‘Breaking Rainbows’, Orla Barry, Wexford Arts Centre, 22 October-18 November, 2017
When indigenous oral tribes first saw Europeans reading they thought that they were handling magic ‘talking leaves’. In The Spell of the Sensuous, (1997), David Abrams explains that ‘only with the advent and spread of phonetic writing, did the rest of nature begin to lose its voice.’ By losing our sensory reciprocity with nature, he argues, the West has become increasingly separated from a more primordial way of seeing and participating with non-human nature.
Orla Barry has always reinvested language with the element of incantation or spell, to, as Abrams puts it, ‘write language back into the land’ and write ourselves back into refreshed perception. She returned to Ireland after living in Brussels for sixteen years, in 2009, sensing that would undo and redo her approach to her work. When she began to breed a flock of pedigree Lleyn sheep, she found a proximity to nature she’d craved in urban life that challenged her relationship to both landscape and identity. The new work is less lyrically doused in the summer contrasts of County Wexford where she often filmed, and more versed in a performative mode that relies on chance for its structure. It is as though living in Ireland again removed her need to represent the landscape so vividly and visually, and heightened the element fate played in her life’s direction. The effect on her practice is evident in ‘Mountain’, (2013), in which three performers spin a wheel of words and destiny dictates which word is chosen for a prepared response in text, music and/or dance. Barry’s environment shapes the lexicon, from ‘field, ditch and hovel’ to another word set that establishes the parameters of deconstructed theatre: ‘recall, multiply, confuse, predict, manuscript’, corralling the actors’ tasks of memorizing, stamina and interaction. The suspense and comic virtuosity of the delivery of each random segment is enthralling and agonizing to watch, as some words repeat and the depleted performer is called upon to re-enact the piece, word and gesture perfect, again.
‘Breaking Rainbows’, (2017) continues Barry’s investigation of the speech act and its diverse vehicles of meaning and social power from story-telling, dramatic monologue, concrete poem and oration, to a self-help, foodie rant and a sing-off between the sun and rain. The installation features scrim curtains printed with echoing words, snippets of sayings, some purloined from Virgil’s Eclogues, whose loves and losses of shepherds inspired early European pastoral poetry. Some reverberate with wordplay like ‘EU! EU! EUH? EUH? Milk the EU! We milk the EU! U U hehehehe…’, mounting in an ever-diminishing triangle of derision. Letters shift out of sense as if they’re all we’ve left from a once vibrant bucolic tradition, axed by industrialisation, urbanisation and climate crisis. Felt banners carry text messages in the lineage of Ian Hamilton Findlay: ‘Black sun odyssey’ or ‘Gather green suck blue’ while others blast with the fury of Angela Carter: ‘Shaved Rapunzel’ and ‘Devour red and yellow’. The sweetness associated with crafted felt is further corrupted with ‘Form is destroyed’. Each felt tablet was carded and felted from wool from Barry’s farm and conveys the feminist gall and imperative wit required to conquer edging depression.
The performance itself makes that wit spark and flame into audaciously funny farming scenarios that play out on a woolly mound where two performers frolick or collapse. Section titles like ‘Bloodlines, Sexual Identity and the Shepherd in the Dark’ or ‘Frogs are Female Toads’ are randomly handpicked from a bag by the audience. As in ‘Mountain’, when the performer goes from one demanding monologue to another and begins to flag, here, it effectively mirrors the relentlessness of husbandry. The episodes map the annual cycle of sheep-rearing and what Barry calls ‘the festival moments of sheep’: choosing a bloodline and buying the ram; lambing and selling the stock at the mart. Barry realised that most of her sheep-lore was learned from other farmers. She devised the script with Derrick Devine and Einat Tuchman, so that the characters are comprised of each of them, and oral storytelling, once central to Irish culture, is passed on.
‘The art is in the doing’, says one of the characters, and the more Barry embeds herself in sheep world, the more she spots the parallels with the art world. Both exhibit the best, use visual aesthetics to judge the winner and then money is exchanged. ‘Pedigree livestock and artworks are very similar,’ claims one breeder. ‘Both are the subject of personal opinion and their value is different to anyone who sees them.’ A scene worthy of Sotheby’s called ‘Pedigree sales: technique, emotion, poetry’, moves between the shepherd arriving at the mart with her prize sheep and the sensitive and vulnerable ram who resents all the pushing, shoving and having his balls handled. ‘I’m in a dark space that moves. Rattling metal. Terrifying. I’m counting to keep calm….what’s the fucking story now?’ Picking a ram, the shepherd is charged with a powerful eroticism: ‘Am I being spellbound? The bubbling feeling between man and animal. I don’t want to be genderised but I can feel it from the animals and the breeder…I feel stripped and can smell my femininity in this dirt.’ Barry becomes the bidding dealer, locked into a contest of wills, learning the game of tease and bluff.
Some sections such as ‘Humming at the Hive’ develop beyond language, with a solo performer droning the four words to a gasping crescendo of half syllabic moans in a wacky portrait of frenzied fecundity. The incantation draws us into something inexplicably raw and palpable as human and animal blur into one.
Finally, playing a 24-hour-midwife in the lambing season, leaves the narrator with ‘a profound sense of existence that I can’t find anywhere else.’ She tells of an anxiety dream in which she has missed the opening to her own show and a voice asks, ’Is it nature or culture for you?’ It’s clear that Barry is creating her own immediate, freaky and urgent answer.