A story emerged this week in The Southern Star newspaper that a local councillor had called for Irish artist Eilis O’Connell‘s Great Wall of Kinsale sculpture to be removed from its location as a piece of public art in the County Cork town.
O’Connell told the paper that the sculpture was “destroyed a long time ago when the Kinsale UDC saw fit to alter the sculpture against my wishes.” “At that time,” she said, “Ireland had not ratified the Berne Convention for the protection of Literary and Artistic Works, so, what they did back then in the late 80s would be illegal today.” The sculpture was installed in 1988. Since then, the surface of the Corten Steel structure has been painted and water features, railings and flower pots were added against the artist’s wishes.
The debacle was documented by O’Connell as part of artist Sean Lynch’s A Rocky Road exhibition, which examined Irish art in terms of reception, controversy and protest, and was shown at the Crawford Gallery in Cork in 2011/2012. Lynch is Ireland’s representative for the 2015 Venice Biennale, with his project Adventure Capital. This is my review of A Rocky Road from 2011. CLH
A Rocky Road at Crawford Gallery of Art, November 2011
By Cristín Leach Hughes
There were those who said it should be thrown into the sea. “Scrap the scrap” screamed the protestors’ placards. Local artist Philip French claimed it had the potential to kill children. “They’re trying to ride up it on bicycles. There’ll be a fatality,” he told the Cork Examiner. Yet, the Arts Council representative Medb Ruane defended it as “one of the most radical pieces ever built in Ireland.” She told Ciaran Carty of the Sunday Tribune, “it’s a superb piece of sculpture, which looks particularly stunning at night or if it is raining. We stand over it artistically, so the problem is strictly technical.”
The problem was this: eight hundred people in the coastal tourist town of Kinsale had signed a petition to have Eilis O’Connell’s £30,000 quayside sculpture removed, less than nine months after its July 1988 unveiling. It was a controversy that began with twelve protestors at the event and eventually led to a series of compromises which, twenty-three years on, amount to a shocking violation of the Cork-based artist’s original vision. All of this is made clear by O’Connell’s contribution to A Rocky Road, a new exhibition curated by artist Sean Lynch at the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork.
O’Connell is a sculptor, but for this show she has produced an uncharacteristic piece of archive art. Perhaps she needed to get something off her chest. The Contemporary Condition of The Great Wall of Kinsale consists of newspaper cuttings, letters and photographs from 1987, ‘88 and ’89, alongside 36 projected slides revealing the current state of the Kinsale sculpture. One of them shows a boy using the ugly metal railings, erected by Kinsale Urban District Council (KUDC) to prevent climbing, to assist him in his ascent.
The sculpture survived a KUDC vote to remove it after a series of alterations and additions were agreed to, primarily its transformation into a water feature. Even this did not satisfy its detractors however. Councillor Dermot Collins told the Corkonian News the modification would present “a tremendous challenge to children to swim against the tide.” God forbid.
The water is now gone, but KUDC has since added the metal barriers, litter bins, potted plants, two bronze busts and a bus lay-by to the site. Original objections lay primarily with the rusty appearance of the structure’s Corten steel surface. O’Connell demonstrated that a final, maintenance free surface would weather and mature over three years; the council decided to sandblast and paint it instead. As her slideshow reveals, the grey iron oxide paint requires continual, unsightly retouching to this day.
It’s a kind of tragedy. Not just the deliberate, official desecration of a piece of art, but the fact that the town of Kinsale has ended up becoming the architect of its own real eyesore. O’Connell’s original vision should have been honoured. She has gone on to produce more than thirty public and private outdoor commissions since then, all welcome and unique additions to the visual landscape. Is it too late for Kinsale to repair the damage? Someone should start a petition.
They say the Irish are bad at protesting, but when it comes to visual art we certainly used to have some form in this regard and Lynch has rooted out some great examples.
During EV+A (Exhibition of Visual+ Art) 1984, the Limerick Leader received a tip-off that local café owner Richard Coughlan was on his way to destroy one of the exhibits: a naked self-portrait by Limerick-born artist David Lilburn. Photographer Owen South got there on time to capture the ensuing tussle as Coughlan broke the glass on the £500 prize-winning image and was prevented from spray painting the offending erection by the exhibition chairman who wrestled him to the ground. South’s photographs are displayed alongside the original monoprint, which was denounced by Coughlan and others as pornographic.
