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Extended Essays – Various Exhibitions, Limerick City Gallery of Art Exhibitions Catalogue, 2015

March 16, 2015

Lida Abdul, Rita Duffy & Jamal Penjweny WHITE: Lest We Forget
Elaine Byrne RAUMPLAN
Limerick City Gallery of Art (26 September – 18 November 2014)


Under the curatorial direction of Helen Carey, Limerick City Gallery of Art has made valuable contributions to Ireland’s Decade of Centenaries commemorative programme (2012-2022). In 2013, the centenary of the Dublin Lockout saw the activation of numerous projects, exhibitions and place-based events which examined both historical and contemporary notions of labour. With 2014 marking the centenary of the start of the First World War, LCGA presented the exhibition WHITE: Lest We Forget by artists Lida Abdul, Rita Duffy and Jamal Penjweny, which activated the ground floor galleries. The phrase ‘Lest We Forget’ derives from Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘Recessional’ (1897), and came into common usage after WWI in association with Remembrance Day observances. The exhibition mobilised personal, national and global narratives to examine not just the historical impact of past wars, but the modern-day repercussions of recent and ongoing global conflicts.
As an integral figure in the wave of Northern Irish artists responding to the Troubles, Rita Duffy provided biting visual accounts, from the mid 1980’s onwards, of the turmoil unfolding in Belfast neighbourhoods. Obvious anger was channelled through caricatures of political leaders and authoritative figures from Irish history, juxtaposed alongside the ordinary people, mainly women, who bore the brunt of the conflict. Depictions of ‘kitchen-sink’ scenarios, characters, domestic garments and utensils, were contrasted with the uniforms and props of militarised, judicial and religious systems. For WHITE, Duffy’s characteristic autobiographical thread appeared to intensify. The artist mobilised an array of conceptual devices and presentation strategies, identifying suitable ways to view history from the vantage-point of today. It transpired that her grandfather John Duffy was a bomber during the Battle of the Somme. Given that Ireland was still under British rule in 1914, over 200,000 Irish soldiers fought during WWI. John Duffy’s death in 1916 was relayed to his wife in a letter, which formed the basis of a triptych of drawings ‘Grandmother’s Letter’ (2011). As a primary source and a fragment of familial heritage, the letter attests to the historical context, pre-empting a long trajectory of subsequent Irish conflicts including the War of Independence, ensuing partition and the Troubles.
The urge to formally acknowledge, honour and memorialise heroic figures is integral to the commemorative process. A bronze medal, presented to the artist’s grandmother in 1916, was displayed in a museum-style glass ‘Somme Cabinet’, alongside sketches for two similar medals, each attesting to the purgative violence that would besiege Ireland over the subsequent decades. Elsewhere in the exhibition, Duffy assembled other collections of artefacts including ‘Field Work Cabinet’, displaying an assortment of soldiers’ supplies. This museological inquiry, made visible through ‘objects of war’ placed in ‘curiosity cabinets’, recalled ethnographic or colonial studies under the age of Empire, while seeming to probe the role of institutions in preserving and disseminating history.

Frozen Landscapes
Within the painterly ‘Cloth 1+2’ and ‘Handkerchief series 1-6’ from 2006, the artist’s personal narrative merged with broader national and global concerns. The iconic image of Derry priest Fr. Daley waving a white handkerchief at troops on Bloody Sunday offered a point of departure for these paintings, which seem to channel protection, peace and stillness from a now post-conflict perspective. A previous painting by the artist ‘Peace Offering’ depicted a hand holding a white handkerchief, but in these works, the absence of a hand seems more potently suggestive of the ‘invisible hand of the state’. On reflection, the crisp white handkerchief fabric has origins in older works not shown in this exhibition. If we consider the ubiquitous bed linen, table cloths, aprons, shrouds, wedding dresses and veils depicted in her early paintings, the representation of white fabric within Duffy’s work has consistently underpinned a range of feminine narratives from domesticity to saintliness. White sheets feature prominently in Duffy’s enchanting ‘Arctic Circus’ series of 2012, hung on washing lines, and held taught as trampoline apparatuses for the acrobatic pursuits of bouncing women. Above all, the white peaked-tops of tents and make-shift shelters in this series echo the creases and furrows of the handkerchiefs, which form a landscape of their own, as all-encompassing, soothing, and neutralising as a blanket of fresh snow.
No stranger to satire in her work, Duffy’s recent ‘Thaw Project’ portrays the Troubles through a lens of dark humour. Presented within a cabinet, the Thaw produce consists of satirically re-branded household groceries such as tinned ‘Red Ham of Ulster’, ‘Border Butter Beans’, and ‘Peas Process’, with significant historical dates incorporated into their barcodes. While the irreverent kitschness of the pop-up souvenir shop potentially adds freshness to a jaded subject, reflection is also evoked on how the narratives of war and post-conflict are consumed and disseminated via cultural production and the global media. Further extending the artistic use of foodstuff, ‘Dessert 2’ comprises dual AK47 rifles cast in chocolate. As stated by the artist, this particular type of gun was used during the conflict in Northern Ireland, but visually, I made more immediate associations with conflicts in the Middle East. The sandy discolouration of the dark leathery surface caused by chocolate bloom, as if lightly dusted during a sandstorm, further entrenched this ‘desert’ image – an interpretation which underpinned a more globally poignant reading of WHITE.

