Interview with Des Cullen – Transcript

Des:  I’d like to ask you about the influences behind your work, whether it’s artists or other people involved in Landscape.

Séamus:  My influences come as much from archaeology and anthropology as they do from art practice.  Cultural archaeologist, Christopher Tilley has written about phenomenology and needing to be in the landscape, and spend time there in order to understand the activities of past cultures rather than just looking at artefacts or specific sites in isolation, so its really about trying to be in the landscape and absorbing the same kind of influences that would have acted upon the earlier peoples who would have lived in those areas.

D.  Do you want to say anything about artists?

S. I’ve worked in the past with Frank van de Ven, a Dutch artist who trained extensively in Japan in the 80s, in a system of working called Body Weather and he’s developed this process out of that called Body/Landscape as a way of exploring the possibilities of being in the landscape in a phenomenological way, involving techniques like moving very slowly or moving with eyes closed for an extended period so that you are sidestepping the clichés that landscape offers.  Sometimes we don’t tend to see beyond those so these are techniques for getting inside the landscape or allowing the landscape to get inside you.

D:  Is it like reinventing the subconscious in relation to the landscape?

S:  It’s a breaking down of the barriers between our subjectivity and the landscape.  In Western thought we often see ourselves as beings that are really quite alien to our environment, it’s something that we march across or move through but we don’t really enter into it, we conquer it, almost, whereas this is a way of seeing ourselves as just another part of the landscape, another creature or life form within it but not necessarily superior to anything else in any hierarchical way.

D:  Can I ask you why you choose the disused railway as a route for your walk or a focus for your project?

S:  The railway was a way of getting behind the façade presented when we travel by the public roads.  Roads are contradictory in that they allow access and enable us to move around in a landscape but they also restrict the nature of that movement, they tell us where we are allowed and not allowed to go.  In this region there are issues about access to land because it’s farmland, it’s intensively worked and even the higher ground is not considered as commonage in the way it might be in other parts of the world.

D:  Can you clarify that?

S:  In Britain where because land was owned in large estates there were more liberal rights of way whereas here, certainly since the foundation of the State, there is a much more protective attitude to private ownership and also more lately issues of insurance.  The railway line was a readymade route that would allow me to have a more immersive experience without actually tramping across open fields.  The actual ownership of the railway is a little bit unclear.  When the line closed in 1957 the landowners were given the option to buy back the land but a lot of people didn’t go through the legal procedure, others did so you never really know at any given point who owns the land so that gave me a kind of an excuse to be able to follow this route through the landscape.  I was reading about the “Milesmen” who were railway workers whose job was to inspect and repair the line. They worked locally, patrolling a stretch within 5 or 6 miles of where they lived, so I styled myself as a milesman; my job was to inspect the line but I was inspecting it for cultural activity rather than maintenance issues.  This was an identity and it also informed how I went about it, that I would do quite short stretches at a time, I didn’t want to become some sort of pilgrim or camper or long distance traveller, I wanted to appear as if I had some kind of business locally that would give me a right to be in that place.

D:  I’d like to ask you about the importance of the landscape that you’re moving through, the importance of the composition of the landscape.

S: Well, I’ve found as I continue my walk that what interests me is the detail, the very immediate experience of it.  This goes against the conditioned expectations that we have, this slightly clichéd idea of landscape as some kind of vista spread out before us.   The nature of the railway walk is that when you are going through these deep cuttings these kinds of views are actually fairly rare so the focus tends to be instead on the very local, the minutiae, plants and fungi, even the sounds, sloshing through water and mud, the smells, it really becomes a very local journey and this is starting to indicate to me what it means to walk as an artist.  Often travel is seen as a waste of time, we are always focussed either on the place we have been or the place we are going to and the in between is considered dead time or dead space whereas what I’m trying to do is enliven that space so that every step is both an arrival and a departure.  The very wildness of the railway is an asset to that because you are always stopping to climb a fence of scramble under a fallen tree of wade across a stream so it forces you to focus on the local.  There is a plan to develop the route as a greenway for tourists, which would mean that one could no longer have the kind of journey that I am having.  You couldn’t bring hordes of people through it in its current state but

I would worry that if it is over developed it becomes another roadway or corridor that shuttles people from A to B, and it all becomes about the destination rather than the journey but perhaps there is something that my experience can bring to the way it is developed that might encourage people to walk more thoughtfully and with more awareness.

D:  how do you see your work as being different from that of other artists who work in the landscape?

S:  One of the things I am interested in is the distinction between the colonisers of a landscape and the inhabitants or the indigenous peoples.  In Western culture there has been a tendency to romanticise landscape and wildness both in literature and the visual arts.  The Irish are unusual in that on the one hand we are a Western society, a first world society but within that we have been the colonised rather than the coloniser and so we have a very different attitude to the land.  A lot of writing seems to me to be driven by a kind of postcolonial guilt that we don’t suffer from in the same way.   It obviously has shaped how we look at the land but it has shaped it in a different way.  The railway was a colonial expansionist scheme to enhance economic activity by exporting the produce of the region to Britain and beyond but since it closed it has become the opposite.   It was an industrialisation of an agricultural landscape but now it has become a wilderness in an agricultural landscape so there’s lots of interesting inversions and contradictions going on, and I think that’s an interesting area to be working in.

D:  Is there a map-making process going on while you are undertaking this walk, either personal or universal?

