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Catalogue Text – Gareth Kennedy, ‘Invented Tradition’, Galway Arts Centre (16 January – 7 February 2015)

March 16, 2015

i. Collective Labour

Speaking at ‘The Workers’ symposium in Roscommon Arts Centre in July 2014, Gareth Kennedy relayed his experiences of his 2006 residency in FDK Engineering, Ballaghadereen, as part of Roscommon Arts Office’s acclaimed Art@work residency, which facilitated professional artists to work within local businesses. Occurring in the middle of Ireland’s property boom, Kennedy felt compelled to utilise his residency at the stainless steel fabrication plant as a platform to register the “massive and unprecedented socio-economic change being experienced in the country”. While a notable ‘socially-engaged orthodoxy’ was emerging out of art colleges at that time, reactivating dematerialised art practices of the 1960’s and 70’s, Kennedy registered a desire to reconstitute the ‘art object’ as a utilitarian structure, and as a vehicle to forge links between the making process and the social capital this can generate.

‘Soup Station’ (2006), devised during this residency, comprised a fabricated stainless steel cooker unit, a collection of recipes sourced from local people and also recent migrants to the town and a communal food event. This work proved pivotal, signalling new points of interaction between ‘making’ and ‘functionality’ within public artworks, which still constitute the main threads of his practice. Over subsequent years, Kennedy devised numerous process-based works across a range of locations, which collectively probe the ‘social and cultural agency of handwork in the 21st century’. Carving out a robust set of methodological approaches assimilated from ethnographic research, visual anthropology and the history of folklore, he mobilises these tools to examine the history of people and place, under the thematic inquiry ‘folk fictions’, shifting from the global to the particular, the modern-day to the historical, with the upmost dexterity.
In contemporary western consumerist culture, many commodity items are not only shop-bought and disposable, but mass-produced and imported, predominantly from China and other Asian countries. Kennedy has tapped into what he perceives as a modern-day ‘hunger for the handmade’ and accordingly, many of his projects seek to honour the act of manufacture, drawing on disparate pre-industrial craft heritages. Central to this process is the transmission of skills and material knowledge from specialist craft workers or expert tradesmen, to identified communities of interest. Such exchanges are mediated not as isolated ‘hobbyist’ affairs, but as full-blown ‘public moments’, generating wide-reaching cultural capital.
A diverse range of professionals have worked on previous projects, from archaeologists and film archivists, to scientists and fishermen, as well as experts skilled in seemingly outmoded or anachronistic traditional hand-crafts, including South Tyrolean Maskenschnitzer (mask carvers) and Aran Island Caoladoirí (basket weavers). For ‘Post Colony’ (2014), produced in Killarney National Park, Gareth worked with fifth generation master woodwright Eoin Donnelly and forester Chris Hayes . The ‘Fan Nóiméad’ (2013-14) public art commission for Galway Co. Council was produced in collaboration with Headford Men’s Shed in Co. Galway and traditional Connemara boat-builder Patrick Connolly , who had previously built an Irish Currach boat with the group. The impetus for ‘Fan Nóiméad’ revolved around notions of meitheal (collective labour), embodying the men’s desire to apply their labour in creating a useful structure as a civic gift for their town, manifested as a contemporary pavilion, fabricated in recently felled, native-grown Irish Oak and Larch. Such fidelity and attentiveness to locally sourced materials is a further defining feature of Kennedy’s practice, which is potently realised in the translation of these raw elements into some other form. Whether as a contemporary pavilion constructed in native Irish timber, functional one-legged stools crafted from invasive Rhododendron, or rudimentary house structures and processional costumes crafted from Russian Birchwood, these ‘end products’ have an ascribed function within the communities who create them. Consequently, these cultural artefacts are imbued with vernacular knowledge and collective agency, while ultimately retaining the complex history of their own making.

