Material Worlds

Contemporary sculpture at its tactile best in the FE McWilliam Gallery in Newry. Watch a video below with curator Riann Coulter

A headless dog stands guard over the entrance to the FE McWilliam Gallery, an anti-Cerberus. The giant dog – who should have a head by the time the exhibition opens – is the brainchild of a young sculptor named Ben Long.

‘What we really wanted to do is get a huge sculpture on a big scale,’ says Riann Coulter, curator at the FE Mcwilliam of the giant guard dog. ‘It’s very difficult to do that. If you were to commission a big bronze sculpture it would cost hundreds of thousands. Long is a London based artist who came up with the wonderful idea of making large scale sculptures from scaffolding.'

It is an unusual medium to sculpt in, but the Material Worlds exhibition is all about making art from the unlikeliest of things.

Scattered throughout the gallery, like the archaeological remains of a very careful society, are precarious looking pillars and walls built from tea-cups. 'The Long Goodbye' is an installation by Margaret O’Brien. First displayed in Drogheda it was nominated for the AIB Prize in Ireland.

O’Brien, who has spent a week carefully constructing her jigsaw of crockery, claims the displays are stronger than they look and that they have even survived people bumping into them. But she admits that the idea behind the art is that ‘the viewer will feel very uncomfortable and nervous in the space about knocking the walls down. I was dealing with the idea of fragility and vulnerability'.

Set aside in a room of its own a parliament of rooks makes a ruckus in Tom Shaw’s exhibition, 'Parliament'. In a recreated pristine white office, Shaw’s plastic and straw rooks are caught in the middle of destroying it. One perches on a filing cabinet curiously while others study the beak-shattered screen of a computer or foul a cupboard. In the wake of the recent elections Shaw thinks his installation has a particularly relevant message to convey about what a ‘bird eat bird’ world politics is.

'I was thinking about the collective term for rooks [a parliament] and began drawing and observing them and saw the correlation between the behaviour of rooks and the behaviour in Parliament of MPs as they debated,’ Shaw explains the genesis of his installation. ‘It just seemed appropriate to merge the cries of rooks with that of the debating Parliamentarians.’

Still, Deirdre McKenna is keen to remind visitors that ‘WE ARE NOT ALONE’ in a piece of alien conspiracy word-art that dangles and glitters over the gallery. Now is that reassuring or threatening?

‘You can take from it what you like,’ Coulter points out with a grin. ‘You can take comfort from it or you can think of aliens and that sort of thing and be quite frightened by it. McKenna wants that duality. She likes the idea that it is open to interpretation.’

Brendan Jamison is another contributor to the FE McWilliam’s exhibition with two pieces, 'Yellow Helicopter', on loan from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, and 'Small Red Tunnel'. Another artist known for his work with non-conventional materials (he also constructs replica buildings out of sugar cubes), these two pieces are made from wool. Primary-coloured and child-sized, they seem designed to star in some Pixar-animated adventure.

Coulter admits that the pieces are tempting: ‘They are just so tactile. You really feel that you want to touch them. But we’re trying to stop people touching them before we get little muddy hands on it!’

Even if visitors are only allowed to look, the exhibition is well worth viewing. The sculptures showcased are drawn from some of the best contemporary sculptors across Ireland and the UK. Whether obscure or playful the pieces are all thought-provoking and beautifully constructed. Just mind the cup towers, whatever O'Brien says.

Tammy Moore