Liver’s Leap

Gemma Tipton at the Galway International Arts Festival

Left: Artist Patrick O'Reilly. (Photo: Marina Levitina) Right: Galway International Arts Festival artistic director Paul Fahy. (Except where noted, all photos: Gemma Tipton)

IN GALWAY CITY ON SUNDAY, the film crowd was leaving as the twenty-sixth Film Fleadh segued into the Galway International Arts Festival. You could spot them easily: baseball caps at breakfast in the hotels, an urgency in the matter of deal-making. The artists had been there awhile too, installing their work, and some had already succumbed to the temptation, pitching imaginary movies at industry shindigs.

Down on the docks, there was another imaginary artwork. Patrick O’Reilly’s Prelude was installed inside and outside one of the festival’s temporary venues, the Shed, and his large sculpture Thorn should have been a scene-stealing event on the waterfront. But behind rose a massive pile of scrap metal, looking like every piece John Chamberlain ever rejected, or indeed dreamed of, glinting in the afternoon sunshine.

“Yes, that’s me too,” said O’Reilly. “Or rather I wish it was.” The metal is collected here every week. It grows to mammoth proportions and then, overnight, disappears, picked up by ships to sail off goodness knows where. Inside the Shed, music from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde played across a crowded installation dominated by Prelude 1 and 2, opposing sculptures made of massive, jagged shards of wood. “It’s mahogany,” according to O’Reilly. “I got it from Customs and Excise, from the wooden boxes used to smuggle cigarettes. I love the way it burns.”

Left: Artist Alice Maher in Room 303. Right: Kerryann Conway with Absolut's Nicola Barret and Rubicon Gallery director Josephine Kelliher.

Uptown, in the Absolut Festival Gallery, the huge new arts space reclaimed from the former print works of the Connacht Tribune newspaper, art lined the walls like boys and girls at a country dance. I almost wished for something to take the floor and get it all going, though it was soon thick with people drinking Absolut cocktails and pondering artworks by John Kindness, Eduardo Paolozzi, and Leonie King.

In his first solo show in Ireland since 2006, Kindness had explored the story of Odysseus, with his trademark eclecticism that included works painted on a car hood, an apron, and a toilet seat. Paul Fahy, Galway’s charismatic and brilliant director, posed for a photograph beside a pair of old-fashioned underpants, painted in acrylics with images of Circe the enchantress. “She was the one who turned men into swine,” said Kindness, who manages to mix a sense of the ridiculous with a keen seriousness. He also reckoned they’d survive in the wash.

Artists Alice Maher and Dermot Seymour were there, talking with radio presenter Marion Richardson. We teamed up to see what Enda Walsh’s Room 303, installed in a corner of the gallery, was all about. Walsh’s play Ballyturk, featuring Cillian Murphy, Stephen Rea, and Mikel Murfi, had already sold out long before the festival opened.

We walked into a space set up like a dismal 1950s hotel room. Maher, Richardson, and I sprawled on the bed, while Seymour took the chair. The lights went down and a voice intoned, “My country is this room, my house is my head….It was never my intention to end my days being stared at by a fat fly in a shitty hotel room.” I thought back to the days when the Catholic Church still held sway in Ireland. Long before he married Maher, Seymour had painted a nude of Richardson, his then girlfriend and a children’s TV presenter. It hung in a show that Kindness was part of, in the Douglas Hyde Gallery. There had been calls for censorship, an orchestrated moral outcry. Thank God (indeed) that times have changed.

Left: Artist John Kindness with his work. Right: Artists Maggie Madden and Liam O'Callaghan.

“…and breaking hearts and pulverizing livers, and sex in every breath,” the voice continued. I must have lost concentration for a moment and dropped the thread. We left Room 303 to pulverize our livers some more, with Galway girl Nicola Barret from Absolut, over a raspberry-and-lime vodka concoction, supplied by her employers.

Liam O’Callaghan arrived, a little late, from installing his If and then… (again) at the Galway Arts Centre. It’s a super show, seeking out the moments of beauty to be found in the dullness and ugliness of living. I thought about O’Reilly’s preoccupation with pain and boredom, Walsh’s tedium of dying, and Kindness’s lengthy journey fraught with danger. It all seemed at odds with the heady Galway atmosphere.

Though, later, as we all met again for the party at Galway institution Ard Bia, the brilliant restaurant and sometimes gallery, you could see who had been at Ballyturk: They all had something hunted behind the eyes. I had it too. It’s a stunning play, dark and provocative, and it stayed with me, even to the small hours at the Rowing Club, late-night drinking den for the Film Fleadh and the festival. It was the Fleadh’s final night, and the film people were still trying to close deals, tired, and maybe jaded, but never giving up, as the art crew rolled in, still fresh, with two weeks of glorious adventures ahead.