Citizen Smith

Kilkenny, Ireland

Left: Artist Bob and Roberta Smith and Dash McCarthy. Right: Bishop's Robing Room. (Except where noted, all photos: Gemma Tipton)

IT STARTED WELL, with a garden party and the sun smiling down on the grounds of Butler House. Butler House is the Dower House of Kilkenny Castle. In the past, if you were married to whichever Butler happened to be Duke or Earl of Ormonde at the time, you were shunted off here when your husband died. And what a nice place to be shunted to. We walked in past actors from Shakespeare’s Globe, rehearsing The Taming of the Shrew in the former stable yard to the delight of a gaggle of tourists getting a free show.

On into the gardens, a band played, and Bob and Roberta Smith (aka Patrick Brill) arrived, with his wife, the artist Jessica Voorsanger, and children Fergal and Etta. Smith had been in Kilkenny, Ireland, for a week already, installing his exhibition at the Butler Gallery in the Castle and at various sites around town, including the evocative-sounding Bishop’s Robing Room, at Saint Canice’s Cathedral. It was all part of the opening weekend festivities for the latest edition of the Kilkenny Arts Festival, a generous mixture of art, theater, dance, literature, and other sundry modes of culture.

“It’s serious fun,” Smith said. He also said, more than once, to various people, that “it’s about art, not the artists,” but of course it’s him that everyone wanted to meet. In his trademark hat and highly colorful shirt and jacket (one red-patterned, the other a lurid green), he stood out from the crowd, who were dressed according to their various tribes. One of the pleasures of a festival opening is the different groups who flock in. There are the tweedy writers, deliberately edgy theater people, grungy musicians, and the art crowd—mainly dressed in black.

Left: Curator Angela O'Kelly, head of costume at Abbey Theatre Niamh Lunny, and curator Josephine Kelliher. Right: Artist Fergal McCarthy.

It made it difficult to know who to sidle up to: A. C. Grayling, the celebrated humanist philosopher was under one tree, but Iarla Ó Lionáird was under another, talking to Matthew Nolan, one of the Festival’s music curators. Ó Lionáird is Ireland’s leading sean nós singer, and the emotion he can wrench from a single note would raise the hairs on the back of your neck. I was just heading over to gush like a true fan when the speeches started.

Ahh, the speeches. Does anyone actually relish the things? Even, I suspect, the funders, politicians, and other dignitaries could do without them. And as this was the festival’s fortieth birthday (it’s Ireland’s oldest arts festival), there was a great deal to be gone through. I became concerned that they might go into every single year in detail. “Not as interesting as the Ladies of Llangollen,” visual arts curator Josephine Kelliher whispered in my ear, as I muttered about too much history. Who they? I wondered. “Eleanor Butler was daughter of one of the denizens of the Dower House,” Kelliher told me. She ran off to Wales with her “friend” Sarah Ponsonby in 1780, where their lifestyle was so unconventional they were visited by Lord Byron, William Wordsworth, and the Duke of Wellington. “They had their early meetings in this garden,” she added.

A round of clapping brought us back to the present, and a shriek of delight as Dash McCarthy, age four and a half (the half is very important), spotted that Smith was wearing the same hat as him. Happy to be wrested from a stream of photo ops with the be-suited great and good, the pair posed for the cameras. McCarthy is the son of artist Fergal McCarthy, who was taking in Kilkenny en route to Drogheda, where his own art project, Welcome to Drogheda, was to kick off the next day. He’ll live in a tent for a week in the Highlanes Gallery, but as he had previously lived in a tent on an artificial island, in Dublin’s River Liffey, for No Man’s Land, 2011, the gallery may seem quite tame in comparison.

