The first thing she cheekily asks me when I enter her stunningly light, stylish, modern house on the south-eastern coast of Ireland is whether I expected to see a traditional farm. Perhaps the expression on my face reveals that I associate sheep farming with dark stuffy barns, thatched roofs hiding swallow nests, and the smell of animal dung mixed with hay. But I should have known better: this sheep farmer doubles as a red-lipsticked artist, a feminist with a keen eye for beauty and style. Naturally, her sheep farm wasn’t going to be like any other sheep farm.
Orla Barry owns a flock of fifty pedigree Lleyn sheep, which can be seen grazing in the lush fields below her house in County Wexford. She’s addicted to her animals, she immediately admits with a loving smile, as they always provide her with a legitimate reason to be outside. “Whether it’s for lambing season (helping sheep to give birth) or to retrieve a chicken escaped from its pen, there’s always something urgent, some animal that needs to be saved,” she states. Being on the farm is in her DNA; Barry’s father was a tillage farmer and her grandmother was a feminist who wrote for the Farmer’s Journal. Barry very much identifies with her grandmother as she too was “learning by doing.” That it was never her career plan to become a shepherd is evident when Barry describes her shockingly small profits selling lambs that end up as meat on our plates: “Scale is the only way to earn money with farming, the market is dominated by big meat factories.” Rather then scaling up, she got hooked to pedigree breeding and proved a keen and curious learner; this “learning by doing” philosophy entails, among other things, learning from her peers, becoming invested in the agricultural community, paying close attention at pedigree sales, talking to a lot farmers about pedigree breeding, and visiting many flocks.
The world of sheep breeding has clearly informed her artistic practice. Recent art videos include two performers sitting in a big pile of wool performing a fictional story inspired by her experiences at the pedigree sales, but mixing the perspectives of the buyer, the seller, the breeder and the animal that is being sold. And she doesn’t only play with humans and animals – gender roles and stereotypes are also addressed. “Pedigree breeding is a male dominated world and I have fun reversing some of the roles. Humor is a very important element in my work.” Some of her other videos are rather fable-like: cats turn into women (The Fable Of The Man Who Fell In Love With the Cat Who Became a Woman (And Still Devoured Mice)), people into bees (Humming at the Hive), and sheep talk (Pedigree Sales: Technique, Emotion, Poetry). For Barry, storytelling is an important political tool; it can re-connect people to the land and the animals. “The fact that we have largely lost this connection is part of the ecological problem. We have to become non-consumers and reconnect to things that cost nothing.”
Orla Barry, Breaking Rainbows (still), 2016–17. Video. Photo by Jed Niezgoda
Barry underlines that she is not a “sheep artist” (smiling). Rather, she is someone interested in language and in the relationship between agriculture and culture as well as in the tension between being a farmer and an artist. It is apparent where she gets her inspiration. Overheard conversations and snippets of interviews about the sheep buying-and-selling process constantly re-appear in her videos, giving the viewer a curious insight into this niche world. According to Barry, the art world and the world of pedigree sheep breeding are not too dissimilar. She explains that by analyzing the methods the pedigree breeders use to sell a sheep, she was able to see the art world through another lens: “Both are about storytelling and a certain form of speech. Art is also shaped by storytelling, it’s always someone’s view that is being sold. It’s all about emotion and poetry.” Barry goes on, explaining how she sometimes just falls in love with a sheep and looks for its “aura”, reminding me how art can be a magical yet irrational purchase, indeed similar to falling in love.
Like in the arts, aesthetics play an important role when purchasing a pedigree animal. Barry is always looking for certain criteria so that, through careful breeding, she can build her “perfect sheep.” When I ask her what a “perfect sheep” looks like, she takes me into the field and explains how to judge a sheep. Of course, the criteria are different for different types of sheep but generally it’s about “the back, the pasterns, testicles, udders, and teeth.” As we walk through the field, she lifts one of the rams’ tail to show me what the perfect distance between the butt and the mid-length of the leg should be.
While I ponder over the art equivalent of the ram’s butt, she has already moved on: the chickens need to be treated for lice.
(Top image: Orla Barry, Breaking Rainbows (still), 2016–17. Video. Photo by Jed Niezgoda.)
Curator Yasmine Ostendorf (MA) has worked extensively on international cultural mobility programs and on the topic of art and environment for expert organizations such as Julie’s Bicycle (UK), Bamboo Curtain Studio (TW) Cape Farewell (UK) and Trans Artists (NL). She founded the Green Art Lab Alliance, a network of 35 cultural organizations in Europe and Asia that addresses our social and environmental responsibility, and is the author of the series of guides “Creative Responses to Sustainability.” She is the Head of Nature Research at the Van Eyck Academy (NL), a lab that enables artists to consider nature in relation to ecological and landscape development issues and the initiator of the Van Eyck Food Lab.