Patrick Redmond 2017

Manicured hands appear to cradle or lay down a young child’s head. The stepped haircut could place him as a schoolboy from any decade in the last century. The touch seems gentle and light, a benediction perhaps. The subtle attenuation of the fingers is certainly female. In many ways, a not unfamiliar visual representation of childhood and family life yet, as in so many of Patrick Redmond’s paintings, there is a detonating detail. The boy’s closed eye is so oddly turned; the eyelids slightly thickened and almost, it seems, beginning to rotate around the lacrimal point.

This detail, this tiny vortex is definite and disquieting; it sets off a sequence of observations and associations, opening to questions that have no reply. The artist’s ongoing thematic concerns – the experience and even anxious expectation of loss; the intricacy and mutability of memory – implicit here, are encountered in the other works in this exhibition. Through fictional and possible worlds, Patrick explores narrative indeterminacy with a rare painterly erudition and, even rarer, deep-searching sincerity.

Ekphrasis resumed, we notice the bridge of the nose is perturbingly plastic, yielding unnaturally under pressure and submitting to a kneading process of forming and re-forming. Whatever is taking place, Facemaker is about unmaking as much as making. To the painter’s task of modelling flesh, at which Patrick is so technically capable, has been added an element of disintegrative détournement: the eye pulling the cheek into its vortex, unsettling in itself, ‘infects’ or destabilises other parts of the canvas – from the echoing whirl of left ear, to the lush, woozy amorphous shapes in the background.

The technique of anamorphosis, as deployed in this painting, is an approximation of a distorting digital effect but one no viewing position or device can correct. It is, instead, part of a visual strategy of defamiliarisation that obtains throughout all the works. ‘Making strange’ in this way discloses something, perhaps, key to the viewer’s perceptual processes – the necessarily skewed and fragmentary nature of our memories and relationships. Specifically, and most curiously, anamorphosis here causes the strangely-lidded eye to closely resemble the shape of a cowrie shell. The resemblance calls to mind the plastered and painted skulls created by Neolithic peoples of the Levant. Cowrie shells, set into the eye sockets of human skulls modelled over in mud and plaster, stare into eternity. This potent and life-like detail, representing sight or somehow forming an extension of the human body, suggests mortuary practices produced the first examples of portraiture in the material record.

From the ‘Jericho skulls’ to the most sophisticated of Fayum encaustic portraits, the psychology of mourning has long served as a catalyst for art. Today, the function of photography in vernacular memorials can be said to meet a similar need; from printed mass cards to the Facebook pages of the deceased, the living endeavour to maintain ongoing relationships with the dead. And who, when looking through family albums, has not experienced something of this uneasy presence-as-absence? One has only to consider the fate and faces of relatives, orphaned by time and vanished contexts, to become aware of the extent to which our own photographic archives stand as material testimony to the truth that ‘we all live by leaving behind’.[i]

Certainly, 19th century postmortem photography is a significant, if oblique, influence on Patrick’s current body of work, informing both the collecting criteria for found images and his approach to materials. In an age when infant and child mortality rates were such as are almost unimaginable to us now, mourning families might arrange for a last portrait of the deceased; the body presented between life and death, children posed to appear asleep. Early manipulative techniques, such as hand tinting, retouching and collage, developed to increase the appearance of life, serve to induce a further uncertain, ambivalent legibility to these images.

It is no coincidence, then, that so many of the subjects of his pictures are of children and youths or that compositional decisions consistently avoid the directness of their gaze. In these complex works, visual strategies evoke interior and exterior worlds: subjects are doubled in more ways than one; they are typically turned away from the viewer, absorbed in either activity or reflection or, as in Dark glass, seen in reflection. In this small grisaille painting, a young girl leans her forehead against the interior glass of a train window. The beauty and lustre of her hair is expertly described in monochrome and enlivened by the faint reddish stain of the canvas ground. The quality is such that one can almost feel the coolness of the glass. Her face in reflection, the dark mirror of the title, swims in pools of shadows; her lips and eyes are preternaturally dark – darker, now we see, than the cast of electric light should allow. The moment turns from simply a tired child to a hallucinatory premonition. The painter’s invention, only just shy of ghoulish unpleasantness is a projection of a parental gaze – protective and anxious, wanting to treasure her beauty and fragility yet anticipating the trials of an adolescent coming-of-age and imagining the worst. The Romantic paradigm of the innocent child evoked even as it is dismantled.

