Every summer since they first opened in 2005, Lismore Castle Arts has put on an exhibition for the entire summer, and in April they unveiled their 2008 show, A Life of their own, an exhibition of work by young sculptors, many of them exhibiting in Ireland for the first time. It is very apparent that this exhibition has been put together by a skilled master; Richard Cork, curator of the show, is a veteran of the art-world and this is in evidence throughout the show from his choices of works to the minute details of display. The show highlights the entire spectrum of what sculpture can be capable of, from echoes of ancient busts, dug up in excavations, past early modernism, minimalism, DVD presentations and sculptural paintings, and through to an almost sci-fi element of machines and moving lights. The exhibition simultaneously looks back at the history of sculpture and points to its future. It engages with the gallery space, and each work creates a dialogue with is neighbour, whilst at the same time holding its own in a room full of healthy competitors.
It is quite tempting, after visiting an exhibition by a group of artists as opposed to a solo show, to discuss each work individually. Whilst this is of course a necessary element, it is first necessary to consider the show as a whole; was the exhibition cohesive? Was the overall message clear? Did the works speak to each other and to their surroundings? The thrilling impression one had upon leaving A Life of their own is yes! It was cohesive; the message was clear and yes, there was a clear dialogue between the individual works, which were intriguing individually but also created a new narrative through the connections with and proximity to each other. Cork has chosen a group of artists whose similarities lie in their confident individuality. Each work, robust and potent as its neighbour, has a marked physical presence with the viewer in its space.
One such artist, whose work wholly epitomises the idea of artworks having a life of their own, is Roger Hirons. His work literally takes on a life of its own as the process of making the artworks is out of the artist’s hands due to his surprising use of materials. Immediately it is clear that Hirons is making use of industrial and utilitarian materials, but these have been transformed through rust or crystallisation. Both of the works featured in the show are untitled. The first consists of a BMW engine which had been dipped in copper sulphate, transforming the engine into a fascinating and glittering mass of intertwining coils and funnels. The engine is perched atop a steel support structure which houses another crystallised mass, hidden under a shelf. These forms reveal the process of their own creation, as do the two massive steel discs of Hirons second piece. The discs overlap each other and their surfaces have again been transformed, this time by urine. When the viewer walks around to the back of the massive structure, the support system to allow this work to remain vertical is revealed, thereby further revealing its inner workings and alluding to its own fragility.
|Matt Calderwood: Projections Unfinished Structure No.3 (2007); image held here|
Matt Calderwood’s Projections resemble industrial supports, heavy and imposing, intimidating reminders of twenty-first-century industrial construction, until you realise that the light plastic canisters of water placed on top are balancing the precarious unfinished structures, highlighting their vulnerability. The viewer might be surprised to find these imposing giants, dependent on small and feeble-looking balances.
|Eva Rothschild: Pony (2007); image held here|
Calderwood’s Projections are placed in the gallery next to the delicate web-like structures of Eva Rothschild. In contrast to Calderwood’s bulky but ultimately unstable constructions, Rothschild’s Pony with mixed-media frames, cubes intertwining and precariously placed atop another, is perfectly stable standing alone. Stalker, another of Rothschild’s constructions, is probably the largest structure in the room; full of angles and monochrome glossy finishes, it creates a cubby space beneath the pyramidal shapes, and its scale evokes tents and playhouses, inviting the viewer into the work.
|Kate Atkin: Ball (2007); image held here|
Kate Atkin’s Pyramid juts into the viewer’s space. This mixed-media ‘sculptural painting’ surprises the viewer, as the pyramid protruding from the 2D ‘canvas’ is concealed by its dark mono-colour texture. In the exhibition’s catalogue, curator Cork describes the starting point of this work: “Atkin had been reading Brian Callison’s novel A Ship is dying, and she remains haunted in particular by the image of a rusty steel pyramidal structure rearing from the sea like a sinister sculpture. The gashed remains of a super-tanker, it is kept afloat by an air-bubble and threatens everything in the vicinity.”  Aktin has very effectively transferred that haunting into her very sinister-feeling work, which threatens the viewer as it would have done in the novel. Situated opposite Atkin’s Pyramid is Ball, an impressively detailed large-scale mixed-media sketch of gnarled tree bark. The viewer almost feels drawn into a slow-moving and sinister vacuum between the works as Pyramid protrudes and Ball retracts from the room.
|Kate Terry: detail from Thread installation #18, 2008; image held here|
Most of the works shown were selected by Cork, pre-exhibition, but Kate Terry is the only artist whose work is site-specific. Terry arrived in Lismore a week before the exhibition was due to open and in response to the space of Project Room 2 she pinned nails to the walls and beams, selected the right threads from a selection she had brought with her and set about putting together Thread installation #18 . This work is not concerned with its status as art object, for it changes. The light, the time of day, the weather and the position of the viewer in the gallery can affect how it is seen. There is a skylight in the room which greatly affects how the colours of the threads are seen, or how substantial they might appear. The viewer needs to navigate the taut and delicate boundaries of the room to achieve different aspects of the work itself. The neon colours create instantaneous arcs of colour and at the same time are broken to cause the viewer to wonder, is this really here? Is this artwork absent or present? The viewer can see the door at all times, as if there was no obstruction, but yet they are caught in a delicate web, which they must tentatively manoeuvre. The threads play tricks on the eyes, they appear to overlap each other, they create surprising patterns; silent force fields and computer graphs, weaving patterns and mono-colour rainbows. This work is absent, present, ephemeral. Terry’s work echoes Duchamp’s Sculpture for travelling of 1918, albeit with neon pink threads and graceful arcs.
