Tea and Sympathy

Waterford, Ireland

Tate Britan director Penelope Curtis, “Monuments” curator Mark Sladen, and artist Yorgos Sapountzis. (Photo: Paul McCarthy)

WE WERE SEATED around a tea table crowded with cakes, scones, and little sandwiches with the crusts cut off. We had our choice of Indian or Chinese tea, and the view was breathtaking: The Blackwater River wound through lush green fields and a picturesque bridge led toward where we sat, high up in Lismore Castle, Irish home of the Dukes of Devonshire and home too to Lismore Castle Arts, an organization set up by the Duke’s son, Lord William Burlington. Proximity to centuries of self-assurance breeds insecurity in those of us who don’t have that history to draw on (occupational hazard), and we were all slightly stilted, and possibly a little too keen to let one another know that we felt the view was just as lovely last year, though possibly even more spectacular the year before.

Legacy, talent, youth, age, wealth, power: This, plus tea and cake, is what keeps the art world spinning. And spin on we did, as soon it was time to change and head to the first of the evening’s openings, for a show of beautiful paintings in the adjacent Saint Carthage Hall by William McKeown, who died tragically young in 2011.

McKeown had lived for a time in the Old Convent, Lismore, so there was a flavor of homecoming to the exhibition. We sipped and looked, but held back a little: Who wants to make a drunken fool of themselves in a place like this? Then it was over the road to the main opening, for Lismore Castle Arts’ one exhibition of the year. This time round it was curated by Mark Sladen, formerly director of exhibitions at London’s ICA and more recently director of the Kunsthal Charlottenborg in Copenhagen. Looking suitably suave and sporting his trademark mustache, Sladen wondered whether there was a future to be found curating exhibitions in the world’s great castles. (Don’t tell Hans Ulrich Obrist!)

Left: Artist Iman Issa, writer Leo Boix, artist Pablo Bronstein, and Brian Wood. (Photo: Paul McCarthy) Right: Guests unwind at Lismore Castle.

Sladen’s artists—Danh Vo, Pablo Bronstein, Iman Issa, Yorgos Sapountzis, and Aleksandra Mir—responded to the idea of the castle-as-monument. All of course make work that could be considered antimonumental, perhaps the only reasonable response to a world where nothing is certain. Someone asked Matthew Slotover what he thought of setting up the Frieze Art Fair in China, before suggesting that Brazil could be a lot more fun. Fiona Kearney of the Lewis Glucksman Gallery came over for a chat just as we were being pulled in off the lovely lawns of the upper garden to hear the speeches. Pat Moylan, chairman of the Arts Council Ireland, was doing the honors, which made the Irish contingent wonder whether the Lismore people had some future scheme requiring funding up their sleeves.

Sladen spoke of monuments and follies, and announced that we were to be treated to a performance by Sapountzis, whose video was playing in the round tower, the oldest part of the castle, dating back to the days when Sir Walter Raleigh (he who brought tobacco to England, and the potato to Ireland) owned the place, more than five hundred years prior. Maybe I’m being unfair to the reputation of performance art, but the reaction wasn’t one of pure and unadulterated joy, and it was with some trepidation that we filed outside into the evening sunshine to discover what was in store.

We were handed cloaks or spears, and I began to hope that we might take part in a battle. Instead it was a procession. We paused at the stables to watch Sapountzis beating at a piece of sheet metal. Tate Britain director Penelope Curtis, clad in one of the gray cloaks, looked bemused. Chisenhale Gallery director Polly Staple, who curated the 2011 exhibition at the castle, was wearing a cloak too, though I was quite happy with my spear, until it was taken from me.

Left: Garrick Jones of the London School of Economics, curator Mark Sladen, and Chisenhale Gallery director Polly Staple. (Photo: Paul McCarthy) Right: Artist Gerard Byrne and Hugo.

We moved on to the next courtyard. “No-o-o,” wailed a small child, as a structure assembled from our spears and some fabric panels was hoisted aloft, knocking flights of ancient mortar from Raleigh’s tower as it went. But the woe turned to glee as the child recognized a shape: “It’s a bicycle, it’s a bicycle!” he cried. It wasn’t, but then who are we to judge what another sees in art?

We wandered around the gardens, looking up at the huge walls and battlements. “I think the monuments win,” someone said. “The great thing about contemporary art is its playfulness. When you try to explain it, well . . . ” said the Portuguese ambassador to Ireland, who rejoices in the wonderful name of Bernardo Luís de Carvalho Futscher Pereira. He asked me what I thought of Bronstein’s Pavilion installation, a construction of scaffolding, ladders, barriers, and vinyl in the upper gardens. “The great thing about contemporary art is its playfulness. When you try to . . . ,” I began before an ambassadorial dig in the ribs brought me up short.

It was time for dinner. I recalled, at something similar, being very grateful to Robert Altman and Julian Fellowes for Gosford Park, which gave me some clues as to how to go on. Things were considerably more relaxed this evening, and we filed into the astonishing wood-paneled and candle-lit dining hall to face the lottery of the placements. Whoever does it at Lismore is actually very brilliant. With the exception of Danh Vo, the artists were all there, and there was no obvious “good bit.” I was delighted to be between London-based architect Rossa Prendergast and Lismore Castle Arts director Eamonn Maxwell, both of whom are great company

Left: Lisa LeFeurve of the Henry Moore Foundation. Right: Lismore Director Eamonn Maxwell and Pace Gallery director Emily-Jane Kirwan. (Photos: Paul McCarthy)

“We are standing in a monument,” said the charming Burlington. “And what could be more permanent than a castle, and yet what more impermanent? What could be a greater folly?” He spoke of peeling paint and cracking walls, though the only damage I could think of was the render where the “bicycle” had been hoisted.

We began to mingle and wander back through the castle, where more drinks were served. Someone put some music on, and it was all very mellow. By then we were talking of art, integrity, objective truth—trying to get to grips with what it all meant. The log fires were burning down, but the intoxicating atmosphere of the castle was still exerting its effect. “So what happens next?” Mir asked Bronstein. “We retire and paint satanic crosses, in ox blood, on our chests,” he replied.

In the bright morning, at war with our hangovers, I asked him what happened to the ox blood. “It washes off pretty well,” he said. “Though you can never get the stain off your soul.” This was Bronstein’s first time in Ireland, and he was taken with the lush greenery, the horses dotting the fields, and, of course, the marvelous castle. “We all live like that here,” I told him, thinking our little country could do with the boost in international PR. Stiffness gone, it had become like a big lovely art house party, and that, at least, is worth monumentalizing—if just for a moment.

Gemma Tipton