Artwork by artists Lorraine Whelan & James Hayes

UMHA AOIS TEN YEARS ON - Anne Burke discusses the impact of the Umha Aois experience on the practice of artists Cliodna Cussen, Niall O'neill, David Kinane, Cordula Hansen, James Hayes, Fiona Coffey & Holger Lönze.

Starting as a one off event ten years ago during the EU designated Year of the Bronze Age the Umha Aois symposia has developed into an annual event, bringing together artists and archaeologists to explore and experiment with the practice of Bronze Age bronze casting. With the aid of sponsors and outside funding, Umha Aois has found hosts for the event in a different part of Ireland each year, always in a place with some historical link to the Bronze Age or to bronze casting. Offering highly subsidized participation to a balance of newcomers and more experienced practitioners, Umha Aois organisers have created the conditions for participants to fully take part in the collaborative experience of open air bronze casting; pooling ideas, methods and techniques which are of as much benefit to the group as to the individual practitioner.

Meeting for up to two weeks a year, the symposia have resulted in an accumulation of shared knowledge around the various elements of the casting experience: from mould making to the design and efficient functioning of the furnace itself. While this knowledge is retained by the group, with the overall direction of exploration being governed by what has so far been collectively achieved, certain aspects have also filtered into the individual practice of the people taking part.

Given the fluidity of practice itself, it is not always easy to determine any one influence over another. Cliodna Cussen, co-founder with Niall O’Neill of Umha Aois, has talked of a ‘deepening of consciousness’ as a result of her experience of the symposia. This she relates partly to visiting and working in a new environment, being receptive to the history of the place and its people and allowing this to seep into the work. At the same time, it has been about coming to understand the dynamics of metal itself; how different strengths of alloys behave, how the metal flows when molten and poured and how it is in its hardened form. Central to this is getting to grips with the thermal properties of the pit furnace; how to feed the burning charcoal with a constant supply of air so that they burn for long enough and hot enough for the bronze to melt. Retaining the heat, maximising the efficiency of the furnace is essential for achieving that crucial moment. The evasiveness of this moment, given the number of variables within any individual pit furnace system, seems to have emerged as a theme in several of the artists own practice, beyond the casting process.

For Niall, the performance of casting, of enacting the ritual, functions as a celebration of the cultural achievements of our ancestors and brings about a connection with them, re-establishing a continuity through time that technology so often denies us. As a child, messing around with metal and fire in his back garden he shaped a hole in the earth and poured molten zinc and lead into it to form a spearhead, paralleling in his own experiments a historical process centred on the action of melting metal in order to bring it into a different state of existence. Studying the form of objects from the past and making them in the same way and to the same proportions, similarly connects us, through action, to our ancestors. While the ritual pouring carried out as part of the Umha Aois symposia is then a form of practice in itself, it has continued to feed Niall’s exploration through art of the themes of time, memory and the unconscious.

Functioning as signifiers of these themes, as totems, Niall’s public work has often drawn on the creation of rich mythic contexts, incorporating elements of his own imagination to produce images of time before humanity existed. In the Portstewart piece The Fishing Boat the boat is so old that it has become fish, a being as old as time swimming like dreams in the warm sea of our unconscious. In the related piece The Ammonite at Malahide, the female sea entity represented by the Fisher is holding the spiral form of an ammonite shell, the ammonite having become extinct by the end of the Cretaceous period. The spiral form and its link to imagery of astronomy and physics thus takes us into a different plane, offering a different cultural understanding of the cosmos and our place within it.

For Dave Kinane this journey began by exploring the etymology of casting, peeling back the words to reveal the material connections between mark-making, printing and the foundry. From this he started making stamps from plaster and wax and pouring them, mirroring something of Gutenberg’s development of the printing press for which his understanding of metal and experience with minting was essential. Within the word foundry there is the presence of the fount or font as source of something, as reservoir containing a liquid form such as oil in a lamp or ink in a pen, but also of font as type face, made up of individually cast pieces capable of making an impression. Here then there’s both the concept of passage from fluid ethereal form to something tangible and concrete as well as a pointer to the social history of means of communication.

This unravelling of social meanings attached to the casting process is not unconnected to the essentially ritual spectacle of the pour, complete with collective anticipation and awe as all eyes focus on the light emanating from the metal in its fully fluid, transitory state. It is this social aspect that has carried over to other areas of Dave’s work. In workshops that he runs he’ll focus on everything that is creative in casting, leaving aside the metal – the thing that is technologically reproducible – and focusing on exploring malleable materials, such as wax or plasticine or foil. In his photographic work, in a way that references his earlier etymological explorations, he’s been building up a steady collection or record of objects that are gradually being removed from the Irish landscape. Among these series there’s the cast manhole cover, representing the individualised mark of its maker and carving a particular visual rhetoric into a functional everyday object. There’s also the roadside water font, providing public access to the source of all life – water: another receptacle, another cast form, another potent liquid essence.

The concept of metamorphosis, of transition or movement from one form to another, is a recurring theme among the artists’ work. James Hayes has worked this into his series Paternity Suite, using the ceramic figure itself as a crucible, or vessel, with which to melt and pour the accompanying bronze child figure. The ceramic parent figures are hand modelled and glazed in a charcoal fire, using borax, a salt substance also used to purify bronze before pouring. Absorbing vapours from the molten bronze the glaze takes on a range of colours so providing a physical trace of the bronze child figure, deepening the visual connection between the figures, despite their respective material forms. Since the casting process involves work in various different media – metal, wax, clay, stone – Umha Aois symposia have been an opportunity for learning from others about materials not all participants will necessarily be familiar with. It has also introduced them to ways of working – including experimenting with glazes or firings – that would not be open to them if they relied on professional foundries.

