05 Dec 2021

OPINION (AN COLÚN): Acclaimed artist finds inspiration in Lough Boora

OPINION (AN COLÚN): Acclaimed artist finds inspiration in Lough Boora

Performance artist Nigel Rolfe in Lough Boora. The film of Nigel's work of art was shown in Birr Theatre last week as part of Faoin Spéir.

Last week, on a Friday evening, a small number of people, including myself, were privileged to explore the imaginary world and thoughts of an excellent artist in the company of the artist himself, guided by his words, and guided by his reflections.
Born in the Isle of Wight, Nigel Rolfe has lived and worked in Ireland for many years. In the late 1970s, he attained an acclaimed position as a performance artist.
On Friday evening in Birr Theatre he began his talk by speaking about the subject of the sublime. He showed us a picture of Friedrich's famous painting “Wanderer above the Sea of fog”, an image which encapsulates the idea of the sublime.
The sublime is a quality of metaphysical greatness, which often finds expression in nature. The only creature, so far as we know, which can appreciate this quality is ourselves. The sublime engenders elevated, lofty thought in our minds. Often it brings about a religious response from us, perhaps making us kneel and pray, or feeling a liberating sense of rising above the world and its concerns.
As our minds immerse themselves in this lovely intellectual sensation they rise above things like Covid, the disaster facing the world because of Climate Change, unpleasant and overly competitive people, and authoritarian, bullying behaviour by various groups and regimes.
Nigel said the West Coast is a good place to experience the sublime in Ireland. Skellig Michael, he said, is a fantastic example of the idea.
In Friedrich's painting we, the viewers, are the people, the society which the wanderer has left behind. His back is turned towards us. We cannot see his face. He is looking out at a beautiful mountain scene. We can experience the same thing when we walk in the mountains of the west. For a while we have decided to leave behind the earth-bound and the practical and we are turning our minds towards God. We undergo a transformation. We are reminded of who we really are: free beings, unbound by any limiting human system.
Before his lecture we saw the film of Nigel's work of performance art. It lasts just over an hour, during which Nigel lies, unmoving, partially submerged in a bog pool in Lough Boora. He does not move at all throughout the performance, his eyes closed. Several thoughts pass through the viewer's mind as we watch, such as, “This is a bit strange. This is a bit boring. The water must be cold - lying unmoving in it for 65 minutes shows incredible dedication to his task as an artist. The wind blowing in the grass is nice. He is lying in the midst of a cutaway bog which is now slowly regenerating. Is he reminding us of the many bodies of people which were discovered, well preserved, in the bogs? Some of those bog bodies were murder or execution victims. This is quite beautiful. It's very peaceful. It's the complete opposite of the busy, chattering people who are so commonplace in our world.”
Nigel talked about experiences in life, after which we are never the same again. These might seem minor experiences to others, but they are massive on a psychological level. “I remember mitching off school at the age of 15,” he said, “ to go and see a Jimi Hendrix concert. It had an enormous emotional effect on me. I was never the same again after that concert. There are so many things like that in life, where our experiences are like a kind of crucible moulding us into something new.”
He talked about how perfectionism can be a curse and can inhibit the commendable and decent artistic impulse. Others may think you have failed in your particular creative endeavour. Your own mind may think you have failed. Don't worry. You did your best. The work of art mightn't be as bad as the critics are saying. In fact it might be very good. Ignore the critics. And whatever you do, don't abandon the cause. Keep on creating. He said the Beckett quote sometimes inspires him in this: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Another quote he shared with us was Banksy's “It's easier to get forgiveness than permission.”
Nigel talked about a number of artists who have inspired him, including Robert Smithson. Smithson created a famous piece in a salt lake in Utah which he called “The Spiral Jetty”. This work reminds some of prehistoric motifs with possible religious or spiritual meanings. Others look at it and see a work which expresses the daring and imagination of an artist who goes from concept to actual product—the fact that it was done at all is what constitutes its significance.
Nigel said his works of art are not acting, but are an attempt to “get closer”. The artist's body becomes part of the art work, part of the attempt to get closer. His works can also have a political message. One of them, for example, is a denunciation of Brexit. Another looks at the horror of violence during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
He also criticised our celebrity culture and our obsession with success in the world. “The profound thing,” he said, “is that Art is about itself. It is not about you. It is not about success or the ego.”

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