A peek through a camera obscura for inspiration

Story by Sinead Hogan

Saturday, 6th August, 2011 9:30am

A peek through a camera obscura for inspiration

Yvonne Cullivan viewing Sylvia Grace Borda's work.

Cavan's interest in the camera obscura has increased in the past two years. Sinéad Hogan met artists Yvonne Cullivan and Siobhán Harton to find out why...

Why, you may ask, the recent interest in the camera obscura in Cavan? Oh, and what is it anyway?

A mechanism that came before photography, the camera obscura was used from the 1600s as a method of capturing landscape imagery. Artists including Leonardo Da Vinci and Dutch master Vermeer used this mechanism - basically a small box with a lens - as an alternative to drawing freehand from the landscape. Light came through the lens and hit the back of the box creating an upside-down back-to-front image of what they were looking at, so they could lay a piece of paper down and trace on to it.

Cavan's new love affair with the camera obscura stems from a Peace III funded project, Seeing Across Boundaries, led by artist Sylvia Grace Borda. The ultimate outcome for Sylvia will be a large, walk-in camera obscura which is to be built in the Marble Arch Caves Geopark. And for Fleadh 2011, other manifestations of Seeing Across Boundaries will be on view.

Sylvia involved other artists in Cavan in the project: Yvonne Cullivan, Harriet Browne, Kim Doherty, Tom Hyde, J. Keith Donnelly, Christine Mackey, Carmel O'Callaghan, Bernard McCabe, Gerard Reilly, Celia Richard, Olivia Johnston Murphy and Sally O'Dowd. Following on from workshops, which Sylvia organised, artists have created diverse works.

Siobhan Harton's Cavan Obscura is a bus that will tour Cavan during Fleadh 2011 giving a topsy-turvy view of what's outside. Also for the Fleadh, there will be an exhibition of works by seven of the artists involved with Seeing Across Boundaries. Titled Obscure Visions and curated by Yvonne Cullivan, the exhibition will comprise work ranging from drawing to printmaking to video to sculpture.

"It's about giving an overview of the project as opposed to trying to show absolutely everything," she says, adding that it is also to give context to Siobhan's bus-tour project.

Yvonne describes a video piece by performance artist, Sally O'Dowd, who is from Cavan:

"You see Sally at night on the street barefoot and wearing what looks like an old-fashioned white nightdress. She has placed on her tongue a receipt roll, which she's moving slowly with her tongue so it's like she's a cash register producing these receipts - saliva records... I think it's very symbolic of the times we live in and how society thinks about people - placing economic more than human value on them."

Christine Mackey, a Leitrim based researcher and artist with an interest in ecology, has used a technique called the photogram ("a bit like photography but without chemicals" says Yvonne) to document wild flowers and herbs.

Yvonne's own piece is a large drawing. When this project started she was "a blow-in" in Leitrim.

"I was interested in how you become familiar with a territory. I was surrounded by mountains where I was living so I couldn't actually see anything in any direction except the side of the mountain. In order to become familiar with the land I decided to walk each one and try and see what was over the other side."

She did climb the mountains, photographed a 360 degree view from the top, and made the photos into a panoramic image. She then drew the landscape with the outline of the mountains. "You get the privilege of sitting in my house and not having to climb the mountain, just seeing right through them to the other side," she says.

Siobhan also created visual work for the exhibition - a vinyl piece that plays on how we read things, based on letters and sentences that are obscured and revealed. Harriet Browne, a young artist from Cavan living in France, has a very delicate, small scale piece that's about everyday journeys and how she maps them. Celia Richards, an artist based in Monaghan, has imagery about the fragile nature of things, set against the background of the Border regions. "You get that sense that things can snap at any moment. There's a lot of tension in the works - photographic prints and sculptural work," comments the curator.

Olivia Johnston Murphy, based in Monaghan, is a sculptor and a performance artist. Her contribution is a video piece featuring the other artists as actors. "It's quite a serious piece about the housing situation in Ireland at the moment, playing on the history of evictions in the Famine period and taking it up to the contemporary situation where people are having to abandon their homes, and reflecting on the ghost estate issue as well."

Bus tour

For Mullahoran artist and designer Siobhan Harton the camera obscura was all about watching, which for her brought to mind Cavan bus station.

"It was all about observation. I was thinking about that, and thought of how I used to love people-watching when I was waiting on the bus to Dublin," she says, adding that combining art with the humble and mundane bus would also fulfil her goals of bringing art to people in public place and giving people in Cavan something different to experience.

Thus, Cavan Obscura was born. The first phase of the project was one day last year, when Siobhan turned Cavan bus station into a camera obscura. She blacked out the windows at the front leaving only a small hole the size of a coin to project light into the bus station, camera obscura-style.

It was "magical", she says. The image of a yellow cement lorry moving upside down through the station and kids going outside to make faces to their mums inside are among her recollections.

For this year's Fleadh, she has moved the project along (pardon the pun) following discussions with CIE and Cavan arts office, who she thanks for their support.

Fleadh-goers can hop on a bus and see Cavan turned upside down before their very eyes.

Siobhan has transformed a CIE double-decker bus into a camera obscura using the principals of photography to project external images through pin-holes into the otherwise blacked-out bus. Passengers go on a 20-minute-long magical mystery tour of Cavan. Talented pianist, Conor Walsh from Mayo, has composed an original piece of music to accompany the tour, together with sound effects like the puff of a steam engine as you pass The Anglo-Celt office (formerly a train station) and the gong of church bells as you pass Cavan Cathedral.

"Conor's music really takes you off on a journey, so you'll be having a real audio visual experience," says Siobhan. "I guarantee people that they will be taken on the trip of a lifetime. I'll take them away from the norm for 20 minutes - and then leave them back to the norm, guaranteed!" she concludes.

Cavan Obscura leaves opposite Cavan Bus Station with tours running August 18-21, at 11am, 12noon, 2pm & 3pm. Adults €5, children €3 and a family discount is available.

Obscure Visions will be open in the former ESB office opposite Cavan Bus Station and next to McGinnity's pub, from August 16-21, 11am-1pm, 2-5pm, and 6-8pm.

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