Left: Michael Holly and Helena Tobin from Artist Collective Siteations. Right: Cian O'Sullivan, Richard Forrest, and Ana Zajickova. (Photos: Roland Paschoff)

The garden party segued into the opening of Angela O’Kelly’s Costume, at the Crafts Council—Kilkenny is the capital of craft in Ireland—and Niamh Lunny, head of costume at the Abbey Theatre, told the assembled crowd how to get an actor out of all their clothes in twenty seconds flat. “The secret’s in the hidden elastic,” she said. It was unclear whether that advice would be called on later, as people trooped off to their various plays, concerts, and readings, to reconvene in the small hours at the Home Rule Club, where festival director Rosemary Collier appeared to have boundless reserves of energy. Gossip was swapped, shows discussed. There had been sightings of former British prime minister Gordon Brown having dinner; and everyone bought, probably at this stage unnecessary, drinks for everyone else. It all felt marvelous.

Naturally, given the lateness of the night, it felt far less marvelous the next day as we assembled for Smith’s official opening, which included a walking tour of the various spaces in which his work is sited. Leading the group like a Pied Piper, Smith’s enthusiasm and intelligence were infectious, and, stepping back, it almost felt as if we were being inducted into the Cult of Bob. Claire Power and Rayne Booth from the Temple Bar Gallery were there to join, and curator Pádraic E. Moore put his finger on it when he said, “He’s really generous, that’s what it is.”

Up at the Robing Room, Nigella Keane was dressed as German émigré theorist Hannah Arendt. Smith is encouraging people to “Be Hannah Arendt” for the duration of the project. Why? Because the woman who coined the term “the banality of evil” after the Second World War also wanted people to think, and speak up for themselves; and, as Smith said, that’s key to what he’s trying to do too. I wondered if it would catch on, but by evening I saw a man and his daughter, both dressed in Arendt hats and pearls, watching an archive interview with her, and talking about personal responsibility, life, the universe, and everything.

Left: Curator Pádraic E. Moore. Right: Artist Cora Cummins and Jason Oakley from Visual Artists Ireland.

At the Butler Gallery, director Anna O’Sullivan, who cocurated Smith’s project with Kelliher, was telling people that the sign ART GALLERY CLOSED SUNDAY MONDAY TUESDAY WEDNESDAY THURSDAY ADMISSION £17.50 was actually part of the exhibition, and that you didn’t have to pay to come in. Guardian sportswriter Steve Bierley arrived with his wife, the poet Mary O’Malley. Bierley had inspired one of the artworks in the exhibition when, in 2008, as part of a Guardian job swap, he had been sent to write about Louise Bourgeois. (The newspaper had also sent its art critics to cover sport.) “Watch sport and you think about sport. Observe art and you discover yourself,” Bierley had written, before concluding: “This woman is deeply dangerous.” “The best writing about art I have read for a long time,” was Smith’s response. The pair have been friends ever since.

Later, in conversation at the Hole in the Wall, Smith got O’Sullivan to speak about her own work with Louise Bourgeois, and her time as a performance artist in New York in the 1980s. She’d gone, like so many people, to see the work of artists she’d admired, in person. A job at Franklin Furnace, with a Sunday night performance slot, followed. Franklin Furnace was “low key and funky, and that took away the awe,” O’Sullivan said, of meeting her heroes. But performance art seldom pays the rent, so she told us how she went on to work at Robert Miller Gallery, first as a registrar, later as a director. “Bourgeois suffered terribly with insomnia,” remembered O’Sullivan, “so she’d draw through the night, and every day scores of incredible drawings would come in.” The pair got to know each other, and she told the rapt crowd about Bourgeois’s house, which hadn’t been repainted for years. “All her phone numbers were handwritten on the walls, and I remember coming in one day and Bono and the Edge were sitting at her kitchen table, singing to her.” When O’Sullivan came back to Ireland, Bourgeois sent her a print every Christmas, and also donated $5,000 to the Butler Gallery, which went toward re-rendering the walls. “So I benefitted, right?” said Bob.

Whatever about Bourgeois, Moore was right, Bob’s very generous, and the stories he drew out of O’Sullivan, fascinating. It comes through in his work, and in the general atmosphere of a wonderfully arty weekend in Kilkenny.

Gemma Tipton

Left: Nigella Keane as Hannah Arendt. (Photo: Roland Paschoff) Right: Butler Gallery director Anna O'Sullivan.