Kilkenny Arts Festival: Sessions alive in the Marble City
A brand new artistic director working on his very first festival and a very different kind of programme makes this year's 41st Kilkenny Arts Festival (kilkennyarts.ie) something to anticipate.
Launched Friday August 8, this 10-day festival marks the festival debut for Eugene Downes, best known culturally for his role as chief executive of Culture Ireland for five years from 2007, where he established a new model for promoting and advancing Irish arts internationally.
The first bold step of Kilkenny 2014 is the removal of all the individual arts strands with their individual curators. The board of the festival had already taken steps to move from team of specialist curators to each art form to this model of a single artistic director, "and that was laid out in the interview process, that dice had already been cast. But it was one of the key things that excited me about going for the role," says Eugene.
And Eugene has taken this one step further by dispensing with traditional categories entirely.
"So many artists are making work that doesn't fit neatly into a box with a black and white label of 'theatre' as opposed to 'dance', or 'classical music' as opposed to 'folk'. From an artistic point of view, I'm trying to open it up by avoiding labels and not just reconfirming audience expectations of what they like or don't like."
Instead of familiar categories such as Music, Theatre, Literature, the sections are titled My First Festival, My Inspiring Festival, and My Legendary Festival.
"I know it is a challenge, for us and for audiences, but I think it is important to push the boat out and have new conversations. We want to create a continuous flow of experiences from one location to the next and from one artform to the next. An obvious example of this is our Lear Project. This takes a great piece of classical dramatic poetry, opens it up and re-imagines it through contemporary performance and dance to see what new things might emerge. There will be elements of the original Shakespearean text but there will also be the introduction of movement and performance and light and sound."
The Sessions is another very personal project for Eugene. "The Marble Sessions emerged from a conversation with the great musician Martin Hayes and Martin has co-curated this project. I had been thinking about defining the festival around artistic residencies, with performers being in Kilkenny for a number of days and participating in a range of events in different venues and to different audiences, encountering new ideas.
"It's an opportunity to bring together a whole range of Irish and international musicians and see what might happen in venues ranging from St Canice's Cathedral to incredibly intimate spaces. Much of it is planned, but there is a big part being left open to chance, to new people turning up, that sense of informality and improvisation, a session in the true sense.
"When you're planning any event, you throw a huge number of balls in the air and see what land. There are artists we invited to present a particular project which isn't possible but then they offer a different project and that opens up a whole new conversation of ideas."
The Secret Garden Music is another advance for the festival. Kilkenny's historic indoor venues are well known but now the festival is braving the Irish climate and going outdoors for a series of short pop concerts in these four hidden walled gardens in the heart of the medieval city.
The gardens themselves have an integral secret quality but the programme will too, as they are not announcing anything more than the time and the location, audiences will have to take an element of pot luck with who might be on the bill.
As all these art forms intersect and overlap, does Eugene worry that any of the classical forms will get lost in all this merging?
"No, we are actually celebrating the classic form this year, as well as taking new angles. We are presenting a full cycle of Beethoven's string quartets and our Beowulf is an attempt to recreate the original conditions for this epic text rather than force it into a voguish fusion mash-up.
''What we are also doing is bringing people together to join forces, introducing an extraordinary glass artist such as Roisin de Buitlear to musician Liam O'Maonlai who will perform on her glass instruments.
''The idea for such introductions is to create something adventurous and exciting. And it will stand or fall on the success of such introductions."
The colours around him may be bright and summery, but there is no escaping the dark sternness of the main figure in this picture featuring two self portraits of artist Tony O'Malley. His drooping moustache brings some of its own dourness, but the palette used for his skin, the hollowing out of his eyes and the blunt emphasising of his silhouette all contribute to this sense of foreboding.
Kilkenny-born O'Malley was a self-taught artist who became famous for his determinedly sombre canvases in the 1960s. He became one of the most important Irish painters of his time. In the early days, the self-portrait was a convenient and immediate means in which to put marks to paper whenever a mirror was available. O'Malley considered the mirror to be a non-judgemental ally. The result was an extensive series of predominantly monochromatic and stark self-portraits, painted over 40 years, of which the artist remarked "the more I paint the less of myself if there".
His key themes were nature and history; a simple bird song could fill a canvas. And his paintings were created on everything from scraps of recycled paper and canvas to the hoops of an old Guinness barrel.
And it was certainly not all darkness, as this painting at least partially confirms. O'Malley did spend time later in his life in the Bahamas and the sun had a very vibrant effect on his work, creating flourishes like the backdrop here from this painting made in 1977. He died in 2003 at the age of 90.
A selection of 25 of his self-portraits are on display as a key part of Roscommon's 25th Boyle Arts Festival, boylearts.com, which draws to a close this weekend.
1 The big parade this weekend will be in Waterford for the annual Spraoi International Arts Festival. The medieval city will be alive from 9.30pm tomorrow night as over 200 performers take to the streets for To the Waters and the Wild', this year's theme with a Yeats twist. And it will all be followed by fireworks. See www.spraoi.com.
2 Featuring pictures by such camera legends as Eve Arnold, Marc Riboud, Elliott Erwitt and Abbas, a remarkable collection of photographs has been donated to IMMA. Second Sight: The David Kronn Collection comprises almost 600 photographs ranging from 19th Daguerreotypes to contemporary photographers. See www.imma.ie.
3 An Urban Fleadh places traditional diddly-eye and cutting edge contemporary trad bang in the heart of Dublin's city centre for a free two-day festival of Irish traditional music in Wolfe Tone Square this weekend. One of the highlights will be the Call to Dance, with a caller inviting everyone up to haon, do, tri.