"No feeling of drowning panicked me, no let-up
In the attic downpour happened, no
Fullness could ever equal it, so flown
And sealed I feared it would be lost
If I put it into words."
Imagine you're from a place known for beauty, a lived-in, dream place that others only visit, holiday through. It demands that you leave. In what ways can you come back? How can you still be found there? Much of Orla Barry's photographic, text and sound installation work searches for the place where myth, memory and a robust and sensual physical reality intersect. She re-places herself where she's been removed. She inserts her distinctive blatter of words into everyday talk. She takes us to a seashore, where rugged old ladies bathe in cloud-covered mornings, for the energising shock of the breakers on their red-lip-sticked faces. Barry is that old lady and her work is that refresher-rush of salty cold water.
You enter "Foundlings" through a sky-blue doorway in a sleepwall to a bright field of emerald green - the kind of grass-green that glows from within. While earlier works relied on sound and photographs, here Barry creates an environment as sheltered as her beloved "beach corner" on a breezy Irish strand. Her video is a love collage of text and image, a digital painting of landscaped memory. The sea charges at the spectator head on, un-harnessed, inviting, loud. This is Barry's element - "the only place where i am not craving something else", the place where she feels so connected to land, she is able to leave it. Here the debris of urban life, of displacement is rinsed away as she becomes as rooted and washed as a sea-rock, blistered with limpets and bearded with seaweed. "That mad water has the same effect as fire". Her work purifies, distils, soothes.
We follow in the sandprints of a woman wearing a red bathing costume against a cloudy sky. The camera strokes a rock on the shoreline. It's placed, it belongs. It can exist in both elements. The woman moves towards the sea. The brusque, brisk immersion in the waves resembles a bliss-union kind of motherlove that demands sacrifice: "You will have to give up everything... you will suffer the plunge of my driftwood dagger... bloodied by sea... your heart will become mine." Jagged vigour pulls Barry's practice back from sentimental elegy. "I activate my second beach birth... i am aroused by the bashbash, huge breakers have already raped my waist." Her verbal implosions are cut against the image of a hand, the fingers ringed by shells, clenching into a tight fist. The camera twists on the clouded sky as if seeking out blue then switches to a graveyard, ordered, harnessed, while Barry's voice says, "I swim against the tide", as if against the insistence of rural tradition, expectation and lineage.
The sisters described in "The Scavenger's Daughter" one of Barry's earlier pieces, appear. They act out their bond against a white-washed wall, trying to be po-faced, breaking into laughter, the easy familiarity of siblings. One recites the text in the rhythm of instruction, learnt at school. Words move from the concrete to the abstract, between the quotidian and the mythological: "We are the strong statue sisters, far descendants of King Aha... we clean the bath with a pointed flake implement in flint". Their clothes emphasise likeness, emphasise childlikeness when mothers dressed their little girls all the same. Barry tries to take a solemn snapshot. The sisters won't submit willingly to the gaze of the camera. They're shy, giddy, unsure.
If being "artistic" led Barry away, becoming an artist allows her to return and study the mystery at the centre of childhood with a distance that is mercifully free from irony and nostalgia. There's a visual lyricism that renders the text less snatched, less jerky than in previous work, as though Barry has more successfully integrated the Ireland of her memories with her adult experience of it. In one scene, bloodied hands pull open a pigeon's chest and rip out the full maroon heart. The reality of work, of cruelty, slips a knife into the cherished fantasies of sandcastle-building. Girls fight over a bucket, cursing, wrecking their shell-decorated little world. While the woman swims alone, the men work the sea in a team , rowing to the whispered song of naming the stones: 'path-across-the-sea stone, sun-on-a-foggy-day stone, heavy-heart stone...". They chime like echoes of a lost language, like the locations of Barry's film: Ballygrangens, Belgrove and Bannow - the forced Anglicisation of "Cuan an Bhainbh" - "harbour of the suckling pig'.
The trouble with translation is also explored later in the video when a French woman reads a section of text aloud. Her tongue is unable to get round ours.
She can't form the word "tongue". "The 'tong' that i am is ready to love..." In a wonderfully succinct and clever way, Barry plays with the notion of native tongue, mother tongue and the French word for "tongue", "langue" which also means "language". Seaweed tails are anchored in the sand, swaying in a gleaming shallow tide, as mesmerising as tongues doing a slow dance underwater. This is seduction by "tongue": "I am licking you clean till you're unclean again... I like to taste 'tong', other 'tongs' than mine". Barry has lived in Brussels for several years, caught in the contested linguistic territories of Flemish and French. Her "native" tongue, the Gaelic language, lies partially submerged like the barnacled rocks on the Wexford shoreline. By using several forms of address, including the first person voice over, text recited by someone else, a sailor song sung by an old woman, Barry invents a fiction of multiple "I"s, which enrich our understanding of the unfixed, multiple nature of identity. Barry's use of female personae makes her feminism subtle, witty and pleasantly underhand. She suggests that the imaginative world of the female characters is complex and "other", yet they still operate in the social and cultural arena with men - a strategy many powerful Irish women have always sustained.
The men drink in tribes, the woman in the red swimsuit drinks alone. The fiddle accompanies their quaffing of pints of Guinness like a giggle, a cheer. The woman walks in slightly slowed motion down a country lane and enters the men's domaine - still in her togs. She will drink her Guinness all in one go, like a lad. She will celebrate the pink walls of the rural pub as Philip Guston celebrates the thick impasto of pink. She will not be dressed properly, unlike the men in their ironed-by-mammy shirts and jeans, their black leather jackets. She will love the sea too much. She will be tossed and bullied by the waves of a rough dusk tide while the local men belt a ball in a concrete handball court and hand-jive. Farm-dogs, those crazy collies that risk death at the wheel of each passing car, will bark at her. She will bare her curly cunt. Howl herself.
She will beat off the boyos with her fierce eyes, her intellect, her spit. She will contest the territory, the terrain, the game. She will be stocious with sensuality, fucked by claiming beauty. She will choose to be alone, in the sea of language, submerged, emerging, surging in an altogether different rhythm. She will swim away in another form of departure, close to land, yet separate. She will make rocks speak. Some part of her will always stay.
(1) Seamus Heaney, "Clomany to Ahascragh", from "Electric Light", Faber & Faber, 2001