Global Perspectives
Jamal Penjweny’s photographic series ‘Saddam is Here’ (2010) makes visible the divisive legacy of Iraq’s former President Saddam Hussein, four years after the dictator was executed following his conviction of crimes against humanity. Probing the psychology of dictatorship, Penjweny’s twelve photographs depict Iraqi citizens in various locations holding a monochrome portrait of Saddam in front of their faces. While Saddam’s omnipresent image expresses his enduring influence on their everyday lives, concealing the people’s faces also creates an important dynamic, rousing curiosity in the viewer. The artist René Magritte famously stated that “there is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us”. From the labourers in their various workplaces, to the families in back streets of rundown neighbourhoods, the viewer yearns to know more about the lives of these people, scanning each scenario for the smallest detail, which may have been over-looked, had their faces been visible.
Providing a visual testament to enduring global conflicts, the title of Lida Abdul’s ‘White House’ series (2005), offers dual meanings. Given widespread knowledge of the American-led military campaign in Afghanistan, known dubiously as the ‘War on Terror’ aimed at deposing the Taliban and dismantling al-Qaeda, ‘The White House’ holds intrinsic meanings pertaining to modern geopolitical warfare. However, within the decimated landscape shown in Abdul’s compelling photographic prints and soundless film, ‘white house’ accrues more potent human meaning. Amidst mounds of white rubble, a solitary woman, dressed in black, applies white paint to the fallen walls and crumbling neoclassical pillars of a semi-derelict, bombed building. Perhaps she does not have the strength to‘re-build’, but carries out this ritual to express grief, to salvage, or to somehow memorialise what remains. The colour white represents spirituality, purity and peace, yet it brings little reprieve for the woman in her weary task. She later paints the back of a man who enters the scene, as if attempting to white-wash the human impact of this war and the loss her nation has suffered.

Raumplan: Spatial Plan
Devised under a different curatorial premise, yet offering overlapping thematic inquiries between the two exhibitions, Elaine Byrne’s solo show Raumplan was installed across LCGA’s 1st floor galleries. Just as the commemorative landscapes of WHITE used historical moments and artefacts to reflect on the current moment, in a similar way, Raumplan re-activated past ideologies to examine approaches to dwelling within the flux of modern life – an inquiry made visible through a series of spatial propositions.
‘Raum’ (2013) was a large-scale construction installed in LCGA’s Herbert Gallery, which appeared as an innovative, modular ‘viewing system’, containing an assortment of domestic trinkets and documentation. Occupying most of the space, the sculptural work compelled the viewer to circulate around it, to engage fully in the viewing experience. Constructed from vertical and horizontal 2×1″ wooden struts, the structure’s minimalist, grid-like framework had a plastic-coated white veneer, conjuring an IKEA-style aesthetic. Square and rectangular formations facilitated occasional walls within the asymmetrical structure, while several panels in primary colours were incorporated as supports, or for compositional effect, contrasting positive and negative elements within the arrangement. The use of primary colours directly references the palette associated with the De Stijl art and architectural movement, with the overall structure appearing to embody a Mondrian painting, executed across 3 dimensions. Art historical and theoretical references punctuated the work at every turn, conjuring research-dense threads which proved slightly cumbersome at times.
‘Raum’ is a partial reconstruction of ‘Raumstadt’ (‘City in Space’) created by utopian thinker and architect Frederick Kielser in 1925 as a presentation apparatus and a ‘vehicle for seeing’ the work of other artists and designers, which would actively involve the spectator. ‘Raumstadt’ formed part of Kielser’s wider legacy which probed perceptions of space and notions of dwelling. Accordingly, Byrne juxtaposed another reality within the structure, exuded by the objects and personal belongings of settled traveller Hanni Harty, retrieved from her now derelict home. The two-roomed cottage was originally hand-crafted in wattle and daub, embodying what Kiesler may have described as an ‘honest building’. The objects presented within ‘Raum’ seem much more active than the photographic documentation also on display. From the outmoded analogue camera, humble snow globe and garish figurine (depicting a woman and her loyal greyhound), to the fake flowers and plastic fruit (which vividly recall still life compositions of 17th century Dutch painting), the accumulated personal trinkets seem to conjure an indexical presence, while attesting to lived realities. With the clutter of human habitation appearing to clash abrasively with the non-objective forms and lines of the De Stijl framework, it is safe to surmise that these two worlds can never be compatible.
In an adjoining space ‘Walking Sculptures (or perhaps my father was right)’ presented four large tree trunks suspended from the ceiling with bulky black chains. Although impeccably installed and theatrically lit to cast dramatic shadows, the four lumbering pillars seemed aesthetically inept: too clunky to recall the deftness of Japanese scrolls, yet lacking the solidity of an architectural structure, gesturing instead towards the negative space demarked by the corner pillars of invisible walls. Burnt into the surfaces of the hovering poles were sequences of words extracted from several pertinent texts, detailed in the wall labels. What seems to symbolically connect these texts is a human capacity to build lives for ourselves, no matter how whimsical or Utopian. A final glance at the tree stumps made me think of Silverstein’s children’s book ‘The Giving Tree’ and its embedded fable for sustainable living, likened to the altruism of parenthood. In another room, the 4 channel HD film ‘Fathoming Spaces’ presented a scripted film whereby four actors relayed their experiences of wearing of a ‘cognitive sensory devise’ incorporated in a belt, also displayed on a plinth within the space. Pitched as “the culmination of a two year scientific experiment working with engineers from CENART, Mexico, and scientists from NUI, Maynooth”, it remains unclear whether this research collaboration actually took place, however the accounts of the pseudo-participants are suitably thought-provoking, if not entirely persuasive.

