Galway artist casts feminist eye on city’s urban and botanical life

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Creating cyanotypes of ceiling roses at GAC

Leading Galway artist Ruby Wallis will host a major new exhibition, involving photography, collage, video installations, print, and sound work, as part of the 2023 Galway International Arts Festival.

The exhibition, Whistling in the Dark, curated by Galway Arts Centre director, Megs Morley, runs at the centre on 47 Dominick Street, from 9 July to 20 August.

It is a synthesis of many different areas of interest for the artist, including her response to Galway city’s botanical and urban landscape; the architectural Georgian features of Galway Arts Centre, 47 Dominick Street; and themes of ecofeminism, psychogeography, gender, safety, and public spaces. 

“I am delighted to have the opportunity to create this major solo exhibition of my work as part of the Galway International Arts Festival,” said Ruby in advance of the show.

The exhibition title, Whistling in the Dark, derives from cultural attitudes to women whistling, an activity that was, as Ruby explains, “deemed unlucky for women to enact publicly due to superstitions and traditional gender norms”.

The exhibition also draws on a collaborative project between Ruby Wallis, and the writer Phillina Sun, and their book, A Woman Walks Alone at Night, With a Camera. This is another key idea of the exhibition – the observation of the city and the life within it.

This process draws on eco-feminist thinking —  that humans, animals, plants, and other living entities can be transformed by their relationships to one another and disrupt patriarchal systems of order and power. 

“When I left my home on nightwalks through the edgelands of the city, my lens was drawn to the quiet presence of the non-human world – plants, trees, and animals as they flicker in the dark,” said Ruby.

“At the time, I was aware of fear in relation to my own body and safety. Then, following several high profile cases of gender violence, my work became increasingly political as well as personal.

“I realised the significance of my nocturnal activities, and walking with my camera became a subversive act: a way of decolonising space and reclaiming the history of botanical art, by using a feminist lens.”

This ties into another key idea behind Whistling In The Dark – the Flâneur, a term used by 19th-century French poet Charles Baudelaire to identify an observer of modern urban life. In Whistling In The Dark, this figure becomes the more Feminist Flâneuse, a subversive explorer who wanders the city according to her desire, deterritorialising an urban landscape traditionally seen as a male domain. 

For Ruby, walking at night with a camera is an active embodiment and mode of subversion: a play between the real-vs-imagined, and a relation to the non-human and botanical world.

Through photography, collage, and sound installation, the exhibition explores the politics of gender and the body, and how these interact with architecture and public space.  

As part of the exhibition, Ruby will lead two night walks around the city centre on Thursday 20 July (9pm – 10pm) and Saturday 13 August (8.30pm – 9.30pm). The walks are free but participants must book in advance via Eventbrite.

“Channelling the figure of the Flâneuse, a female urban wanderer, we will activate our imaginations and awareness through an exploration of the city,” said Ruby.

“The process of walking, observing, and mapping will lead into a discussion on how we experience the city at night, and how we manage potential dangers in relation to our bodies, safety, and public space.”

Ruby’s observations of Galway’s botanical life, led her to observe the historical aspects of the plant world embedded within the Georgian mouldings on the ceilings and walls of Galway Arts Centre No 47 Dominick Street – a culturally historic building with a strong association with Lady Augusta Gregory and her family, formerly the home of  Lady Gregory’s sister, Arabella Waithman.

Lady Gregory would stay there when in Galway city and even celebrated her 70th birthday in the property.

Using installation of collage, cyanotype, and analogue prints, the artist has created site-responsive works based on the aspects of the botanical world within the Centre – the plants ornately embedded in its ceilings, representing acanthus leaves, palm leaves, and thistles, as well as a variety of classical Greek symbols.

In a play between order and disorder, taxonomy and the organic, she finds more immediate signs of life and organisms in the fungi and mould within the peeling paint of the gallery walls.

“The resulting installation is a play between the domestic versus the wild: on the way plants have been organised through taxonomy and used as decorative objects, rather than living as autonomous life forms,” added Ruby.

Whistling in the Dark also features new sound work created in collaboration with musician and composer Mike Smalle, as well as artworks responding to No 47 featuring photography with a focus on its analog and material, expanded forms.

Whistling in the Dark has been curated by the Galway Arts Centre’s Director, Megs Morley. 

“Ruby Wallis is an artist who has developed a unique voice and aesthetic language through photography, collage, and installation that has been widely recognised and celebrated nationally and internationally,” said Megs.

“Her work explores gendered ways of viewing the world, and our connection to wild, feral, and non-human understandings of the visual, architectural, and spatial geographies that surround us.

“It is our pleasure and privilege to work with Ruby to curate this substantial solo exhibition of her work, presented during the Galway International Arts Festival in July 2023, one of the highlights of our annual programme that garners substantial national and international audiences.”

Whistling In the Dark by Ruby Wallis runs at Galway Arts Centre from 9 July to 20 August. The official opening day is Sunday 16 July at 6pm with after party in Árus na nGael, Dominick Street. All are welcome.

There will be a lunchtime artist talk with Ruby Wallis in the centre on Thursday 20 July at 1pm. For more information see www.galwayartscentre.ie.

Tickets for the Night Walks events are available here