ii. Micro-Histories

Drawing on a range of craft histories, Kennedy’s practice assimilates consultation with expert craft-workers, the transmission of skills to communities of interest, and the transformation of purposefully sourced raw materials into functional objects. These methods are collectively employed as vehicles to generate important historical relations or resonance, yet the outcomes are very much situated in the contemporary. Elucidating past ways of living, these projects focus on the seemingly insignificant events, and lesser-known narratives of people and place, to be understood within larger systems, including the interplay of global relations and history’s long trajectory. This reduction in scale towards the ‘particular’, echoes scholarly developments by European cultural historians of the 1970s and 80s, which generated shifts away from ‘grand narratives’ towards the study of individuals, isolated places and marginalised groups, perceived as aggregates of broader social contexts. In essence, such ‘micro-histories’ formulate a history of everyday life and tell the stories of individuals who ‘must not be lost either within the historical processes or in anonymous crowds’.
In keeping with this micro-historical approach, ‘The Last Wooden House of Kupchino’ (2013) relays the personal history of Alexandra Nydskova (nee Vasiliyeva) – the last inhabitant of the former peasant farming community of Kupsino, St Petersburg, whose 5 year protest ended on 6th March 1976, when she was forcibly evicted from her home by authorities. The demolition of the wooden houses made way for the sprawling urban district of Kupchino and its’ uniform, concrete apartment blocks (Khrushchyovka), constructed across the USSR as a ‘temporary’, low-cost solution to the housing shortage at the time. Following the demolition of Alexandra’s house, the Vasiliyeva/Nydskova family salvaged and rebuilt the wooden structure in the countryside. ‘The Last Wooden House of Kupchino’ witnessed the family and community returning to the site, 37 years later (as the family do annually, on the anniversary of her eviction) to commemorate her historic resistance. A half-scale timber model (based on plans of the house) was assembled from locally-sourced birch wood on a communal green. Both the procession and the act of re-building were visible manifestations of collective effort and civic pride, while signalling the erosion of these values in modern society. Central to the project was the transmission of this mythology surrounding the origins of the area, to local school children, offering the younger generation an insight – based on personal memories – into life before the fall of the Soviet Union.
In a similar vein, ‘Post Colony’ (2014) assembles an extensively researched ‘speculative history’ of the evolution of Killarney National Park from the 16th century Munster Plantation onwards. During colonial times, wood was valued above all other commodities. Demand for Killarney oak as a resilient material for Navy ship-building, served to highlight the clear relationship between sea power, timber and Imperial dominance. By the 19th century, the park became more of a romanticised landscape than an exploitable resource for Empire. During the ten day workshop conducted for ‘Post Colony’, the invasive Rhododendron x superponticum was utilised as a raw material to produce charcoal, recalling another former industry of Killarney’s woodland. Simple one-legged stools were also crafted – the kind typically used by charcoal burners when tending charcoal kilns throughout the night. The project is mediated via 16mm film – an almost obsolete medium, traditionally associated with visual anthropology and social documentary film; however Kennedy’s approach appears less burdensome than traditional documentary formats. The accompanying voice-over narration, reinforces notions of ethnographic ‘fieldwork’ conjured throughout the project. Kennedy’s wide-spread use of Super8 film in other projects further subverts experiences of the moving image in the digital age. While acknowledging important developments in the film history canon, Kennedy’s approach conjures an experimental ‘third place’ (which is both historical and modern), permeated with chronologically displaced images. Concerned neither with preservation nor histrionic ‘re-enactment’, Kennedy interrogates historical moments to propagate ‘enactments’ of everyday life, generating what the artist has termed ‘invented traditions’ or ‘fictional customs’ within identified communities. Critically aware of their own anachronistic qualities, these projects are rooted in the contemporary, while being vigilant to the pitfalls of nostalgia .

iii. Spaces of Appearance

From a philosophical perspective, an array of 20th century theorists have outlined the ways in which people congregate in public space, and the civic functions these gatherings produce within the broader fabric of society. While Habermas defines the ‘public sphere’ as a transient, discursive activity rather than a physical space, Arendt and Foucault have proffered distinct but converging critiques of modern society, regarding the relationship between visibility and power. Within Arendt’s ‘spaces of appearance’, the visibility of people in the public realm is understood as the impetus for collective action, and a product of ‘egalitarian’, democratic or horizontal relationships. However, in the Foucauldian sense, such visibility produces ‘spaces of surveillance’ which facilitate control, characterised by vertical relationships of inequality. The significance of these congruent theories in shaping the parameters for contemporary public art have been debated at length over the last decade, not least in terms of their relevance for notable socially engaged, relational and dialogical art practices, and the very ‘fragmentary and disputed nature of publicness itself’ .
For Gareth Kennedy’s practice, visibility in the public realm takes many forms within the broad ecology of public art, from the site-specific and permanent to the durational, transient or temporary. The ‘publicness’ in his projects is less concerned with fulfilling the ideological remits of public art commissioners, and much more focused on the deeper resonance public visibility can offer participants when they appear alongside one another in some ceremonial, staged or ad hoc event. Interestingly, there is a ‘rootsiness’ about these occasions which recall a multitude of pre-modern Irish cultural traditions and rituals. For example, during ‘Post Colony’ (2014) an overnight vigil was held around a charcoal kiln, bringing to mind the Irish wake and the practice of keeping uninterrupted watch over a body from death, safeguarding it until burial. Excessive public displays of collective grief – such as the hiring of keeners to perform unrestrained laments – often accompanied Irish wakes, to show respect, not just for the deceased and his family, but for old ancestors and ancient customs”. Funerary practices were further embodied in Kennedy’s public artwork ‘IKEA Butter Churn for Gneeveguilla’ (2011) for Kerry Co. Council, when a butter firkin was paraded through the village’s main street and ceremonially buried by the community in a local bog, to be preserved as bog butter.

As a liminal ‘space of appearance’, the parade has become a prominent platform within Kennedy’s practice. Marking the end of the ‘Fan Nóiméad’ commission, the final pavilion structure was paraded through the town on a truck, towards its final destination in a green public amenity space, to be used as a centrepiece for future community events. Broadening out to encompass processional costumes, banners and the general ephemera of pageantry, ‘The Last Wooden House of Kupchino’ also culminated with a parade, led by a Russian bayan player, as the townspeople made their way towards a communal green area. The ‘walking forest’ of school children, dressed in hand-crafted Birch-bark costumes, bore a striking resemblance to Irish Wren boys’ costumes, traditionally fabricated in straw and newspaper .
Whether as a platform for recreation and civic celebration (such as musical or sporting events or national celebrations including St. Patrick’s Day), religious rituals (pilgrimage; funerals; weddings) or political platforms (demonstrations; protests; pickets), processional formations are engrained in Irish culture. In the context of contemporary public and participatory art, parades have been widely employed as apparatus to consider issues of history, identity and public visibility, as well as propaganda, patronage and the institutionalization of public space. For these purposes, audience ‘spectatorship’ merges with the camaraderie or connectedness felt among those participating in the parades. Returning to Arendt’s ‘egalitarian spaces of appearance’, we can observe how Kennedy’s use of parades, processions and even funerary customs as channels for public engagement, might activate forms of power for communities, generating significant “collective traditions, realised through spectacle.”
Joanne Laws

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