An Leabhar Mor and LK243 UnderSail
An Talla Solais, Ullapool, until 20 May 2012
THE TALL SHIPS are back in Ullapool, or it seems that way, thanks to an exhibition called LK243 Undersail at An Talla Solais, which evokes the 2011 race from Waterford in Ireland all the way to Halmstad in Sweden.
THE SHIPS called in at Ullapool, and this exhibition traces the path of one of them, through the record created by Imi Maufe, who was on board vessel LK243 as artist in residence during the voyage.
At the heart of the exhibition is a neat little wooden ‘bunk box’, designed to fit into a tiny berth, but instead of the trinkets and personal belongings you might expect to be in it, it is filled with badges, wooden ‘postcards’, little notebooks, and a miniature video screen. The entire exhibition is designed to be housed in this box, or, as in this case, for some of its contents to explode out onto the walls of a gallery.
The wall pieces include screenprinted images, mostly simple but effective evocations of the view out of a porthole, with bold colour and line capturing key moments cartoon-style. There are also bunk curtains, and both these and the screenprints feature four word phrases, which come from the journey record.
Each hour, the position of the boat was plotted, and coupled with a four word phrase for each, this forms the record. Taken together they are evocative and amusing. A few examples will give a flavour: ‘Early Morning Island Sillhouettes’, ‘Dophins Jump Through Rainbows’, ‘Eerie Screaming Bird Sound’, ‘Dodging Tankers In Dark’, ‘Fun With Foreign Languages’, ‘Drawing Maps On Beach’,'Hourly Chart Position Charted’, ‘Oldest Boat For Now’ and ‘Increasing Uncertainty From Thursday’.
Participants in the journey and observers have been invited, as fellow travellers, to draw pictures of boats, or record memories of other sea voyages and these are included in the log. This gives a flavour of the thronging masses of people who collectively make up the Tall Ships Race.
The video, some sections of which could make you seasick, is mostly footage of the sail, plus showing how the artist printed positions on wooden postcards, then hurled them into the sea at various stages of the journey. Miraculously some of these have been found, returned to the artist and added to the exhibition. Taken all together it’s a rich picture that gives a real sense of a sea voyage enjoyed by a host of maritime people.
The second part of the exhibition is also a touring show of words, but this one has been on a worldwide voyage that has lasted many years. An Leabhar Mor na Gaidhlig (The Great Book of Gaelic) has, as its title suggests, a book at its centre. It is one of my favourite books, a vast and colourful celebration of Gaelic poetry, from Scotland and Ireland, from the earliest known written verses to new work by living bards. It is appropriate that its visit to Ullapool should coincide with the book festival which always pays such creative respect to the mother tongue of this corner of the world.
Yet An Leabhar Mor is much more than a book of poetry. Each poem is printed in both its original Gaelic and in translation, and in addition it is given a full page of illustration. Each of these illustrations is created through collaboration between a calligrapher and an artist, and many of the resulting pieces are little masterpieces of visual art. The exhibition allows these works to be seen at full scale, thus really enhancing the experience of the book’. Although the reproductions are excellent, the texture and full impact of some of the pieces is only possible by seeing them framed on a wall.
It is surprising that many of the pieces selected for the exhibition are monochrome, because the overall impact of the book is that is richly colourful.
Some of my favourites include Stan Clementsmith’s marvellous tree/people image illustrating Uilleam Neill’s poem ‘De a Thug Ort Sgriobhach sa Ghaidhlig?’(What compelled you to write in Gaelic?). The lines include ‘Oh horo, won’t I be joyful / speaking to each tree that’s there’, and the tree image conveys all that joy, along with the beautifully calligraphied words, ‘Bridhinn ris gach craoibh a thi’innte’. For a Gaelic learner, such accessible combinations of word and image are gratifying.
Tree-related calligraphy by Reitlin Murphy also graces Iain Joyce’s intriguing coloured lithograph for Claocho (Transfigured) by Cathal O’Searcaigh, in which he is ‘getting ready to become a tree.’ And again, in Norman Shaw’s dense etching for Iain MacGillEathain’s ‘Am Bard an Canada’, who is ‘alone in this gloomy woodland’.
There is much in this exhibition to make you ponder about the way the languages and artforms of these islands can reach out to each other across the boundaries of politics and discipline. This is most powerfully shown by Doug Cocker’s austere, severe, drawing of a building, responding to Liam O’Muirthile’s poem ‘Tairseacha’ (Threshholds). The calligraphy, by Aisling O’Beirn, highlights the challenges of crossing boundaries, making the worlds strange by laying them out in artificially even groups of five letters, with X to mark the end of one word and the start of another. Thus Einne Amuigh Thar Tairseacha? becomes the unintelligible EINNE.XAMUI.GHXTH. ARXTA.IRSEA.CHA?X
My favourite piece of all, though, enhanced by a reading of the poem by Aonghas MacNeacail, is a brilliant response by Frances Walker to Ian Chrichton Smith’s poem ‘Aig a Chladh’ (At the Cemetary), about the burial of ‘my neighbour lying under the bee / that is humming among sweet flowers.’ The picture shows a congregation of black-hatted and clothed people making their way past a forest of white graves. Beyond, in a pulse of colour made even more powerful by the lack of other colour in the exhibition, shimmers the silvery-blue sea, across which all these words and images have journeyed.
© Mandy Haggith, 2012