In 2008, the celebrated Irish artist, Brian O’Doherty, chose to step away from his politically motivated alter-ego – Patrick Ireland, with a ritual burial – as performance art – in the grounds of IMMA (The Irish Museum of Modern Art). Following a coffin, dressed in white and with his head wrapped in muslin, Brian instigated a ceremony – motivated by the Good Friday Agreement – to ‘ bury hate.’
In 2018, at the Sirius Arts Centre in Cobh, One Here Now, Brian’s series of nine large scale murals, based on the ancient Celtic Ogham alphabet, were uncovered and restored to their former striking and colourful glory. Later that year, during the Cork Midsummer Festival, as Pilgrimage was in rehearsal at the Art’s Centre, I spent several days surrounded by these evocative leviathans. Pilgrimage was in several respects, Liz Roche’s forerunner to I/ Thou – and when the time came to put a shape on the environment within which this later work would be performed, as the stage design emerged, subliminal influences from the murals, had clearly been at work.
But, alongside these murals, we also looked extensively at Brian’s other paintings, and particularly, his small geometric abstracts. Many were ghosted with fine, radiating white wires, that either followed the inherent graphic qualities of the paintings, or offered a bold counterpoint. Sometimes, in large gallery spaces, the 2D painted element of a work, would take up a whole wall, with the 3D white wires extending several metres in front. On occasions, they broke through an opening into a second space; essentially, transforming these works into installations, and offering us considerable visual food for thought.
During early meetings, Liz and I discussed re-imagining the ‘ wire effect ‘ in the performance space, and how it would relate to the dancers. Subsequently, I worked with white string on configurations of ropes crisscrossing an empty black model box. One day, about a week into rehearsals, on entering the dance studio, I discovered to my amazement and delight, that Liz and the dancers were creating a vast white web; yards of inch wide elastics, tied onto the studio’s window latches and ballet barres, were being manipulated by them into dynamic compositions. Meanwhile, the air reverberated with composer Linda Buckley’s haunting soundscapes. These ethereal sounds, the undulating elastics, and the dancers movement amongst them, was a beguiling combination.
Within these givens, I/Thou now required an overall visual context; providing aesthetic as well as practical solutions as to how the elastics would be fixed – and at times released – to create the web configurations. We immediately drew up an inventory of key visual elements, related to the Ogham murals, small paintings, and various gallery spaces; thresholds, portals and frames, duly emerged, all possessing apposite characteristics worthy of exploration.
In all our discussions, the word frame was very much to the fore. As for the performance space? Liz felt that it should consist of a large downstage area and a
narrower one upstage; a wall with an opening, separating the two. The elastics would be fed from upstage, through this opening, and dog clipped – for ease of reconfiguration – to a black masking system downstage. For definition, and as a direct reference to one of he Ogham murals, I grafted a 3D fractured picture frame in white, to the masking’s onstage edges, and created a wide opening in the wall flat, outlined with an identical white 3D frame. Later, on either side of this portal, doors were added, and as the structure asserted itself, indentations, derived from Brian’s geometric paintings evolved, and these, I outlined in narrow white reveals to tie in with the elastics.
I/Thou inhabited an essentially monochrome world, enlivened by a flagrant strip of yellow ochre dance floor upstage. Together with the white, grey and pastel’s of the dancer’s costumes, the only other colour accents came from Stephen Dodd’s immaculate lighting.
Highlights of the production for me, were the arresting opening sequence with its eerie freeze frame images of the dancers entwined with the elastics, and Jack Webb’s mesmeric, solo. Suffused in deepest blue, during its final moments, and unseen by the audience, a pair of empty picture frames, were flown in; lazily drifting and spinning over the dancer’s bodies – like the sword of Damocles – they provided an apt final image as I/Thou reached its apotheosis; reconnecting us to the artist.
Joe Vanek – April 2021
This contribution has been commissioned by Liz Roche Company