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Thursday 12 December 2019

Arts with Sophie Gorman: 1014 and the of art war

Multi-media artist Fergal McCarthy believes in making history fun and accessible

Battle of Clontarf exhibition
Battle of Clontarf exhibition
Fergal McCarthy

Sophie Gorman

Just like the puppy that is not only for Christmas, the Battle of Clontarf millennium celebrations are not just for Easter Sunday. The battle itself lasted a lot longer than your typical Easter egg hunt, playing a pivotal role in the course of Ireland's history and indeed future. Mind you, all most of us remember is that the Vikings lost and Brian Boru was killed during his victory. Oh, and there may have been some pillaging.

A wonderfully engaging and genuinely entertaining exhibition Rewriting History brings this story to beautiful and often bloody life in the Little Museum of Dublin (littlemuseum.ie). Covering every square inch of the walls and quite a bit of the floors and windows, too, this show by artist Fergal McCarthy is as if the wallpaper has been made from a giant black and white graphic novel, with dead Vikings all over the floor.

The drawings present the context of the event, the arrival of the Vikings, and how "the word Viking means 'an overseas trip', so basically the Vikings were the world's original tourists." Rewriting History also brings the story crashing into the present to explore the legacy that the battle and Mr Boru have left on contemporary Dubh Linn society.

Putting it together must have been quite the technical headache as the scale of these drawings is surprisingly large. There are 102 drawings on more than 40 sheets that are four metres long and 1.25 metres wide.

One of Fergal's key early decisions was to dispense with all the heavy historical language and make it all fun and accessible and actually very amusing. The cartoonish style means that it is something that people of every age will connect with, though Fergal suspects some historians may have issues with some parts of his interpretation.

"I found there were so many different versions about the events that it was better just to pick one through line and stick with it, so I did and some people are bound to disagree," he says.

"I wrote it as I went along and that in itself was quite the undertaking, I didn't want it to be boring. I tried to grip the reader through visual and verbal jokes immediately."

Interactivity is very important to Fergal's work and he brought the glass table he created all the work on with him into the museum and it is now a space for people to draw pictures of the Battle of Clontarf. More than 600 people already have and there is a big wall displaying their drawings.

Fergal also created the almost-lifesize vinyl film silhouettes that are all over the museum floor. "I'm certainly not a minimalist, I like excess and I like to colonise spaces. So after I'd filled every inch of the walls, I decided to take over the floors. I cut out the aftermath of the battle in vinyl, bodies with blood spurting out of their mouths. I looked up the shape of Viking and Irish weaponry from that time, so that all the sword hilts and bows are the right shapes."

Fergal has created a soundscape that plays beside the images, with composer Brian Crosby, who is a former member of band Bell XI.

"Icelandic is the language most resembling the ancient Norse that the Vikings spoke. Their language never evolved the way ours did," the artist said. "So I found a school in Iceland and a gaelscoil in Ireland and I asked both of them to re-enact the battle and we mixed the two battles as one. And you can hear the sea gulls in the background and finally you can hear the Vikings drowning when they run to their ships but discover that there was an unusually high neap tide and their boats have drifted out."

Fergal is not an illustrator but his work manages to bridge the chasm between visual art and verbal art. He engages with words in a unique way in pieces like Every Word I've Ever Loved, which featured in the 2012 Dublin Biennial. It was comprised of a wall filled with very tidy clear columns of a hundred idiosyncratic words that have connected with, and confused, Fergal.

Fergal is also far from any kind of traditional visual artist. He is a sculptor, a film maker and a creator of crazy islands in the middle of the Liffey. He is currently developing a fascinating new work Word River. This ambitious project has been over two years in the making and is the third part in his work with the Liffey. Brave Fergal regularly swims in the river, seeing it as a way to engage physically with the lifeblood of our city. In September 2010, he erected giant red and green Monopoly houses that floated on the Liffey and lit up at night.

The next September, he took his engagement one step further and built a desert island in the middle of the river near the new Beckett Bridge and lived in a tent there for two weeks.

Word River brings his obsession with the Liffey to new levels as he aims to etch over 100 words from James Joyce's Dubliners into the actual quay walls, to remain until natural degeneration washes them away or ingrains them with new layers.

Considering 2014 is the centenary for Dubliners, wouldn't this be the most wonderful tribute?

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