Alan Counihan Visual Artist

The work of Alan Counihan

Prayers before Dying

In 1998 I was awarded a residency at the Heinrich Boll Cottage on Achill Island in County Mayo on the west coast of Ireland. With none of the tools of my usual work, neither hammers nor chisels, grinders nor gouges, nothing with which I might measure or seek to impose purpose upon the landscape, I brought in their stead a notebook, a camera, a pair of sturdy boots and all-weather clothing to enable an exploration of that wild Atlantic shoreline and my presence within it. Each January morning, regardless of the weather, I set off across the strand or up the slopes of Slievemore mountain rarely returning before dusk. On occasion I ventured to the mainland wilderness of the nearby Corrain Peninsula. Through the simple rhythms of walking and through careful attention to place it was hoped that works expressive of the ephemeral nature of human presence, but born of the landscape itself, might grow. Most of the works that evolved on these walks were left where they were made, prayers of a kind, expressions not of supplication but of wonder.






And so these bones… Once again they seemed just as they appear – old broken vessels, useless debris of previous wonder lying scattered among the beach stones, bracken and sea wrack. Soon an indifferent tide, pushed by an indifferent wind, will further scatter them. Is the vessel of the imagination, with its cargo of longing, any less frail?”  (Artist’s Notebook, Achill Island, 1998)

I had found these human remains, those of a child, lying up the coast on a storm beach among wrack and rubbage. Torn by wind and sea from an anonymous communal burial in a sandy grave I carried them with me to bury inland. Like Maria Buendia Buendia in One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I carried the bones of an ancestor in a sack on my back across the bog to the mountain and laid them to rest.






On the slopes of the deserted village on the southern slopes of Slievemore I added bone to the interstices between the stones of an abandoned dwelling, hands trembling in a biting wind that whistled where the marrow of my materials once lay.






In this salt-scoured landscape winter had its hold but the promise of renewal was palpable. Out on the bogs all that had once bloomed was settling down into a darkness like memories in a cerebellum. Into an exposed turf bank I cut a small box-like chamber in which I placed  all the traces of life that I could find above ground nearby and left them there for the shepherd’s surprise.







For three whole weeks the wind seemed to blow from the south in gusts and gales and I bent like a lone thorn tree before them. Some days it would catch breath and I’d head for the shore to go foraging. Beyond the breaking waves gannets  would arc and fall, plunging through their shadowy reflections in search of their prey. All along the strand the shattered hulls of old and broken bodies gathered sand on their windward side, voyages spent. Birds, seals, sheep and donkeys, I gathered their shards around me, shaping new vessels to face into the current.






Water is our element, our source and composition. The constant breaking of waves runs like a pulse around the world. These walks by the shore, on the rim between flux and form, became meditations fit for any strand. Back on the coast of Central California I continued these retreats carrying home the salvage of wrecked vessels to shape them anew.







And so between horizons, between the wake and some anticipated shore, the sail is set…’






…..the heart’s compass trembles in the swell, the vessel rides on its own reflection…







… tugs at its ropes in harbour; landlocked, the sailor grows restive again, and we too return to our un-carved blocks, our empty pages and canvasses for even to consider their transformation is to begin our own.’ (Artist’s Notebook, Achill Island, 1998)





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