Looking out the window I see the wings dramatically flex as the strong winds buffet the plane. We descend into thick cloud just outside Cork and the Airbus rocks violently and even the crew seems a little nervous, almost frightened. Being an experienced traveller, you get accustomed to the humdrum of landing, but this approach seems a little out of the ordinary for it feels like an eon ago that the captain announced there were ten minutes to landing and yet we’re still in the air. It’s flights such as this that makes you appreciate the work of pilots and admire their calmness in a crisis. Like when pilot Chesley Sullenberger calmly told air traffic control in New York that – “We’ll be in the Hudson" after his plane hit a flock of birds. Suddenly we drop out of the cloud and I am expecting to see the river Lee cutting through the city but instead the runway rises up and we drop with an almighty thud, presumably to negate the risk of aquaplaning. We career down the runway with spray whipping off the wings before finally coming to a stop. As often happens on Irish flights, even non eventful ones, the passengers applaud the pilot for his skill in defying gravity in the face of nature’s tempest.
Rain lashes down as I exit the airport and I am about to head to the Crawford Gallery for the opening of Terror and the sublime: art in an age of anxiety, when I learn of flood warnings across the county. I decide to head home to West Cork and nearing Bandon I see water in the fields and then a tree standing in a pod of earth that has slipped from the embankment and into the middle of the N71. I drive on and around it, looking at the river encroaching near to the road until finally the two merge. I stop and am advised to seek an alternative route. Detouring, I am again faced by a flooded road and in the face of all logic I grit my teeth and push the low-slung Alpha Romeo into the water. The car sinks, the engine splutters, and then it dies. How appropriate that in a world threatened by environmental dangers the Crawford should pick this night to open an exhibition that includes historical paintings such as The deluge by Francis Danby (c. 1840), A thunderstorm: the frightened wagoner (1832) by James Arthur O’Connor and George Barret’s A stormy landscape (1760). It is an exhibition that also includes contemporary art that explores human fears and “…the way artists respond to the times they live in…”
I am thinking of this day as I listen to the Director of the Glucksman Gallery, Fiona Kearney, who is standing by President Mary McAleese at the opening of Thingamajig – the secret life of objects. This exhibition is opening several months late due to the catastrophic floods that hit Cork on the same day I piloted my car into the river. “Thingamajig is an exhibition that tells stories of local character, personal ingenuity, and broader social history through an inspired selection of artworks, objects and documentary materials." It’s an exhibition that has an important story to tell and primarily that is how the gallery and its art collection were threatened, damaged but then mostly saved. In one gallery there are newspaper clippings pinned to the wall and I am pleased to see they have included critical comments such as the often-repeated remark: that the Glucksman were “crazy" to store their art collection in the basement, on land that was known to flood. However, complaining that the gallery might have been negligent in piloting their collection into the river seems a little unfair when you see the photograph that graphically shows the magnitude of the disaster they faced. This was the 1000-year flood, five years into the gallery’s existence. It was noticeable that at the opening so much of the visitor interest was directed to this room and for good reason. It was the most interesting thing in the exhibition. Judging by the commercial media, we all love a good disaster, especially one that ends with our spirits being lifted by heroic rescue, or one that reveals our inherent community spirit. This just might be true of this exhibition.
Whilst the documentation of the flood is worth the visit alone, the overall exhibition is not dissimilar to the Cork Museum over at Fitzgerald Park, where, when it also reopens, you will find many other interesting objects and stuffed animals with fascinating histories that have been collected over the years. The museum even has a very small case dedicated to An Gorta Mór or the Great Hunger, which is also known as the Irish famine. Thingamajig “… asks questions, such as why do we collect? What is worth keeping? How do we identify ourselves through the objects we collect around us?" They are important questions and the Glucksman exhibition manages to ask these few very pertinent and serious questions about how Irish history and contemporary events are institutionally framed and presented. For if you go back over to the Cork Museum and see how the small An Gorta Mór case is juxtaposed against a much larger case proudly displaying a signed Roy Keane football shirt and other sporting memorabilia, you begin to realize why these questions need to be addressed.
In an ironic twist, the Glucksman includes The way things go by Peter Fischli and David Weiss. It is an important and influential work that is just as memorable for the advertisements it has inspired as the actual film they made. Everyday objects are assembled and with an ignition it sets in play a series of chain reactions whose domino effect is recorded on film. If you have never seen it, think of the Guinness ad or the car ads on TV. In Thingamajig it is fascinating to think of President McAleese standing at the rostrum in a similar way. The heavens open, the Inniscarra dam, already full, becomes dangerously so, the ESB release the pressure by hitting the switch that spills out a torrent of water that flows into Cork, collapsing retaining walls and floods the city’s roads and buildings, the gallery and museum sink under the deluge and the art floats to the ceiling as generators of power are destroyed. But then…
Fiona Kearney and her team’s energetic response to the crisis is quite remarkable given that before the disaster struck the Glucksman was facing serious funding issues and had an air of despondency which added to the doom and gloom of Cork’s art scene, where most of the commercial galleries have recently closed. I would not have been surprised if I had read that due to the flooding the Glucksman was also to close or that UCC had decided to change the use of the building into classrooms that taught water management courses for the twenty-first century with practical demonstrations in the basement. Was this to be the straw…? For in 2009 it was noticeable that exhibitions were spreading out over longer periods, staffing was trimmed and exhibitions began to look thinner in content than before. Thingamajig is a case in point. If one puts a critical hat on, this exhibition is a collection of objects that are very well presented in a beautiful space; however, they are neither particularly remarkable nor deserve the serious curatorial attention of this institution. It has the look of a low-cost-airline exhibition using borrowed objects from internal departments and other museums in the city. For example, a collection of books on humour from the library! A collection of old calculators from the lost-property department of UCC! A stuffed wallaby! A selection of car locks/ignition barrels from the old Ford factory!
However, what is remarkable is that the Glucksman has bounced back and is actually open. They have also looked the criticism in the face, and included what might have been an embarrassing event in the exhibition. It shows it has the intent, if not immediately the means, to be a serious and important Cork institution, and suddenly one feels more confident of its future. Kearney has turned a disaster into a display of remarkable management. The presence of the country’s President and all those UCC dignitaries at the opening is a credit to her energetic and inspired work in getting the gallery re-opened, when only a few weeks ago fish from the river Lee were spawning in it. It is to be admired and acknowledged as a remarkable achievement and the documentation of ‘the emergency’ elevates the exhibition to one of a fascinating ‘must see’. Maybe it could also be the catalyst for a Richard Serra ‘flood barrier’ along the banks of the river Lee.