The Lost & Found Office
Jenny Cathcart visit Seamus Dunbar's immersive exhibition at the Higher Bridges Gallery
Turner Prize-winning ceramicist Greyson Perry struck a chord with many people, myself included, when, in his 2013 Reith lectures for the BBC, he criticised ‘International Art English’, the kind of highbrow art speak often used by gallery curators and even artists themselves to describe their work.
It Is refreshing, therefore, to visit Seamus Dunbar’s website and read his simple, clearly defined artist’s statement. However the image used to publicise his current show at the Higher Bridges Gallery in Enniskillen – a wooden table strewn with a random assortment of objects, including small cardboard boxes and labelled phials – begs the question, what kind of art is this?
Happily the show itself proves to be uncluttered, eloquent and thoughtful, the presence of the artist during my visit an added bonus. Dunbar, who has lived in Manorhamilton County Leitrim since 1995, began his career as a stone carver and sculptor. As co-founder of the Leitrim Sculpture Centre, he has gathered around him an important community of artists of all disciplines.
Interested in movement and performance and the wider possibilities of contemporary art, he writes: '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.'
In The Lost & Found Office – subtitled ‘Shadowing the Enniskillen, Leitrim and Sligo Northern Counties Railway’ – Dunbar sets out to make art from his experiences during a 50 mile walk made in 13 stages, over five months, one day at a time, along the now defunct railway line; a pilgrimage to the past with meditations on the present.
For him there is an art to walking, as laid out in his artist statement. 'The body is the artist’s primary instrument,' he writes. 'Experiencing the world through the senses is how we begin to make meaning.'
Before setting out on his journey, Dunbar read Down Memory Lane, Michael Hamilton’s historical account of the railway, a mixed goods and passenger service, which opened in 1885 and closed with just ten days notice in 1957. He made a visit to the railway museum at Headhunter’s barber shop in Enniskillen and had his hair cut in ritual preparation, since he believes that with the right mindset, any journey can be meaningfully undertaken.
Keen to have ‘business’ on the line, he took on the mantel of a milesman, the name given to employees of the railway company whose job it was to inspect and repair designated sections of the railway line. He saw himself as a ghost in pursuit of a ghost train.
Wearing Wellington boots, a cloth cap and tweed jacket, and carrying a walking stick which his father had made for him when he was a boy, Dunbar set out from Enniskillen’s Railway Junction Retail Park at the site of the former station. He followed the SLNCR line past Breandrum cemetery and at the Weirs bridge, which carried trains over the Erne, he was obliged to cross the river in a kayak as the bridge is now unsafe under foot.
Stopping for tea with John McTiernan, who lives in the home of a former railway crossing guard, he moved on to Florencecourt and thence to the station at Belcoo/Blacklion, which has been preserved in a time warp thanks to the attentions of its keeper, Mairead O’Dolan. Crossing the border at the Red Bridge, the line continues to Glenfarne, where Lord Tottenham – who financed the railway and bankrupted himself in the process – had a station built at the gates of his demesne.
Manorhamilton was the engineering headquarters for maintenance and repairs while Collooney, the last station on the line, was the main loading bay for cattle. The SLNCR railway met up with the Midland and Great Western Railway at Carrignagat junction before continuing to its final destination at Sligo town.
At journey’s end, Dunbar stopped at The Thatch pub in Ballysadare where, in a serendipitous encounter, the publican recalled his memory of the railway line: 'I was on the last ever train at the age of seven. We had no tickets or anything, the driver just stopped the train up there on the line and we climbed on.'
As he walked Dunbar made notes, and on the days he was not walking, he was back in his studio making drawings and reflecting on how to present a fresh evocation of his multi-layered experiences. When he came up with the concept of the Lost and Found office, it was a eureka moment and the exhibition began to take shape in his mind.
He created a 3D model of the gallery so that he could refine his choice of artefacts and their display positions. In the end there are just 15 of them. Joining them is the eponymous Lost & Found office, its high desk a symbol of officialdom. Stored on a shelf is a series of boxes, each one containing an object from the journey, neatly labelled with a full description of its provenance and purpose.
Dressed as a railway clerk, Dunbar mans the office handing over for inspection the contents of a drawer chosen at random by the visitor. Such objects include a replica of the Baylis, Jones and Baylis name plates from level crossing gates made in Wolverhampton; a pocket notebook or a photograph, or one of several test tubes containing water samples from the rivers he crossed.
Dunbar’s cap and coat hang heavy with hubris above his boots. On the back wall of the gallery are the framed remnants of a goods wagon door. Photographs, mounted but unframed, include a stretch of overgrown track, a secret way marking both a presence and an absence and a triptych of textured images, close up shots of black plastic silage bales patterned with early morning frost and dew.
A video installation features Dunbar demonstrating a steel framed walking machine, a permanent feature of the Lough MacNean recreation park hard by the railway line. To plot his journey, Dunbar made two isolarions, story maps inspired by the cartography of John Ogilby (1600 – 1676) former dancer at the court of King James, and tutor to the children of the 1st Earl of Stafford, Lord deputy of Ireland.
The centrepiece of this pleasingly minimalist show is the oak table and chairs depicted in the publicity photograph, now free standing and completely bare. Dunbar chose to display them because they were made in the 1950s around the time that the railway line closed.
An entry in the visitors book reads simply, 'This revives my faith in the power of art,' confirming for Dunbar that he has indeed succeeded in making art out of a lived experience.
The Lost and Found Office continues at the Higher Bridges Gallery, Enniskillen until May 10.