Herakles And The Stymphalian Birds

Herakles and the Stymphalian Birds’ (2009) enamel, oil and gold leaf on zinc, 4 panels, 3.6 x 1.4 m Commissioned by SOURCE Arts Centre and Library, Thurles, Co. Tipperary

This is a painting, but not in any traditional sense of the term. Canvas is replaced by the unlikely substrate of zinc. Oil paint is only present as a light scumble, in fact most of the basic painting is done with car paint. Had the work been destined for a Victorian red brick library I might have considered other materials, but the architects McCullough Mulvin had designed SOURCE with glass and concrete topped with a patinated zinc cladding. So when I was asked to propose a piece for the building it was the architect’s use of zinc that brought me back to Herakles. I had previously made a version of a 500 b.c. Greek vase painting of Herakles ridding his patron of a flock of troublesome birds, on a piece of recycled zinc. In the early work the birds were newspapers, like bad origami, fluttering in the way papers are blown around a city dump. It was a short step from newspapers to books and from books to the origins of writing.

One of the most influential artists for me since my student days was not a painter or a sculptor, but the writer James Joyce. Ulysses was the ‘big bang’ in my aesthetic consciousness. Here was an artist for whom every scrap ever written held literary potential; from shopping lists to Shakespeare, death notices to Dante, it all held latent power. It was Joyce’s Oxen of the Sun chapter that provided the other part of my visual concept. As a baby is brought into the world, Joyce brings the English language from its origins to maturity and on to a modernist disintegration. I ‘borrowed’ this structure and made the birds tangible versions of scripts from Babylonian cuneiform to Futurist chaos.

Herakles is formed from the base materials of a modern fly-tipping site. He is the denizen of book-free domestic bliss, and in his task acts like a mercenary, carrying out orders.

Ireland has passed through the dark ages of banned books and proscribed authors, but there will always be threats to the freedom of the press and the license of the poet. Joyce knew that literature would always survive; a book is a delicate structure, but the idea it contains can be the most robust thing on the planet.

Herakles and the Stymphalian Birds’ (2006) enamel, oil and gold leaf on found zinc panel, 140 x 70 cm

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