Rian Kerrane’s curatorial project Hybrid Ireland follows on from the earlier exhibition Hybrid, which featured the same artists and took place at Redline Contemporary, Denver, Colorado in 2012. This twopart project promoted cultural exchange between fourteen artists, seven from Ireland and seven from America, with the longer established bonds forged through Irish emigration to the US in mind. The Irish artists in this exhibition were Ian Gordon, James L Hayes, Mark Joyce, Elizabeth Kinsella, Sarah Lewtas, Aisling O’Beirn and Deirdre O’Mahony. The artists from America are Melissa Borman, Homare Ikeda, Rian Kerrane, Viviane Le Courtois, Lee Lee, Christopher R Perez, and Eric Waldemar. Hybrid Ireland draws together a diverse group of artistic practices in a conversation about geography and place and this concern takes on a personal inflection for Kerrane, a native of Letterkenny who is now based in Denver.
First impressions are that the exhibition feels overcrowded, with objects occupying the floor and images taking up all of the wall space, leaving little breathing room for individual artworks. Assumedly this lack of space is due to the nature of the curatorial project, which invited the same number of artists to return to Letterkenny as were included in Redline, Denver, a much larger and more minimal, warehouse-type space. In addition, the diverse range of practices, utilising all manner of artistic media, adds to the overall feeling of confusion in the smaller and more traditional white cube environment of Letterkenny’s Regional Cultural Centre. This overall impression signals one of the pitfalls of organising an exhibition in this manner – curatorial editing decisions can be overridden by the fact that artists have been invited to exhibit new works which may compete or jar with one another when brought together in a new space. Despite these initial reservations, closer inspection reveals that many of the works do in fact relate to one another by finding resonances in the landscapes of geographically remote places.
Deirdre O’Mahony’s photographic research project FARM (2015) reflects upon the global plight of farmers struggling to cope with extreme weather conditions – the result of global warming and the increasing decline in food prices caused by globalisation. As geographical distance becomes increasingly surmountable, and food can be easily transported from one side of the world to another, FARM explores the detrimental effects this has on agriculture. On first glance we see familiar images of farmland in Connemara and Kerry. To the distracted viewer this work is a straightforward portrait of characteristic Irish farmland. However, as one looks along two rows of photographs of sheep and cattle one notices that they are interspersed with images of men working the land. Like a type of photographic punctum, to use Barthes’ term, to the whole series, one image in the top row jumps out from the others: it contains two North American ranchers complete with cowboy hats. It now becomes glaringly obvious that we are looking at two very different landscapes. The top row of photographs documents the challenging effects of drought on beef production in Colorado, whilst the bottom row of images depicts Connemara lambs and the sodden farmland of Ireland, increasingly at risk of flooding. The surprisingly stark differences between these agricultural sites are cleverly disguised by O’Mahony’s carefully composed shots and the serial arrangement of photographs in a style reminiscent of conceptual art of the late 1960s-70s. The allusion of a visual closeness between these distant places works in harmony with the shared environmental concerns that FARM exposes.
Alongside the prevalence of landscape, a recurring theme of the exhibition is the trace, both in terms of the physical trace and the tracing of histories and receding pasts. Artist-curator Kerrane’s Memories of Barnesmore Gap (2016) remembers the history of railways in Donegal through personal recollections told to the artist by her mother who made journeys by railroad from Killybegs to Derry before the closing of the railway in the 1950s. Memories of Barnesmore Gap includes a handtraced map of the railroads of Donegal which is projected on the wall from an obsolete overhead projector. The now-vanished railway is represented by metal sections of track, derived from a plastic toy train-set now cast in aluminium, which roughly follows the course of the hand-drawn map. To the right are two original posters, which date from the 1950s, promoting Irish tourism in Donegal to a UK audience with quintessentially British depictions of piers and seaside promenades, set in the context of Ireland by the inclusion of shamrocks and Celtic patterns. Kerrane visually evokes time lost and memories of childhood through the toy train-track and the motif of the classic ‘choo-choo train’, which in reality proved too expensive to maintain, eventually leading to the railroad’s closure in 1959.
Traces of a time now past are joined by spectral traces in Denver-based Christopher R. Perez’s series of photographs that include the spooky Letterkenny Ghost (2016). This photograph depicts a meticulously made bed in a dilapidated and supposedly haunted house. This image is the result of Perez’s chance, and bizarre, encounter with a local Letterkenny man carrying a dead cat in a bucket whom he had stopped to ask directions. The response of ‘do you want to see a haunted house?’ was welcomed by Perez, whose work often combines early photographic processes with an openness to chance. This approach exemplifies what Margaret Iversen has called a type of ‘attentive exposure’ to the world which finds reflection in photographic receptivity and the analogue medium’s connection with chance (‘Analogue: on Zoe Leonard and Tacita Dean’). Perez’s photograph draws on the history of spirit photography as he subtly evokes the ghost that killed the cat, presenting this image in an old found frame taken from the property. Perez’s encounter is the result of Kerrane’s two-part curatorial project which invited artists to exchange the landscapes of the US, for those of Ireland and vice versa. Hybrid Ireland explored the resonances between these disparate sites in works that explored common practices of working the landscape in a globalised world, notions of immigration and travel, and the transference of cultural production and iconography.