By Ciaran Tierney
Surrendering to the power of nature and making the most of an opportunity to connect with her own ancestors ensured that a recent one-month residency at Áras Éanna became a transformative experience for Irish-American artist Maureen Fleming.
Maureen returned to Inis Oirr thanks to a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation in New York City and was blown away by both the strength of nature and the indigenous language and culture which still thrives on the smallest of the Aran Islands.
The dance artist from the United States, who creates slow, sinuous movements, became enraptured by the natural surroundings and the strength of the breeze as she wandered the island in search of locations to create original movement inspired by the landscape every day.
“It has been absolutely phenomenal,” Maureen says of her four week stay on Inis Oirr. “I feel this place as part of myself. And that the place surges through every part of me and that I am part of that. That’s what I have hoped to capture in my photography here.”
Wearing a variety of her original costumes and colours, Maureen searched out locations for a stunning series of photographs.
Using a remote timed shutter release with a time delay on her camera, she would set up a pose in the ruin of the island’s castle, next to the wreck of the Plassey, beside the swirling sea, or on rocks looking out at the Atlantic at the back of the island.
“Nature is so much stronger here on Inis Oirr. The wind is so much stronger. I come out with an idea. ‘Today I am going to do this’ and then my plan would just get blown apart. The ocean would be moving in a direction that was different and destroy my costumes. So, then, I just had to change. Some days the wind was so strong you could barely stand up,” she says.
“Nature teaches you a lesson here on Inis Oirr in terms of the discovery of chance. New possibilities open up here and that just made me fall in love with the strength of the nature and the landscape. In a theatre, you are working with lighting you can control. ‘A cloud is coming!’ There is a real sense of liberation here in realising you don’t have control.”
Maureen was surprised by some of her own photography, with the element of chance brought about by the constantly changing environment and the 20 second time lapse, with one second between multiple shots, on her camera.
“It’s possible to programme my camera to give myself 20 seconds to get into position. We are now mixing the chance element of nature with the chance element of technology. And the result of that was completely surprising and very interesting,” she says.
Spending a month on a remote island in the West of Ireland allowed her to reconnect with her ancestors. Her grandmother left Swinford, Co Mayo, for the United States at 18 years of age and never saw her parents again.
Although Maureen had explored indigenous cultures in South America, Africa and the United States, she only became interested in her own Irish roots thanks to a chance encounter with poet Louis de Paor in New York City. He inspired her to visit Galway and Limerick in 2017 on a Fulbright Ireland Commission and she was thrilled to get the chance to return to Inis Oirr in 2022.
“Every Christmas my grandmother would start crying and just cry for two days. I feel so grateful to Louis de Paor. He saw my work in New York City. I had never heard of a Sheela-na-Gig and I knew nothing about the indigenous side of Ireland,” she says.
“The philosophy of valuing pre-colonial culture was so embedded in me and I had been all over South America, Japan, Korea, and been to Africa, but Louis said to me that I had to come to Ireland. How right he was!”
Getting to know the joys of Irish music, the language, the landscape of the island, and also finding out about the sadness of forced emigration from the West of Ireland during the 19th century has been a profoundly moving experience for Maureen.
“I had never heard of the Great Famine and I found out that my great-grandfather came from Co Monaghan in 1851. He was fleeing the famine. He came with his father. I have been involved in Japanese, Korean, and African culture, and there is always at the end of the day the feeling that ‘you are not part of us’,” says Maureen.
“For me, to come here and to hear people talking as my grandmother’s people talked, seeing her face, the faces of people who look like her, it is just connecting to that land. No-one can say to me that I don’t have a right to be here. I can connect completely with this place and not feel any kind of awe.”
Maureen’s art involves exploring the power of the female body to communicate in a way which transforms race and nationality. It thrills her that Ireland was seen as a female body in traditional Celtic mythology.
Her dance movements are fundamental to her life, as she developed them in response to a traumatic accident in Japan when she was just two years old.
Doctors feared that her spinal injuries could have confined Maureen to a wheelchair, but the twisting and untwisting of her joints increased her blood flow. She developed an original dance practice which allowed her to transform her body.
Maureen feels that her month on Inis Oirr has allowed her to create a bridge with her own ancestors and her cultural heritage.
She now plans to present photographs and videos from the island at an online event and to publish her first book of choreography for photography in the Autumn.
She is grateful to both the Guggenheim Foundation and Áras Éanna for allowing her the time and the space to explore everything Inis Oirr has to offer over the course of a four week residency.
“I don’t think you could set up the photography I have created here in a studio,” she says.
“I was so thrilled to be invited here at this time of year. When you are in a place like this, your inner voice becomes stronger because you are not around so many electrical things. I think I’m like a child in a candy store, connecting through the imagination.”