CIT Wandesford Quay Gallery, Cork and Elizabeth Fort, Barrack Street, Cork

28 April – 20 May 2017

Mark Ewart

Part of the brief for the group exhibition elsewhere, was to explore collaboration between professional artists and students. This subtext emanated from the primary objective of the show, which set out to examine the historical and cultural links contiguous within the locale where all the participants work and study.

Nineteen artists from the Backwater Artists Group studio were each paired up with a 3rd Year student from CIT Crawford College of Art & Design. But the interaction was not an apprenticeship in the conventional sense of the word and operated outside of regular assessment requirements for the students. Therefore, the parameters for how the artists and students interacted were not rigidly pre-determined and were very much open to proclivities of the student and professional alike – and as such – to unpredictable outcomes and responses.

It is hard to fully detach from the entrenched idea of a ‘master’ and ‘novice’ relationship, which naturally predicates interface between experience and inexperience. After all, and historically, such ‘contracts’ can be tracked back to the Middle Age craft guilds, right up to the contemporary arena, where artists like Jeff Koons and Anselm Kiefer employ numerous assistants and technicians to realise the scale and ambition of their artwork.

Students today however are well informed and very much conversant with the complexities of theme/issue that drive contemporary art practice – often quite comfortable within curatorial spaces of their own design. In some ways, the students may discretely ignite or revive an interest in contemporary trends for professionals. And while this is not to suggest that this phenomenon was present within elsewhere, it is interesting to contemplate the potential for just such a dynamic to lurk beneath the surface.

Curated by CIT CCAD lecturer Helen Farrell, elsewhere’s liaison was mutually beneficial and as inclusive as possible within the constraints of numbers and scale. In the exhibition text, Farrell explores the idea of proximity: the spaces where art is created, situated, inspired and remembered; where the artist and viewer is ‘…often compelled to feel empathetic to the traces left behind by others in abandoned homes, or a strong sense of curiosity to historic ruins and ancient maps: objects and images represent past and future for us in a way that our fugitive memory often fails.’

This captures perfectly the resonating themes of the show as all the participants were invited to respond to the site-specific aspects of the exhibition venues and the visual and historical paradoxes and contrasts that abounded. One of the sites was a decommissioned Garda station set in the grounds of the Elizabeth Fort off Barrack Street – a relatively modern structure within an ancient one. The second site was the CIT Wandesford Quay Gallery – a mid 19th C. building whose contemporary usage is part of a wider complex of artistic activity that includes BAG itself.

The participating artists – who represented only half of the entire BAG studio – included very prominent names within the artistic community in the City. Those based at the CIT Wandesford Quay Gallery were; Megan and Cassandra Eustace, Helen Horgan, Róisín Lewis, John Kent, Ben Reilly, Éilis Ni Fhaoláin and Luke Sisk. At the Elizabeth Fort, were Johnny Bugler, Angie Shanahan, Tracy White Fitzgerald, Elaine Coakley, Gerard O’Callaghan, Jo Kelley, Peter Martin, Helen O’Keeffe, Angela Gilmour, Darn Thorn and Sean Hanrahan.

The depth of experience that traverses the artists’ work must surely have had a transformative effect on the student experience. The artists evolving and enduring ability to extricate subtlety of theme through considered execution of the artwork, chimed with the site-specific context. One of the students, Orla O’Byrne, reflected on her experience of the elsewhere project while working with artist Sean Hanrahan. ‘I am convinced that the informal discussions in the artist’s studio had a beneficial effect on my studio work’ she says, ‘It was also a chance to test what I’ve been learning over the past three years in the context of a real art practice. It was really good for an art student to be in that environment.’

The other 3rd yr. students involved in the student engagement aspect of elsewhere and who mainly exhibited within the project space at CIT Wandesford Quay Gallery, were; Ann-May Tabb, Ciaran Farrell, Alison O’Shea, Alida Ozolina, Aneta Sawicka, Dori O’Connell, Dónal O’Brien, Muireann Kelleher, Catherine Callnan, Geraldine McCarthy, Róisín Everard, Sarah Conway, Kevin Gough, Catherine Murray, Electra Grant and Lorna McCarthy. The students’ work consisted largely of documentary processes using sketchbooks, photography, written notation and various artifacts and objects that emanated from the process of discourse with the artists and their own analysis of the various techniques and subject matter represented.

The success of the project was of course contingent on the calibre of the artists’ work just as much as the inspiration provided by the spaces themselves. Elizabeth Fort in particular – which is an important tourist and cultural space in the City – lent itself perfectly. Of note amongst the universally strong work on show, was Johnny Bugler’s installation in the former WWII air raid shelter close to the Fort’s entrance. Various interventions were installed including 300 sea-urchin shells illuminated by UV light. A BBC recording from May 1942 of a nightingale in song captured while British bombers flew overhead en route to Mannheim, was especially beautiful and poignant. Similarly, Jo Kelley who worked within one of the old living room spaces in the Garda accommodation, used a variety of ornaments, photographs and ephemera which in her own words had a ‘psychological undercurrent’ – reminiscent of the ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ 1970’s TV horror series.

The traces of the building’s former life as a Garda station and its original function as medieval fortification, alongside the history of the gallery space as a grain store and printing works situated alongside the River Lee, were revealed with integrity and sensitivity by all involved. The initiative to bring these artists into direct interface with the art students was clearly a valuable and exciting project to carry out and it must surely have set a benchmark to sustain into the future.