Building, Dwelling, Thinking
The largest room of LCGA’s upper floor was reserved for a final culmination of the spatial inquiries initiated throughout the exhibition. Based on Kiesler’s drawings and maquettes for his unrealised project ‘the Endless House’, Byrne presented the refined installation ‘Endless Resistance’ comprising an imposing, vessel-like sculpture and a horizontal strip of text (extracted from Kiesler’s ‘Manifesto of Correalism’) across three walls. Hand-crafted in rudimentary materials, Byrne’s cocoon-style shelter recalled the organic, spherical formations of igloos and other primitive dwellings, harking back to basic human instincts for shelter and security, while echoing the ‘cyclical nature of life’ and Kiesler’s ideas about ‘honest building’. With irregular shaped windows and no internal walls, the cavernous, shell-like structure seemed at once prehistoric and futuristic, while also feeling like a dystopian emergency shelter where one might ‘stow away’.
As a device for living, it could be argued that Kiesler’s unrealised design was somewhat prophetic, given modern-day architectural trends towards reclaimed materials, compact spaces and sustainable, passive and eco-building. Pitched in critical defiance of urbanisation, privatisation, gentrification, over-population, pollution and excessive consumption under late capitalism, global oppositional movements such as counter-urbanism have proffered simpler, more self-sufficient forms of building and dwelling, often in remote or rural settings away from metropolitan centres. The ‘self-build’ approach embodied in ‘Endless Resistance’ can also be viewed as a commentary on the commodification of housing under neoliberal policies, and the flawed system of valuing homes in economic terms, which led to the latest property market crash, and the ubiquitous, semi-derelict ghost estates which now litter the Irish landscape, as bi-products of greed and wrecklessness. Linked to simplicity and peace of mind, this desire for ‘retreat’ and remote, ‘off-the-grid living’ bares little correlation with the priorities of previous generations, which focused on the urgent need for industrialisation and a desire to embrace the economic realities of European Modernism. While the parents of past generations held aspirations to access ‘more’ for their children, the current challenge for many parents is to demonstrate restraint in resisting the commodities of consumerism, which ultimately do not bring happiness or spiritual fulfilment. In this way, shifting social concerns and intergenerational needs converge to underpin complex notions of habitation, concurring with Kiesler’s view that examinations of building and dwelling should not be formulated upon the study of architecture but ‘based on the study of man’.

 

Rita Duffy 'The Thaw Factory' (2014)

Rita Duffy ‘The Thaw Factory’ (2014)

Elaine Byrne 'Endless Resistance' (2015)

Elaine Byrne ‘Endless Resistance’ (2015)

Elaine Byrne 'Raum', 2012

Elaine Byrne ‘Raum’, 2012

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