S:  Very much so.  I have been reading Robert MacFarlane on map-making and he describes two kinds of maps; grid maps and story maps.  Grid maps are what we have become accustomed to in atlases, roadmaps and so on, they are a way of representing space in a very objective way, whereas the story map is much more specific to the local.  It doesn’t necessarily show where everything is in relation to everything else; it describes the stories and activities that have happened in particular places and their relevance to the culture.  I’m mapping by very different criteria to professional cartographers, and for different reasons.

D: How do you intend to present your show at UU, and what processes do you intend to use.

S:  I have been using a wide range of techniques and processes.  The crux is the transition from the personal experience of the walk into the more reflexive treatment of it in such a way that it can be shared with people who haven’t undertaken the journey.  It’s been a process of experimentation, of trying to find the most effective way of conveying that experience.  The obvious tools include photography and drawing to represent the things that I’ve seen, but this on its own is not really adequate to convey that sense of journeying through the landscape so I’m looking at ways of presenting that material that reflect the different layers of history, of stories that have been overlaid on the landscape even before the railway; so I’ve used sound recordings, videos, actual drawing of maps.  I’ve become better at documenting the journey as I travel, stopping to write notes on what I’ve experienced so that it remains fresh and serves as a resource for me.  One of the most successful things I’ve done is to build a little device where the map unfolds before the viewer when you turn a wheel, it’s very low-tech, but because it requires a physical intervention by the viewer it seems to convey the sense of undergoing a journey.

D:  Does this device include thought process that you become aware of on the journey?

S:  It’s a combination of drawings or pictograms and written text taken directly from my field notes but its not possible to transcribe everything so the notebooks themselves may form part of the exhibition.  There is also the possibility of me, or someone else reading sections of the notes.

D:  You haven’t mentioned the video pieces, which are another aspect of the work.

S:  It’s another aspect, it’s an effective way of commenting on the journey in so far as it happens in real time but its also a case of not overloading the amount of information that I present and if I use video elements it won’t be in the same way that video is used in mass media.  It would be in a more quirky or performative way that adds to the viewers experience in a way that makes them reflect and think about it rather than just being a straightforward narrative virtual version of the journey.

My art practice spans a wide range of activities from skilfully crafted stonework to art as research. For me the common link is that Art is activity, a way of making, doing and being. It is a tool for exploring and understanding the world. I believe the artist has an important role in society, to see things differently, to follow the road less travelled, and to hold out the possibility of a different way of being.

 

Art Research

During my MFA art in public studies at the University of Ulster, I became interested in walking as a form of research and art practice.  In this discipline I travel with an artist’s awareness, while documentation and reflection later form more tangible artworks.

Lettercutting

As a stone carver, I have developed a specialisation in cutting inscriptions by hand, using hammer and chisel in this time honoured craft, which marries the design sense of the typographer with the skill of the sculptor to produce beautiful inscriptions in stone, each one a unique and original artwork.

Commissions

A main plank of my activity has been the creation of publicly sited artworks. Commissioned by numerous public and private organisations, my approach is to be sensitive to the historical, social and topographical aspects of each location.  I oversee every aspect of the work from design to installation.

Performance & Bodywork

Before the chisel or paintbrush, camera or keyboard, the body is the artist’s primary instrument.  Experiencing the world through the senses is how we begin to make meaning.  Being present is the first step in making an artwork; sometimes it is all that’s needed.

Professional Profile

I am an artist based in Manorhamilton, Co. Leitrim, in the North West of Ireland since 1995, where I co-founded the Leitrim Sculpture Centre. With a background in sculpture, I have worked in a range of media including stone, wood and bronze, creating a number of publicly commissioned artworks. I have also created numerous smaller works for exhibitions and private commissions, and have participated in sculpture symposia in Ireland and internationally. I have been an instructor in sculpture at the Fire Station Artists’ Studios, Dublin (1993-95) and Leitrim Sculpture Centre (1995-03).

I have been an active contributor to the development of the arts infrastructure in Ireland since my undergraduate days when I became a director on the board of Wexford Arts Centre. I went on to co-found Wexford Sculpture workshops in 1987, and during this period I was also a director of the Sculptor’s Society of Ireland. I was the Chairperson of the Lough MacNean Sculpture Trail from 1997 to 2000, and Chairperson of the Leitrim Sculpture Centre from 2004 t0 2009.

In tandem with my career as a visual artist, I have pursued my interest in movement and performance since the early 1980s, working in collaboration with dance companies, notably Fluxusdance in 2007-2008.  In 2006 I became interested in the “Body Weather” system with Frank van de Ven, and have co-ordinated 4 workshops in Ireland, including Rathlin Island in 2012. I have been the recipient of a number of awards and bursaries from the Arts Council of Ireland (’92, ’08), the Artists’ Association of Ireland (’96), Wexford Co. Council (’06), and Leitrim Co. Council (’01, ’08), including a place on the Trade residency programme in 2009.

My recent investigations have lead to an interest in the wider possibilities for art practice in contemporary society, and in order to develop this, I undertook a two-year Masters Degree at the University of Ulster in Belfast, integrating my studies with my on-going career as an artist. I graduated in June of 2013 with an MFA Art in Public (distinction).

Current projects include the “Ag Cruinniú” programme at the North West Hospice in Sligo, and “Harnessing Creativity” for which I am researching a creative approach to promoting awareness of sustainable energy practices in the Leitrim/Fermanagh area, under the title “Local-E”.

Harnessing Creativity

It’s been a busy week, with last Friday seeing the conclusion, for the present, of the Harnessing Creativity exhibition “Expanded Territories” at the Dock in Carrick on Shannon. This was the culmination of a series of “Creative Labs” which began last May with the aim of assisting thirty creative practitioners in Leitrim/Fermanagh/Tyrone to develop new […]

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