Economic wasteland now a blank canvas

Ireland’s blighted socio-economic landscape is interpreted by four artists in a fascinating new exhibition, says Carl Dixon

AT the CIT Wandesford Quay Gallery in Cork from Feb 11 to Mar 1, drawnOVERdrawn is a new exhibition of drawings curated by James L Hayes.

The show features work by Chicory Miles, Malcom McClay, Rian Kerrane and Eric Waldemar, all of whom are based in America. This striking, coherent exhibition examines Ireland’s physical and socio-economic ‘landscape’ through the eyes of four different artists.

McClay was raised in Donegal and for ten years his performance company, Cirsus, toured the US with large scale multi-media performances. In 1999, he began to concentrate on interactive installation and joined the faculty of Louisiana State University’s School of Art. His work in drawnOVERdrawn mostly comprises of detailed drawings of half-constructed houses in Donegal on a background collage of torn pieces of planning documents.

“I feel both angry and sad when I see these ghost estates,” McClay says. “The attempt to fit as many houses as possible into small plots of land has created contrived, overly designed, densely housed suburban areas in the middle of the open bog. These developments are about investment and profiteering and have little to do with the idea of home. It’s depressing to think that we will have to look at these monuments to speculative greed, unregulated capitalism and wasted potential for a very long time to come. Certainly, in Donegal, we are still looking at the wallsteads of homes from the Famine. Speaking as an artist rather than an investor, I hope that communities can find uses for these structures.”

Having documented the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, McClay sees its parallels to the wasteland created in Ireland by human failings. “They are, of course, quite different and yet have parallels that connect them,” he says. “Both landscapes are populated by invisible communities that have been forced to leave. While Hurricane Katrina was blamed for the devastation in New Orleans, it was poor planning that caused the levees to break and poor planning that caused our financial collapse in Ireland. In both cases it was ordinary, hard-working people who become the victims.”

American artist Chicory Miles lives in New Orleans and teaches at Louisiana State University’s School of Art. Her contribution consists of a series of simple but powerful watercolours, Portraits of a Burnt Wood. The images capture the strange, damaged landscape created by forest fires in the Donegal countryside.

“I was struck not only by the sadness of the burned woods, but the surreal beauty of the area,” Miles says. “Large sections of forest were black and enormous trees had toppled over at their roots. Through the burnt earth new growth emerged, a shockingly vivid green. The dead trees were at once both gruesome and majestic. Each tree seemed like an individual character, so I decided to approach the paintings as intimate portraits, trying to, in a sense, immortalise the character that each tree revealed.”

Miles says modern living has disconnected us from the land and this is the root of much sadness. She sees echoes of global degradation in this burnt, damaged landscape. “Walking gives me a feeling of connectedness,” she says. “In contrast, globalisation has allowed us to wreak environmental havoc at a distance. We purchase shiny new products without having to witness the environmental degradation they cause. In the United States, there are politicians who deny the existence of climate change, despite all of the evidence. If there is hope, it will come through people becoming aware of the consequences of their actions. Our future relies on our ability to feel an empathic connection to the world around us.”

Rian Kerrane was born in Galway and is assistant professor for the sculpture programme at the University of Colorado in Denver. Her submission consists of wall-mounted panels and a mixture of everyday objects from Ireland’s past. Her work is nostalgic but this is not over-emphasised.

“I am careful about using the word nostalgia because I don’t want to load the work with personal feelings,” she says. “I also have strong scientific and archaeological instincts; I have an affinity for found objects that have a sense of history and I also have an urge to catalogue, hoard and recycle.

“I suppose that having lived in America for the last 18 years, I find myself between two different worlds and not quite belonging to either. This helps to give something of an outsider’s view. There is a blue-collar work ethic here, an entrepreneurial, gung-ho spirit; you can set up a welder in the back garden if you wish. In Ireland, there is greater sense of history and tradition. I am always questioning my sense of loss and gain from making my life here.”

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