Tuesday 19th September was a wet and blustery day, but when you get the opportunity to leave your desk and see art happening out in the real world you grab it with both hands.
A few weeks previous to this, I’d had a brief phone call with Seán Corcoran of Bunmahon-based environmental art studio The Art Hand. What started as a perfunctory check-in to see how Seán’s new festival, Talamh, was coming along (having received some funding from Creative Waterford’s 2023 Open Call) snowballed into an exciting conversation about a model of practice completely different to anything I’d ever heard of before.
A New Type of Festival
Talamh was to be a festival without a programme. Seán’s team of internationally renowned environmental artists from all corners of the globe were going to live together, eat together, socialise together, and explore the majestic Copper Coast together for ten full days. Out of this experience, Seán had faith that art pieces, collaborations, workshops and public participation in environmental art would evolve organically — if you’ll excuse the pun.
Seán acknowledged (and I sensed even took a bit of glee in the fact) that this style of festival might be a challenge to the public. After all, we’re so used to having access to detailed schedules and booking systems when we attend events. His aim was to pull people out of the mindset of simply ticking the box of seeing particular artists and their work, and to gently encourage them to participate in the creative process. If you’re familiar with the aims of Creative Waterford, you’ll know this is right up our street.
Now, I will make a confession at this point – I’m a very structured festival attendee. I book my tickets far in advance, I print and highlight my schedule, I pack my days to the point of exhaustion to make sure I squeeze every possible drop out of a festival experience. Talamh was going to be a personal challenge for me in this sense, but I loved the sound of it.
The Art Hand HQ, Bunmahon
Talamh in Real Time
So into the car I got, armed only with Talamh’s Facebook page which posts occasional “festival leaks” picturing the ever-changing whereabouts of a handful of their artists. Beyond that, the sole location given to potential attendees is “The Copper Coast” – ie, a 25km stretch of road with many hidden nooks and beaches.
The only leak to follow on Tuesday was a picture of Dunhill Castle, so away I went like a member of the FBI to grab my guaranteed piece of content and then search down the rest of those slippery artists. Sounds easy on paper, right?
Google maps brought me to the Anne Valley car park and advised me to hike up the rest of the way to the castle. After a bit of sweaty climbing (was very glad I wore sensible shoes to work that day) I arrived at my destination — the exact vista the social media leak had shown. I was at the foot of castle ruins, completely alone and confused. Where was the festival? Had they moved locations already?
I literally walked around in circles for a while, panicking at the prospect of returning to the office and confessing I couldn’t find Talamh. I contemplated throwing up a little rock sculpture myself and photographing it to save face at the darkest point. I was right on the edge of crankily deciding that actually I love programmes, and will never go to anything again that doesn’t have one when a brainwave hit me – did they mean inside the castle?
I clambered up to the ruins, feeling a little bit silly – of course there wasn’t a secret festival happening silently inside an abandoned castle, but I just had to be sure before I gave up. When I arrived at the castle, I suddenly found myself face-to-face with Mayumi Nakabayshi.
Mayumi is a mandala artist originally from Sapporo, Japan, and she was sitting alone inside the castle making the most beautiful and intricate piece of stone art. Of course, I disrupted the peaceful scene entirely by involuntarily screaming “I found you!”, but such was the sense of achievement.
Immediately, all the previous crankiness dissipated – I was suddenly the only witness to this incredible art-making process in a hidden ruin. Mayumi showed me the mandala she’d been working on, along with amazing willow art and brushwork from two of the other artists who had previously visited the site. She explained that they arrive with no plans, and naturally add to each other’s work using materials sourced from the surrounding landscape.
Although we were in the middle of nowhere, I felt like I was at a high-end intimate meet-and-greet with a world-renowned artist – and that’s because I was. Worth the search? You bet.
Art emerging inside Dunhill Castle
Back For More
I jumped back into the car newly invigorated, wondering who I might come across next. Although there were no further clues on social media, I hightailed it to Kilmurrin Cove – driven simply by the logic that if I was an environmental artist, that’s where I might feel inspired (as you can see, I was slowly converting to the Talamh way of thinking).
The thrill was real when I arrived there to find rake drawings in the sand, piles of rocks, and Devin Devine – the famous American stone artist standing there, right in front of me in the flesh. Again, not another soul was around – probably because the rain at this point had gotten vicious and nobody else was mad enough to make the journey.
“You’re famous!” I shouted across the wind to Devin, ever the professional.
Devin was happy to chat, and explained that the stone structures I was crouching in the sand to photograph weren’t in fact artwork – it was his preparation stage, so he’d traversed the beach and gathered the materials he was going to work with the next day. When asked if he’d come to Ireland with a plan for his art pieces, Devin was cool as a breeze.
“I didn’t have a plan this morning, but now I think I do.”
The seeds of Devin’s big idea
A Change of Perspective
Back into the car with me to ride another wave of inspiration — off to Trá na mBó, the secret cove beside Bunmahon Beach. I ran through the rainstorms and down the winding steps at a speed definitely not approved by my health and safety training, convinced I’d really cracked the Da Vinci code and was about to happen upon a masterpiece. Alas, the beach was abandoned apart from some collapsed stone structures that told me I’d been right, but not right on time.
The me at the start of the day might have been exasperated – but after the experiences I’d had of the festival so far, I was learning to see things in a different way. Instead, I took a few minutes to myself on the beach, reflecting on what it must be like to put such detail into a piece of environmental art, knowing that the elements will soon wash it away.
A thought came to me that perhaps we’re too focused on trying to hold onto things – could we all learn a big lesson from this festival and its artists about being in the present? Is our obsession with permanence robbing us of the pleasure of what’s in front of us right now?
Before I could feel too chuffed with my wisdom, another thought struck me – was this beach completely abandoned because the tide was about to come in? I ran back up those rickety steps even faster than my descent.
I finished my Talamh experience soaked to the bone, thrilled to the core, and recommending it to anyone who would listen. Do yourself a favour and get to this festival before it finishes – watch their Facebook page for leaks, but also give yourself permission to wander and come across things.
You won’t regret it – this converted programme-printer certainly didn’t.
Nicola Spendlove, Creative Communities Engagement Officer