The Clare Experience, a reflection on the role of art in rural communities
Sean Taylor, 2003.

I should start by saying that for me having the time and space to research the ‘Ground Up’ project has been invaluable. Addressing the issue of contemporary art practice and rural communities has thrown up more questions than I can possibly answer in one project. One of the most obvious questions, and the most difficult to quantify is; who is this rural community that I should be addressing and dialoguing with? There seems to be so many multifarious sub divisions or factions within the rural community here in Clare. For example there is the farming community, the town based community, the business sector, the IT sector, the tourists, the tourist industry, the musicians, youth culture, the immigrant population, the holiday home owners, the golfers and the GAA … (image 1) to mention but a few.

Image 1

All these groups, and more, represent the rural community that is Clare: and the question is how to begin dialoguing about contemporary art with so many vested interests, all of which quite correctly are stakeholders in the placement of artworks in their locality. Then of course you need to discuss the role of the landscape itself in all this. Spectacular without doubt, but of recent years competing for visual space with the myriad of roadside signage advertising everything from B&B’s to Bear’s Caves. A form of unconscious site-specific text base public art perhaps? Should there be an interpretative centre for this?

Image 2

All jokes aside there are a lot of contemporary public art works already happening in the county. I am not referring to the limestone sculptures that are located on the roundabout points in Ennis, but specifically the un-documented public artworks that have been created in the county for years now.

I refer in particular to the public art works that include the construction and decoration of holy wells, stone wall construction, the roadside memorial for victims of motor accidents (images 2/3), the creative positioning and artistic use by farmers of plastic hay bale constructions in the fields (image 4) the proliferation of saffron and blue on public buildings, private vehicles, and shop fronts when Clare hurlers and footballers take to the field.

Image 3

Another example of what I am alluding to was visible in the Burren until very recently, in thousands of copycat hand made dolmens constructed by tourists and public alike in response to the Poulnabrone Portal Dolmen. Quite possibly the best example of a truly democratic and spontaneous engagement with contemporary public art practice in the country. Sadly in this case the powers that be, and current custodians of the site, have deemed this creative activity to be a form of environmental eco-terrorism, and have removed these public art works. This of course raises more questions about the value of cultural experiences, and public access to historical sites in the Burren itself. However these are issues that I find myself unable to clarify, and this debate is too much of a political hot potato for an art project to begin to resolve. But it strikes me that the question of access and ownership of land in areas like the Burren, will be a defining point in how artists or the public can interact creatively with the landscape in the future.

Image 4

I would suggest that from an artistic perspective Clare’s biggest asset is its living landscape, which has a significant creative and educational impact on the various public groups that already access it.
Their needs to be an acknowledgement of the public led artistic activities that are already at work in the county, and real debate about how this work is developed and sustained in the future.

In conclusion I leave you with a story that to me sums up the effect that the landscape of Clare can have on artists: A few years ago I brought a group of sculpture students on a field trip to Ballyvaughan. We travelled out to Black Head where we went to walk up to and along a section of An Bothar Glas (The Green Road). After instilling upon my students the historical, cultural and emotional significance of these unique famine roads, we set about climbing. After a short while I stumbled upon a group of emotionally exhausted students having the obligatory ‘ramblers fag’, I asked why they had stopped there? ‘Were meditating on the famine, feeling the vibes of the Green Road, trying to communicate with the memories of the people who lived and died building this road’. ‘Very admirable says I, but the Green Road is about five more minutes that way, what your sitting on is an old cow track!’

Sean Taylor, 2003.