Inspired by the knees of a dying man

John Donne provided the spark for Isabel Nolan’s exhibition in Bandon, writes Alan O’Riordan

JOHN DONNE may have been a renowned preacher in his day, and the author of some of the most powerful religious verse in the English language, but, as the phrase goes, he also lived a little. And, he did not deny posterity a poetic account of his bawdier side:

“Licence my roving hands, and let them go

Behind, before, above, between, below.

Oh my America! my new-found-land.”

So wrote the author of the Holy Sonnets. This dichotomy is suggested by a statue of Donne in St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Commissioned when Donne was terminally ill, it shows him standing bearing the serene expression of one sure of his eternal reward. But, his knees belie his unbending faith: he is literally knock kneed — a dying man, perhaps in pain, perhaps even fearful in the face of death.

It’s a quirk that has fascinated Isabel Nolan, who is showing work inspired by the statue at Bandon’s Engage Arts festival, which begins on Thursday.

“I was visiting St Paul’s,” recalls the Dublin-born of the origins of her project. “It is so magnificent, but I was captivated by this small, life-sized statue, and began to look into its story. He seems to be dressed for his own resurrection, like he’s wearing his own shroud, with this kind of ecstatic expression on his face. He looks so happy and assured, but the bent knees transform the statue from being so straightforward. They make it something human in a beautiful way.”

Nolan’s series of photographs isolate those bent knees, and the contrast they create with the mannered staging of the statue, and Donne’s self-conscious expression.

“It might be suggesting weakness,” she says, “but that is meant in a positive way — an admission of humanity and not pretending to have what you do not. One of the things that interests me about being an artist is that you bring into the world a reality you want to be true. You make an image that does not exist in order to make people look at the world more closely. Art is a way to test reality, even if the object you create seems abstracted or separate from the world.”

Joining Nolan in the festival’s visual arts strand will be the Paris-based Irish duo Cleary-Connolly, with their well-travelled and popular Meta-Perceptual helmets. These devices, beautiful in their own right, are inspired by the work of George M Stratton, a psychologist who wore glasses that distorted his perception in order to investigate the brain’s capacity to adapt to changed visual signals. In the Cleary-Connolly show, you can find out what it’s like to see as a horse, or a hammerhead shark.

Peter Sheridan also visits the festival, bringing his one-man show 44 Seville Place, which recounts his 1950s childhood in Dublin’s inner city.

If Sheridan’s piece is about a love of one place, then Dervla Murphy will take the opposite route — talking about her life of travel writing in a discussion with Jasper Winn, himself no stranger to the joys of slow travel.

Engage also boasts a strong dance line-up for 2015, welcoming the exciting contemporary talents of Oona Doherty, Siobhan Ni Dhuinnin and Deirdre Griffin for a triple-bill.

Perhaps most impressive feature of the festival is the music line-up, including Ireland’s best contemporary music group, the Crash Ensemble, as well as the Vanburgh Quartet and the Irish Baroque Orchestra.

Most impressive of all could be the pianist Ivan Ilic, a regular visitor to these shores and always to be relied upon for eclectic choices. A concert ranging from Chopin to John Cage and Morton Feldman show’s him true to form for Bandon.

Engage Arts Festival, Sept 24-27; www.engageartsfestival.com


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