It all hangs nicely together

The Irish Times – Wednesday, August 12, 2009

THE ARTS: This year’s Kilkenny Arts Festival could have been a confusing jumble of disparate events, but there was a unity of purpose in many of the shows that made it all feel beautifully coherent, writes PETER CRAWLEY

A SPECTATOR at the Kilkenny Arts Festival might wonder if the programme’s expanse – its talks, screenings and concerts; its performances, exhibitions and clubs, its ancient churches and freshly-completed venues, its local, blow-in and international audiences – could ever hope to be more than a jumble of discrete phenomena. But though the festival is programmed by nine separate curators – one for each discipline – certain events seemed to complement each other. Fergus Cronin in Krapp’s Last Tape , for instance, repeatedly listening to his younger self on tape in the Parade Tower, while, 10 minutes away in Rothe House, the artist Kevin Atherton interviewed himself, on two opposing screens, in a twin video installation filmed 28 years apart.

As pleasing but random an association, perhaps, as the accidental sound of wind chimes, but this year’s festival often felt like the culmination of a grand design.

Festivals have a magnificently unifying effect. With the right perspective, the Marble City melange had a beautiful coherence, where the art works themselves appeared to be talking to each other.

“This festival, and others like it,” said Prof Roy Foster, towards the end of his stimulating analysis of nationalism, religion and limits of both, “may they be the index of a rooted cosmopolitanism.” This, the remarkably cerebral opening event of the festival, was the Hubert Butler Annual Lecture, established to honour the Kilkenny-born historian, who himself was grounded in Kilkenny, but whose journeys, writing and interests were connected to the world. Presenting “The Shark and the Jellyfish: Nationalism, Religion and Cosmopolitanism after Butler”, Foster, a man of similarly coruscating insight, offered witty and fluent illustrations along his academic dissertation to allow the intellectual laity a chance to keep pace. Cleaving closely to the theories of nationalism established by Ernest Gellner and Jürgen Habermas, Foster early referred to Benedict Anderson’s influential work, Imagined Communities .

“I can’t resist adding the seldom-noted fact that Anderson is himself an Irishman from Waterford,” Foster said. This may be an imagined community of its own: Foster was born in Waterford; Anderson was born in China to an Irish father. As Foster said, “Nobody comes to this subject without baggage.” The intersection of entrenched nationalism and religion could sound gloomy, with Foster recalling the smiles of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness as “less encouraging to historians than relieved British politicians”.

If history repeats, Foster was unswervingly respectful to Butler, but unintimidated by his shadow: “he was not a prophet”. Facing audience questions, however,

an accomplished historian is expected to moonlight as a soothsayer, fielding enquiries about recent history and its consequences: the Lisbon treaty rejection, the collapse of the Irish economy, the coming blasphemy laws, the significance of Ireland playing England in Croke Park – good questions all, elegantly answered, even a simple challenge over Foster’s phrase “inclusive nationalism”: “Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?” “Touché,” Foster answered.

HE MIGHT HAVE referred to James Joyce’s famous – and famously exploitable – definition of a nation in Ulysses : “A nation is the same people living in the same place.” Mabou Mines’s theatrical offering, Lucia’s Chapters of Coming Forth by Day , featured a portrait of the same artist as an old, overbearing man, in which the cosmopolitanism of the show seemed less rooted than the festival’s. As Northhampton, Dublin, Trieste, Zurich and New York each asserted themselves in the meandering text and grab-bag aesthetic of Sharon Fogarty’s experimental biodrama, the show seemed fetching but arbitrary; an exploration of text, music and media which proved less melting pot than meltdown.

In the handsome timewarp of the compact new venue the Set Theatre – so new that, as literature curator Colm Tóibín pointed out, its builders left by the back door as its first audience entered through the front – William Trevor seemed as at home as anywhere else. Introduced by Roy Foster, William Trevor on Screen depicted something of a kindred spirit; an outside observer. Screened with three adaptations of his fiction, a 1990 documentary followed Trevor through his childhood home of Cork, an engaged but aloof figure. “The shadows are your place,” he says of the writer’s relationship with the community he depicts. “You belong in solitude.”

The same cannot be said of Julie Feeney, who thrives in company, and whose musical persona is as much a contradiction in terms as inclusive nationalism; a careless perfectionist. In St Canice’s Cathedral, where the afternoon sunlight fell in such precise beams across Feeney’s face it seemed that God might actually work for her, the music was both simple in drive and endlessly complicated in construction. A song like Love is a Tricky Thing is a case in point; its sentiment as familiar as any standard pop lyric, while its vocal melody and string arrangement are off the chart, something disguised by Feeney’s considered elegance and her group’s unfussy precision. Halting a song suddenly, or departing the stage mid-monologue, it’s not always clear whether Feeney is performing her eccentricities or simply living them.

BUT, DARTING BETWEEN the pews of the auditorium during the alarmed chatter of Myth , it all seems part of the plan. Such is her appeal: equal parts challenge and comfort.

Similarly, The Xi’An Si, a trio of Chinese instrumentalists performing provincial Chinese tunes and Irish trad numbers on traditional Chinese instruments, are a combination of the familiar and estranged: Oró Sé Do Bheath Abhaile may sound pretty similar performed on a guquin, pipa and erhu, but its tone and accent is altered entirely.

No less an exercise in fusion, historical conversation or contradiction was Electric Miles, a rewarding exercise in a jazz revivalism, without being anything like a slavish recreation. It pitched six Irish players (among them, Ronan Guilfoyle, Sean Carpio and Justin Carroll) against the supposedly unlistenable electric period of Miles Davis’s output, specifically Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way . For some, this music is now as consoling and familiar as a lullaby, but the vigour of the concert’s closing moments provided a grittier counterbalance to the gentle twinkle of Iceland’s Amiina. Their dulcimer-soft conspiracy of glockenspiels, keys and the merest electronic beats, understood, in a way their support acts did not, that the reverence of the Cathedral space – and its audience – actually clarifies sound, rather than urges you to fill it with portentous fuzz. From Reykjavik to Kilkenny, the simplest sounds carry best.

EVERYONE KNOWS that widely circulated joke: What’s the difference between Ireland and Iceland? In Kilkenny, compact and beautiful, rich with history and addled with youthful attainment, the streets served as a microcosm of a nation in freefall. Another purpose art can serve, as witnessed by the visual arts programme which this year cleverly embedded itself into several empty commercial properties, is not to supply the window dressing of economic collapse, nor to announce itself, myopically, as a green shoot of recovery, but rather to provide stimulus in a time of crisis.

Roy Foster, while preserving hope for a culture of liberal pluralism and sounding less than horrified by the consequence of markets without boundaries (“Can the effect of globalisation mutate nationalism from the toxic to the benign variety?” he wondered), was understandably dismissive of consumer culture. A person visiting the figurative painter Blaise Smith’s exhibition of weaponry in the deserted music store Zavvi, might have passed by several empty shops and promotional hoardings claiming “a new heritage in shopping and living” and wondered if this economic collapse was deserved. But the art that filled the rooms and streets of Kilkenny, from a co-reading by Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie and Eugene McCabe to a free outdoor dance spectacle from Portugal’s Teatro do Mar, dared to imagine a better community, plural and international, waiting to begin.


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