotter’s pieces is astonishing, and she lets the work reveal itself. “That’s what I seem to do,” she says. “I can’t seem to get away from it. Even in the drawings — the drawings are made up of thousands of little units. Either little dots or words or the same gesture in the work, sometimes repeated over and over. I suppose it’s a kind of meditation.”

Meditation, religion and catharsis are central to Cotter’s practice, as is the idea of her native Ballingeary, in Co Cork.

Performance is an integral part of what she does. “I’m very interested in making garments that I wear myself in a performance-type situation,” she says. “When my mother died, I got the job of dealing with all her clothes and the tradition was to burn them. As I was about to burn them, I realised I was going to cut a small piece from each garment and save it, in case I might need it for something. Two or three years later, I cut those pieces up into circles and I made a big kind of a patchwork garment, that I wore, and I swung around in it and made a video of it.”

‘Edge of Absence’ is a floor piece piled with shards of glass, which have been etched with the words of three poets, two American and one Irish. Cotter spent 11 years in the United States, and received a masters degree in sculpture from the San Francisco Art Institute. “I wanted this connection with American women,” says Cotter. “When I was living there, I found American women to be very strong. The poets are particularly strong.”

In her public performance in Sirius, at the beginning of March, Cotter walked a path across this glass, her heavy utility boots shattering the shards underfoot.

Nine utility suits, handmade in white organza and cut to her own form, hang along the gallery windows, the incoming light amplifying their delicacy. These echo the high-visibility suit Cotter tailored for herself and wore in the piece. The performance helped Cotter reach completion in the work. “When I walked up and down on the glass and then stepped away from it, I felt like I had shaken something off,” she says.

In the next room, ‘Skin to Air’ is made up of three huge works in textiles. Each involved hundreds of hours of stitching. The sacred nature of the pieces is enhanced by their simplicity. This work sprang from an exhibition Cotter participated in at Macroom Town Hall, in Co Cork. Working in only white, red and black, for ‘Skin to Air’, she has stitched to organza pouches the names of all the people who engaged with ‘Still Life’, the piece she showed in Macroom.

These stitched names are used in two pieces: one is comprised of white, folded pouches pinned in a grid that takes up nearly an entire wall. A near-identical piece, using red organza, hangs in three panels: this grid is stitched together.

A mass of torn strips of red organza is suspended in the room. “I got the organza and just tore it,” says Cotter. “I tore cloth once before — I was in San Francisco tearing cloth and a guy from the Jewish tradition passed by and said, ‘you know tearing cloth is a way of exorcising grief?’.” nSkin to Air & Edge of Absence runs in Sirius Arts Centre Cobh until April 6.


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