Art professor Malcolm McClay’s exhibition Swimming to Inishkeel, which debuted in Donegal, Ireland in early 2018, opened at the LSU Museum of Art in Baton Rouge November 1, 2018. Swimming to Inishkeel presents recent multi-media, sculptural, and performance work by Professor McClay, including static and kinetic sculpture, photography, film and performance. The exhibition features video installations of Professor McClay’s performance art, conducted in the tides off the coast of Ireland.
Professor McClay’s artistic and teaching practice ranges across sculpture, installation, and performance. While his earlier work engaged the political and the external, Swimming to Inishkeel turns sharply inward to the spiritual and meditative. His most recent durational performance Chasing the Invisible meditates on his daily swims to Inishkeel, an island off the coast of Ireland. While there, McClay swims two hundred fifty meters from the shore to the island of Inishkeel and back each day. Through these rhythmic exertions, McClay finds focus—the “thin space.”
“In the Celtic tradition a thin place is the name given to a place where the visible and invisible worlds touch or are at their closest, a space where the veil between the temporal and celestial worlds has grown thin,” McClay shared. “For me, Inishkeel is such a place…The coldness and clarity of the water, the stillness and unchanging nature of the landscape bring me to a place where I am more alive and connected than at any other time.”
The Chasing the Invisible installation joined sculpture and performance art; Professor McClay constructed a 10-foot steel tower in the Galway Bay, while the tides rose around him. Aerial video footage documented his performance: after having built the steel tower against the wind and waves, he stood on the top platform, all dressed in white, a solitary figure out in the overwhelming expanse of ocean.
“On a chance visit to Malcolm McClay’s studio at LSU, I found myself studying preparatory sketches, tide tables, and calculations,” wrote Courtney Taylor, LSU Museum of Art curator.
“At the time, McClay was rehearsing daily the precisely choreographed timing, assembly, and climb of the steel tower fabricated as the foundation of what would become Chasing the Invisible. Looking down from the highest platform of the tower, tools in hand, McClay explained and simultaneously demonstrated the endeavor with his usual exuberance, noting that all could be lost if even one tool dropped below the surface of the sea. Intrigued by such an ambitious and arduous undertaking, I proposed an exhibition of Chasing the Invisible at LSU Museum of Art.”
Art students Griffin Gowdy (BFA candidate) and Matthew Barton (MFA 2017) helped Professor McClay to construct the tower in Ireland before the performance, spending hours welding the steel lengths and fitting them to form the structure.
The students traveled to Ireland for the immersive LSU Art in Ireland summer program, which McClay leads annually. Gowdy and Barton arrived early to assist with the installation. “We brought the parts in our luggage – bolts, washers, hardware, all packed in our suitcases,” Gowdy said. “When we arrived in Ireland we hit the ground running.”
Assisting with Chasing the Invisible was an intensive instructional experience in itself, the students agreed; they practiced sculptural (metal welding) techniques, installation, and learn about the precision that performance art requires. “The sheer amount of discipline that goes into performance art is astounding,” Barton said. “The work that Malcolm does requires you give so much to it physically and mentally.”
Participating in the large-scale installation process was a learning experience for the students, Gowdy said. “I learned the importance of planning, asserting control over the as many aspects of the environment as you can. Throughout our time in Ireland, we learned about site intervention work – how to interact with the natural environment and not cause any damage.”
The team searched for the perfect site for the performance, scouring the coastline for a place that would meet the requirements. In the spot they ultimately chose, the tide rises 10 feet, and they had to determine how to install the tower without it flipping over in the strong ocean current.
To install the piece, the team carried armfuls of steel parts roughly 50 yards out to the selected spot, scrambling across slick ocean rocks, slippery with kelp, their boots sinking into the mud as they carried the heavy metal out to sea at low tide. “And of course it was raining,” Gowdy laughed.
They performed practice tests in the water over and over again in preparation, timing the minutes before the tide came in. Each piece was color coded and numbered so that McClay could quickly assemble the structure in the rising water. “I spent months rehearsing on the tower that I built at LSU to prepare,” McClay said. “I knew I needed to be able to assemble the tower without thinking about it, as there would be unforeseen circumstances I would encounter when I was out on the sea.”
“When Malcolm’s up there on the tower, he’s all alone – but the preparation for the performance was truly a collaborative process,” Gowdy said.
“Community is so important for projects like this to succeed,” Barton said. “There were so many people working together to get this piece done and it would have been impossible without them.”
Gowdy had watched the performance practiced back in Louisiana and seen McClay’s sketchbook of his vision, which is riddled with precise drawings, intricate details of a complex project. So she thought she knew what to expect.
The day of the performance was windy and crisp, waves rolling in with force. McClay rhythmically built the tower, the tides rushing in ominously. Students and onlookers watched from the shore, his white-clad body a winking speck against the horizon.
He stood at the top of the tower as the water rose around him, his bucket of tools close at hand to secure another length of steel. A solitary figure in white, surrounded by the incredible blue-green ocean. As the day progressed, an offshore wind grew increasingly stronger until the waves were pounding the tower, and he was leaning into the wind during his standing meditation, at the mercy of the elements. He was out in the sea for six hours – at the halfway point, his wife Chicory Miles played the violin, the melody wafting out toward him.
The extensive rehearsal schedule paid off. “Once I was on the tower, I felt at home and knew exactly what to do,” McClay said. “The experience was not what I imagined – contemplative, isolated and serene – instead I was in a battle with the elements for the durations of the performance. In retrospect this is probably a more honest experience, considering where I was and what I had undertaken.”
By the end the tide had climbed so high that it looked as if he was standing on the surface of the sea, a lone man floating over the water.
“Seeing the tide come in and slowly consume the tower was shocking,” Barton said. “I had been climbing all over this tower over the past few days building it, and it seemed so large in the shop. But to see it so effortlessly covered by the water was a humbling experience.”
“During the building process I was so focused on the task at hand, that I didn’t have time to stop and think about the significance of the project,” Gowdy shared. “After I saw it, I realized the magnitude of what we had created, what we were lucky enough to be a part of.”
Upon returning home, the students reflected on their monumental experience in Ireland. “The landscape there is so different than everything I’ve seen my whole life,” she said, describing the untamed natural beauty of rural Ireland. “The trip was such an immersive experience, you can’t help but come back changed. After I returned to Louisiana I viewed everything so differently.”
Just as McClay finds focus in the rhythmic activity of swimming through the biting cold sea to the island of Inishkeel, so did the art students find focus – on the art they were creating, on understanding themselves – as they became absorbed in the wild beauty of the Irish coast. In this place, they find the thin space of transcendence.
The Swimming to Inishkeel exhibition is at the LSU Museum of Art through February 10, 2019.