In the context of a PhD with practice in which she is exploring the potential of low tech processes for the contemporary artist Cordula Hansen has used Umha Aois symposia as a source of visual and conceptual inspiration as well as to experiment in a more or less scientific way the limits and potentials of Bronze Age materials. Interested in the tension between the functionality of objects and the meanings assigned to them, she has focused most on the objects used in the casting process, given the signs these bear of their own history, their coming into being. With an instinctive understanding of the principles of wabi sabi, she talks of these traces as representing a ‘fertile moment’: a clay mould just fired, for example, still contains the memory of the lost wax form while at the same time anticipating the form to be taken up by the molten bronze. Burn marks and traces of ash and metal oxides on the surface of crucibles, the vessels used to melt and pour the bronze, all attest to their use, their history. Once these objects are removed from their initial context they too acquire value as objects of art, as sculpture. Even with the final cast object – the supposed goal of the casting process – there’s the option of not cutting off the sprues, not filing away the traces of its past, but holding these up also as integral to the finished piece.

With a long held interest in archaeology and astronomy, Cordula’s practice has allowed her to interpret the Bronze Age in a personal way, creating her own archaeological artefacts, to which she has assigned meaning. Her Pocket Universe evolved in part from her visual investigation of a Bronze Age form thought to have been a lantern or Bunsen burner. Testing the piece in practice and then drawing and making photograms of it in different situations, she came up with imagery of an almost scientific nature and worked from this towards the final piece. The status of ‘Pocket Universe’ as toy or scientific instrument, and whether its something from the past, present or future, remains unclear, as if as a piece it retains something of the flux of molten bronze, hovering between moments, connecting us with something only ephemerally tangible.

Fiona Coffey has found that casting at the Umha Aois symposia has allowed her to experiment both with the size of pieces and with the processes used make them. Experiments with Umha Aois have shown that the addition of horse – or donkey or deer – dung to clay moulds makes them both stronger and less fragile before firing and, given the fibre, allows air to escape during pouring so reducing the risk of the mould cracking. Fiona has found that working with a clay dung mix means she can work quickly and can fire while the form is still wet and at lower temperatures to normal. There’s a certain unpredictability to the process which is its essential appeal: given the nature of dung – of never quite knowing what’s in it - results can never be entirely guaranteed, just surmised, guessed at.

Often creating work which is part ceramics and part bronze, Fiona is currently working with a technique that would have been used in the Bronze Age to cast hollow objects in fine bronze, applying it in this case to the making of a 14” x 10” figure of a horse. Using the clay-dung mix for both the core of the piece and as a protective shell over a fine layer of wax, the core will remain intact after the pour as an integral part of the piece, rather than being removed as it would for a hollow piece. The bronze, which will be no more than 2mm thick, is not expected to run the whole way round the figure, so the inevitable gaps in its flow will reveal the other, normally transitional, materials used to give it form.

For many artists it is this access to low tech alternatives that has most impact on their immediate work. For Holger Lönze this has been compatible with his long term interest in finding more sustainable ways of working, using recyclable or regenerative materials wherever possible, such as old copper pipes for making up the bronze alloys and charcoal produced from wood growing locally, rather than barbecue fuel produced from distant and rapidly shrinking rainforests. The combination of ancient sustainable technology and attention to form has led to a deepening interest in history and archaeology, influencing his approach to other areas of his work, with this feeding back once again to his casting in an ever cyclical motion.

Capturing his imagination as an instinctive integration between form and function as well as a sustainable approach to design, the curragh has become a rich motif in Holger’s work. Through the construction process, through drawing, taking measurements from, using and observing how the different types of curragh behave he has built up an intimate knowledge of the factors affecting the way it developed along different parts of the Irish coast. Applying his knowledge to both community run workshops with the aim of offering sustainable alternatives to contemporary leisure craft, the form of the curragh has also fed into Holger’s sculpture work and drawing, with this often also drawing on ancient mythology as captured in the Irish sagas and epic tales. Interpreting, for example, the Voyage of Bran, Son of Febal, to the Happy Otherworld, Holger’s drawings have brought together the theme of the crow – Bran also meaning crow in old Gaelic – with the curragh, as both vehicle and metaphor for exploring Bran’s timeless wanderings, torn between land, sky and ocean.

Future wanderings of the Umha Aois involve a symposium in June 2006 at An Creagán Interpretive Centre in the foothills of the Sperrins, in Co. Tyrone. Later in the year casting will also be incorporated into a three-day land art event planned to take place in Co. Wicklow. Details on this also to follow; for the rest, watch this space – anything could happen.

Anne Burke
Anne has become involved in Umha Aois in the context of her own practice-based research into photography and ethnology in Ireland, at the University of Ulster, Coleraine.

For more information on Umha Aois and the artists featured here, please see:

The 2005 Committee of Umha Aois gratefully acknowledge the assistance of An Chomhairle Ealaíon/The Arts Council, Ealaín na Gaeltachta, Foras na Gaeilge, Údarás na Gaeltachta and materials sponsorship from Bronze Art Ltd, Alpha Metals, Ltd, BOC Ltd, Isaac Mullen Ltd, James Murphy and Sons Ltd, Scarva Pottery Supplies Ltd, RPM Ltd, Weldtech Ltd, AE Ltd, Crinkle Merchants Ltd and PJ Dix Ltd.

Artwork by artists Lorraine Whelan & James Hayes