Dorothy Cross is something of a revelation. There is such power and an almost fierce strength to her work which is at such counterpoint with the artist herself, who is effusively warm and on as much of a journey with her work as you, the viewer. She talks off the cuff and, thankfully, doesn't use distancing art-speak. Instead, she explains the practicalities of how she makes her most captivating pieces in a way that makes you understand what they mean and yet leaves room for your own interpretations. Dorothy Cross cannot be underestimated, she is one of the most important Irish artists working today.
And now is a very good moment to experience Cross. There are currently two major exhibitions of her work running in Ireland, View in Dublin's Kerlin Gallery (kerlingallery.com) and Eye of Shark in Waterford's Lismore Castle (lismorecastlearts.ie). She has also just produced a book, Connemara (published by Artisan House, artisanhouse.ie), which looks at the work she has made since this Cross settled on a remote wild outpost in 2001.
Cross lives at the tip of the Renvyle peninsula in Connemara and her view of the world is the end of this world or the beginning of the next one, huge crashing waves at the entrance to the Killary fjord, the wildest of the west. And it is a very appropriate setting for an artist, whose work is so entwined with nature.
Cross was born in Cork and studied art, first in Leicester and then San Francisco. She started exhibiting regularly in the mid-80s, often interweaving found objects from her family home into mixed media installations. She moved more into sculpture in the 90s, exploring cultural and societal ideas of sexuality and subjectivity. One famous piece, Virgin Shroud (currently in the Tate Britain), is a veil made from cow skin with udders for the crown. She reached a very wide public in Ireland with her piece Ghost Ship in 1999, which even got to America: "It was on CNN. I had to sign a contract with them, which I hated". Ghost Ship featured a disused lightship covered in luminous paint anchored in Scotsman's Bay in Dun Laoghaire. It sat glowing and fading through the night, remembering the old lightships of the past that used to dot our coastline.
That same year, she made one of her own favourite pieces, Chiasm. This multimedia piece was performed in Galway, in a pair of abandoned open-air handball alleys onto which Cross projected mirror images of a limestone tidal pool, the Worm's Hole, filmed on the Aran Islands. "Those handball alleys were magnificent, they should be treasured. We presumed they would be knocked down the minute we finished, but they are still standing there untouched. Someone should do something lasting there."
If you are unfamiliar with Cross's work, you should start with View in the Kerlin Gallery. It represents the key enduring themes of her work, the celebration of nature and memory, the provocative, the surprises. It is work that demands a double take.
"The reason that I called this new show View is that it really is that predicament when you are beginning to think of a new show and you are trying to locate your own view. I am always very conscious of living in a place where the view is exquisite and generally what people consider art to be. But the view of this show refers to the point of view of the viewer as well as the artist's."
Cross's respect for her surroundings means that she never uses a filter or touches up the photographs of her land - it is crucially important that their beauty is untampered with. "The mad red landscape in that picture is, in actuality, mad red landscape on Inishturk, that's what it looks like". This doesn't mean she doesn't play with her materials. In a piece called, Finger Crab, there is a delicately beautiful crab cast in silver, but look closer and in place of one of its claws is a small child's finger.
Her work often uses sharks and bones, cow hides and udders, sea flotsam. She does have a zoologist brother, Tom, which may explain some of the more exotic remains. But one very powerful piece in View contains a genuine human skull. "This piece is called Scales and the skull has been split in two, gilded with yellow gold and each side filled with meteorites. They are hung on either side of my mother's blue coat hanger, to create a sense of a human body and they represent balancing the rational and the intuitive as we navigate through the world." And with that, Cross neatly sidesteps my query as to the origin of the skull. I don't ask again, some mysteries are better left unexplored.
Sitting in the middle of pristine white floorboards, everything is clean about this empty bucket, a rag and a brush. It is as if everything has been scrubbed clean, even the bristles of the brush have not been spared.
There are buckets like this placed all round the floor in Forsaken, a new installation by Farcry Productions (www.farcryproductions.ie) permeating its site-specific venue, Dollard House, on Dublin's Wellington Quay. It is hard to remember what was in this strange space beside the Clarence Hotel before, in a prime location that many people walk by every day. But this new exhibition by Mannix Flynn and Maedhbh McMahon will draw you in and force you to look both inside yourself and inside the recent history of our land, at what went on inside so many similarly anonymous buildings we all walked past.
"The buckets are to remind us of the constant hard labour of cleaning and scrubbing," explains Flynn. "They are placed throughout the space at Dollard House to constantly remind you of the process of containment and confinement and the implements used therein. Forsaken hopes to dignify and return individuality to people who were victimised by harsh, unforgiving institutions. This work advocates for people to not forsake themselves. No matter what the hardship imposed by others, people can once again take command of their souls and spirits and move forward."
The installation contains stitched tapestries, mounted coffin plaques and other mixed media to call to mind the regimes of Magdalene laundries, mother and baby homes, and other institutions.
1 The 55th Dublin Theatre Festival kicked off on Thursday and week one is filled with many gems. My absolute must-see pick this weekend has to be Thomas Ostermeier's radical reworking of Hamlet. The Bord Gais Energy Theatre's stage will be covered in earth, blood and water for this electrifying performance. dublintheatrefestival.com.
2 Another major highlight this week is one of our own radical theatre companies, Pan Pan Theatre, and their examination of Chekhov's masterpiece, The Seagull, throwing in lots of other birds too, including cygnets as the cast have been training for months to seriously attempt Swan Lake's 'Dance of the Cygnets'. dublintheatrefestival.com.
3 My lucky dip pick of the week, though, is Zoo by Treatro de Chile. This looks at the last two Tzoolkman people and what to do with a culture that is about to become extinct, how can it be conserved or should they just be in the zoo to protect them. This show could be ridiculously absurd or brilliantly absurd. dublintheatrefestival.com.