|Rosalind Nashashibi/Lucy Skaer: Flash in the Metropolitan (2006); image held here|
The DVD installation, Flash in the Metropolitan, by Rosalind Nashashibi and Lucy Skaer is a film which documents a midnight stalk through the sculptural treasures of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. Split-second images flash intermittently on the screen for a total of three minutes and twenty-five seconds. The images are seen so briefly that we do not get to study these objects in detail but, instead, we see an array of works, not bound by time periods or themes or even cultures. The viewer is compelled to witness a seeming hodgepodge collection of sculptures selected from the entire history of sculpture, thus questioning the definitions and categories of art set out by institutions such as the Met.
|Daniel Silver: From the series Heads (2006); image held here|
Another artist exploring the history of sculpture is Daniel Silver. He spent some time in Zimbabwe, a country of personal associations, to carve his series of Heads . Affected by photographs of prisoners on death row, Silver began to create portraits of these people. What emerged are busts made from native Zimbabwean stone, such as soap stone, which appear to take the form of prehistoric busts, dug up from under the earth, busts from antiquity or early modernist, ‘primitive’ sculptures. Each of the Heads has its own personality, with personalised plinths and varying degrees of figurativeness. There is a violence obscuring details in the roughly hewn surfaces of some work, whilst others are more recognisable. The Heads are shown in two rooms; the first is Project Room 3, with its overcrowded waiting-room character. Knowing of the status of the busts as portraits of death row prisoners, the viewer could feel as if they are navigating larger than life characters, waiting patiently for their death, but this is complicated by the fact that the busts, running the gamut of sculptural history in style, feel as if they are loudly celebrating their own re-discovery. The sheer volume of works populating the room causes the viewer to pause and consider each Head as they must pass by to simply move through the room itself.
|Daniel Silver : Untitled ( Head 01)(2006) image held here|
The second room with Silver’s work, at the farthest point in the gallery from Project Room 3, is the mausoleum-effect Tower room, where the cold and the damp smell from the original stone in the walls adds to the sombre atmosphere echoed in a Head, lying on its side, as if sleeping on its melting pillow plinth. This work has a memorial feel, with a glacial quality to the plinth and a death-like mask on the sleeping Head . It would be futile to discuss both rooms in relation to each other, however, because though the Heads come from the same series, the effect of their presentation creates two very different experiences. Yet, it is this word – ‘experience’ – which is crucial to the description of A Life of their own .
|Conrad Shawcross: iSlow arc inside a cube (2007); image held here|
All of the works chosen have been presented so as to produce some physical effect on the viewer, from moving through the works of Terry or Silver, or seeing one’s own reflection in the shiny surfaces of Rothschild’s works, to feeling part of the work itself as felt with the work of Conrad Shawcross. Slow arc inside a cube had a scientific starting point. Shawcross was interested in the work of Dorothy Hodgkin, a scientist who developed a system of mapping the complex structure of pig insulin and described the process as akin to mapping the structure of a tree by using its shadow. The curator, Cork, describes the piece: “moving silently inside a cage-like structure, a sinuous metal machine armed with a point of light casts fierce, linear reflections on all the surrounding surfaces.”  The resultant effect is that the Slow arc inside a cube extends past its physical boundaries and is projected onto the walls of the gallery, thereby enveloping the viewer within it. The pattern is mesmerising but it could also be disorientating – the shadows create an ever-changing perception of the dimensions of the room – or even more menacing – the shadow doubles back on itself and suddenly the shadow of the machine arm is hurtling towards the shadow of the viewer! The machine arm is graceful in its fluid movements, and yet one is always aware that it is caged, and that those same graceful movements are unthinking and repetitive. It is easy to be drawn in by this machine and its encapsulating experience; it is a work which transcends its own physicality with the multiple layers of complex meaning imbued within it.
Only the most uninterested viewer could walk quickly through this fascinating exhibition, without pausing to carefully consider the effects of each new work encountered. There is a subtle thread of association connecting the seemingly dissimilar artworks. The philosophy of presentation means that each work carries its own set of meanings and yet is delicately balanced with and offset by each other work. The title of the show has many levels of meaning, for even though the artworks are full of their own life, it seems that collectively they take on a new meaning, and perhaps, then, the exhibition does have a life of its own.
 Richard Cork, A Life of their own, exhibition catalogue, 2008, p 17
 ibid, p 20