The other week I happened to be listening to the radio (CountryWide, RTÉ Radio One, Saturday 16 May) when I heard the artist, Orla Barry, speaking from her farm in Wexford about her sheep herd (Lleyn and Beltex).
She read an excerpt from her book, the almost unpronounceable Shaved Rapunzel Scheherazade & the Shearling Ram from Arcady, published last year and launched at Dublin Art Book Fair 2019. Orla Barry also exhibited at Temple Bar Gallery + Studios in 2016 as part of a Touring Programme with Wexford Arts Centre, Crawford Gallery, Cork, and Mu.Zee Romestraat, Ostend. Her remarkable exhibition, Breaking Rainbows involved live performance, video installation and a 300kg pile of wool produced on her farm over a year. The passage she read on radio was told from the voice of a drowning ram, who fell into the freezing lake.
Orla Barry is one of those incredible ‘slash’ people – artist/shepherd/farmer/writer/novelist. Her book Shaved Rapunzel Scheherazade & the Shearling Ram from Arcady is a gem. It’s an artist’s book of sorts and definitely a genre-breaker. Yet, it seems different to what we might expect from an artist’s book (if there is such a thing as a typical artist’s book). There is in Barry’s, few images, there is an official publisher (Wexford Arts Centre and Mu.Zee, Ostend), and, her book is underpinned by a narrative. Maybe it’s closer to books, such as those made by the artist Katrina Palmer, with their experimental writing and use of language as a malleable form. In Orla’s case, as in Palmer’s, her book belongs (but exists separately) to a larger art project, Breaking Rainbows, where language, as in all of Barry’s work is a material put to perform.
Shaved Rapunzel Scheherazade & the Shearling Ram from Arcady, is a small, monochrome book, where graphic design and typography feature large. It is a delight to hold in the hand and move through from page to page. Auto fiction and fable are interwoven with concrete poetry and word picturing. At the back is a compendium, THE MEANEST OF YOUR FLOCK: AN ABCDERY OF SHEEP, written by Lisa Godson (Historian of Design & Material Culture, NCAD), and the only part of the book with any pictures. Godson presents a delightfully idiosyncratic anthology on sheep, with bibliographical referencing from ancient texts to contemporary sources.
Unfolding over seasons, ‘Autumn Season’, ‘Winter Season’, ‘Spring Season’, ‘Summer Season’, Barry recounts episodes from her life as a reborn hybrid artist/farmer. The chapters are short and vividly compelling. Insights to her world build through the arrangement of texts, whole pages offer a visual poetry – with words shaped to depict their subjects and words shaped to ooze sound. There are fables of humans and animals whose origins seem from long ago and imbue magic realism. In one vignette, set against an etching of clouds, the Sun and the Rain, personified, have it out. Rivalry abounds in a world lived close to the elements. Mythology and real life intertwine, as Barry holds her place in a mostly male world of shepherds - bidding at the mart, clearing sewers, lambing, bringing up a motherless lamb, shearing, bringing a ram to slaughter – some shepherds good, some shepherds bad. She’s acquired expertise through doing, knowledge is learnt through trial, error, labour, passion. She uses intuition and flair, she is deeply attached to her subject (the sheep), they drive her mad, she loves them, she’d jump into freezing water to save them. It won’t be lost on the reader, the overlap between the farmer in her and the artist that is her. She takes personal risks, there are stories of violence, love and sexual desire. There is humour and a lot of playfulness. Hers is a mind working hard where thinking comes out of the physical. Mischievous, mysterious, feminist, feminine, gender defying, tender, her resilience sparkles.
Barry’s book is an artwork. It might also be classified as anthropology, where in her case, lived experience brings insight to an ancient and living tradition. For Barry though, where the idea of approaching language as malleable material, always has orality to the fore, ‘this is not a book: it is a performance.’
I re-read Orla Barry’s book after listening to the radio interview, lying on the couch on the third floor of Temple Bar Gallery + Studios' empty studio block, with my feet up, underneath Barbara Knezevic’s big Monstera deliciosa plant. Praise be, praise be, the artists will be back soon. I did enjoy that sunny afternoon, with nothing to disturb. So, while the galleries remain closed, when online is not quite the real thing, I am recommending the artists’ books and books made by artists. A portable art that can take you somewhere different. You can read on a couch or on top of a grassy hill, or somewhere close to Arcadia. Artists’ books don’t necessarily require reading from beginning to end, they allow flicking, and dipping, and spending ages on one page just looking. The paper that is used, the shape of the book, the attention to print, to layout, to images, to fold, cover, sleeve, to typography, to text, to design, to subject, to content, to structure, these are some of the decisions that matter, exercising the slimmest of budgets. The artist’s book is an artwork, a limited edition, something to collect, and something to hold in the hand and keep in the mind and heart.
TBG+S studio artists whose books are recently published and available:
- Niamh O'Malley (RHA)
- Dragana Jurišić and Paula Meehan, Museum (Dublin City Council Culture Company)
- Chloe Brenan, Invisible Blows (TBG+S Dublin Art Book Fair Commission)
- Gerard Byrne, Beasts (Revolver Publishing)
- Forthcoming, Studio Publication Series, a new series of artists’ books by TBG+S Studio artists, including Aleana Egan and Richard Proffitt.
Dublin Art Book Fair 2020: Design as Attitude will be curated by the world renowned design writer, Alice Rawsthorn. It will feature artists’ books and recent publications from select publishers, talks and presentations. We are still finalising the logistics around DABF, 2020, but rest assured, we are ensuring the availability of plenty of fabulous, less easy to source books and limited editions from artists and top independent publishers.
Clíodhna Shaffrey, Director
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All of our online programmes are free for you to enjoy while you stay at home.
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