Today Lilburn’s naked self-portrait (entitled Towards from the Forceps to the Chains of Office) seems relatively benign. Our capacity to be shocked by art has shifted, although it has by no means gone away, as the recent controversy over Facebook users posting images of Gustave Courbet’s 1866 L’Origine du Monde proves.
Lynch’s exhibition-as-thesis focuses mostly on the nineteen seventies and eighties in Ireland. It includes some remarkable RTE footage taken at the legendary Rosc exhibitions, a series of large-scale shows which introduced the general Irish public to international modern art. One RTE report on Rosc ’71 uses a jaunty, Carry On style soundtrack to poke faux-quizzical fun at the exhibits, while emphasising a school-boy fascination on the part of director, narrator and cameraman with nipples and phallic forms.
In this company, Gerard Byrne’s photographs relating to architect Michael Scott’s unrealised proposal to build an Irish pavilion on a bridge in Venice make less of an impact, and Danny McCarthy’s quiet re-dispersal of dust collected from an erased Joseph Beuys blackboard in 1974 is most likely to resonate with art history fans. Both refer to controversies that never quite took off. The removal of the Tau Cross of Killnaboy for display at Rosc ’67 was another matter altogether, as revealed by another series of newspaper cuttings and photographs.
Although A Rocky Road features no specific works by curator Lynch, in many ways the exhibition amounts to an enormous piece of archive art with his name on it. At its centre are two main questions: how do we react to art that challenges us, and who really owns art once it has entered the public domain? Lynch, whose own work has included investigations into Belfast’s infamous DeLorean factory, knows that although not everyone loves modern art, everyone loves a good controversy, especially about modern art.
Charles Haughey loved modern art so much that he found himself able to chuckle amiably when confronted by Tim Rollins’ portrait of him as a dog during a visit to ROSC ’88. The image was painted on pages of George Orwell’s political satire Animal Farm, and formed part of a series that included Margaret Thatcher as a goose and Ronald Regan as a turtle.
There were rumours of the then Taoiseach’s dissatisfaction, although he had willingly supplied photographs for Rollins to work from. Haughey was certainly determined to appear good-humoured about it all, at least in front of the photographers. The moment is recorded in Jack McManus’ Irish Times photograph, blown up to poster size for display here.
Lynch’s research reveals that the Haughey image never sold and was shipped back to New York where it has since deteriorated beyond repair or display. What a shame a canny art collector didn’t spot that one.
The show also includes valuable footage of 82-year-old painter Sean Keating, a champion of academic realism, walking and talking his way through Rosc ’71. The conversation he has with a young Colm O’Briain about four of the exhibits is as mesmerising as it is eye-opening. Keating is relatively generous in his encounters with what he sees as new fangled modernism, but he remains absolute about its irrelevance to his own concerns as an artist. His reaction to the (female) Swiss expressionist sculptor Eva Aeppli’s Last Supper is one of the clip’s most memorable moments: “I think the man who did that should be put in jail!” he declares.
Alongside the archive material, Byrne, McCarthy and the performance artist Nigel Rolfe have all added new work to Lynch’s wide-ranging exploration of his theme. Rolfe has made a video piece in reaction to past experience at the hands of the haters, which is now part of the Crawford permanent collection.
In July 1977, 27-year-old Rolfe’s solo show in Gorey, County Wexford was damaged by vandals who broke in and a left a note saying, “Take this rubbish out of Gorey – we don’t want it.” It was a show about balance, involving five freestanding wooden sculptures some of which were knocked over by the intruders. The damage was minimal and easily reversed, but the significance of the action was not lost on Rolfe. Thirty-four years later he has formed his response. Into the Mire sees him fall face first, toppling like a skittle into a watery hole in the Bog of Allen.
It’s an action that seems to acknowledge defeat: the sudden slumping, the decision to fall; but, now in his early sixties, this formidable giant of a man picks himself up, wet and muddy and because the film is on a loop, does it over and over again. The point seems to be that the naysayers can do as they like, Rolfe for one is going to keep jumping.
A version of this article was first published in The Sunday Times Ireland, Culture Magazine on 27 November 2011.