On a cold, overcast Saturday morning in Derry~Londonderry, runners, dog walkers and a crazy golf vendor make their way through the newly restored Ebrington Barracks site, keeping themselves to themselves. Storm clouds threaten to burst overhead as crisp packets flutter by on the breeze.
In the year before Derry~Londonderry assumes the mantel of the first UK City of Culture, there doesn't seem to be much happening... Except that today, there is.
In St Columb’s Park, next door to Ebrington, tents are being erected for Link Fest, a new arts festival set up to showcase local artists as the world's media begin to train their cameras on the Maiden City. And scattered around Ebrington, a disparate gang of cows – some painted in vibrant colours, others left white – stare blankly at all those pedestrians who dare to wander by.
Cow Parade, promoted as 'the world's largest public art event' has arrived in town, sponsored by Derry City Council and ILEX. Developed from an idea by the Swiss artistic director Walter Knapp, Cow Parade adapts to whichever city it happens to call home, and aims to involve local artists in the creation of new sculptures at each destination.
Derry~Londonerry’s artists worked closely with community groups to make their mark on the life-sized hollow fiberglass sculptures that have previously invaded New York, Rio, Paris and London. Each individual cow is unique, decorated to symbolise various cultural or historical aspects of Derry~Londonderry and the surrounding townlands. As the heavens open, I pull up my hood to take a closer look...
A cow stands guard at the exit leading towards the Peace Bridge. It has been painted bright red and has wings, designed to commemorate American flight pioneer Amelia Earhart, the first female to fly solo across the Atlantic.
Ever since her aircraft landed unexpectedly in a field in Ballyarnett rather than Paris in 1932, people in the north west have held Earhart in high esteem. I wonder if, having broken away from their parents, the two youngsters clambering on top of this particular cow are aware of that history...
Another cow stands out, labelled with a series of acronyms. It has been dedicated to the various community groups who work tirelessly in communities across Derry~Londonderry to make the city a better place for residents and visitors alike: arts associations, suicide awareness campaigns, voluntary groups that rarely receive the attention or the acclaim they deserve.
A couple of days later, and with the sun shining on Northern Ireland's latest piece of public art, I meet with Rachel Hart of Asitis Consulting, the Belfast-based promotional company responsible for bringing Cow Parade to Northern Ireland.
Hart confirms that the artists who originated the Cow Parade concept were very much influenced by a social conscience. 'Cow Parade isn't just a public art installation,' she says. 'It is also about raising social issues that are important to the host city or country.'
A such, the sculptures on display in Ebrington and elsewhere will subsequently be sold at auction to raise money for charity partners, Barnardo's Northern Ireland and Depaul Ireland.
CowParade – as anyone who has stopped off at City Hall to catch a few minutes of Olympics coverage on the BBC Big Screen – has also come to Belfast. The cows will stay out to pasture in the grounds of City Hall until August 9, when they will travel to various other locations around the city. A 'cow trail' will provide a link between the various sites for visitors to follow the herd's progress.
'Not just children, but adults as well, just seem to love the cow as canvas,' says Hart, whose favourite piece in Belfast is a reclining cow decorated by the Annadale Chinese Community Group, with help from artist Deepa Man-Kler. It features various far-eastern motifs. 'It just works,' adds Hart.
As well as the semi-permanent sites in Derry~Londonderry and Belfast, there is also a Cow Parade site in Newtownabbey until the end of August 2012. A nomadic NI2012 Herd will be travelling across the country to stop off in towns, cities and villages too. Visit Cow Parade NI for more information.