This fraught engagement with the idea of a ‘knowing child’, described by Neil Cocks as “a category of subjects active in their own representation rather than passive objects of vision” is (all too) acutely aware of a wider shift in cultural representations and visual portrayals of children, from the image of the ‘natural’, ‘unknowing’ (that is, sexually innocent) child to images that are “bodily, self-aware and sexual”.[ii] A dialectic of innocence and knowledge operates in Patrick’s work, becoming a visual means and metaphor through which to address discursive constructions of childhood; a gendered perspective is brought to bear, for example, on the products of childhood – the image of the wooden schooner (carved by artist’s father, a merchant sailor and dedicated amateur painter) makes an epigrammatic pairing with the painting of the delaminated double-page spread from a teen magazine, its pomaded crooners set within a wooden frame (made and decorated by the artist’s young daughter).

As an artist always intrigued by the ambivalence produced and conveyed by photography, Patrick has increasingly looked to the materiality of the medium, to the surface qualities of the print – much as a conservator would note sheen or abrasion. In this, Patrick who has steadily made paintings after photographs, is exploring familial commonalities that exist between reproductive technologies and the arts of painting and drawing that extend beyond the use of photographs as a fixed (or ‘too fixed’) reference image. The work consciously establishes dynamics of surface and touch in order to focus on notions of ephemerality and remembrance.

In one small painting, a glass tumbler is held upside-down and firmly cupped at both ends, the pressure creating a slight vacuum. A thumbprint on the glass is prominent and dark. The bodily trace in all its oily particularity connects productively with the more nebulous senses of containment and release at play in the picture. The effect is to sublate the clichéd queries of optimism or pessimism into a koan-like annulment – the volume is both full and empty. The tumbler (along with the sapling, and the songbird) has become a motif for Patrick in recent years, recurring as an open signifier for future possibility.

One of most compelling paintings is a closely cropped image, focusing on the hand and another register of touch. The hand is that of an older man; two finches rest on the slightly cupped finger and wrist. The picture speaks of an intimate sphere – a simple act, a small, patient communion. For all its apparent simplicity, its source and inspiration is multilayered and gives an insight into Patrick’s creative process. Firstly, there is the world of private significance: the painting is an effort to recreate a memory which came back vividly to Patrick in dream closely following the death of his father. Yet, as is so characteristic of the doubts that set in with all efforts to consciously recall autobiographical memory, an out-of-focus and badly exposed photograph of the same subject also exists in the Redmond family archive.

The prompt to distill this intricate paradox of emotional specificity and narrative uncertainty into an artwork came from a chance discovery of a remarkably similar subject (and composition) taken by the Kearton brothers, early British wildlife photographers. In Dartford warbler and chick on Richard Kearton’s hand (c.1890) the outstretched hand is recorded in such detail and clarity as to rival any Dürer study. The painting made in response involves a secondary layer of interpretation and a further point of triangulation: the blurred original photograph of his father was restaged with Patrick’s paternal uncle. The similarity of the two men’s hands (striking both artist and model as almost miraculous) is an expression of continuities that owe as much to the urgency of memory as to genetic code. Mediated and remediated through this intuitive process, the subtly inflected image takes on new life and meanings of its own. The accidental detail of the grey cuff of forearm crutch, for example, a formal echo of the jacket cuff, becomes an augury that adds to the sensitive emotional resonances of the work. And all is a foil to the birds’ iridescence.

The conceptual ambition of Patrick’s practice derives from a commitment to figurative representation and a fascination with personal photography, as images and (less common these days) as material objects. The sustaining tension is generated by the fact that his primary interest is not in the realism or ‘transparency’ of the window on the world offered by photography but rather in the complex layers of mediation necessary to negotiate its defining contradiction – the illusion of apparent immediacy and the sense of absolute pastness. Patrick takes, as his subject, existing modes of personal photography within the family sphere precisely because, although often fleeting and commonplace, they are the pictures that come to occupy the hinterlands of our everyday lives. Such images are enmeshed in practices of communicative memory that serve to reinforce interpersonal relations and shape personal connections with the past. We rely on everyday contexts of informal exchanges (now including networked environments) or material ensembles (like frames and albums) to interpret and make meaning. Yet as Olga Shevchenko, commenting on how memory and photography are mutually constitutive, writes:

Not only is memory mediated, it is also – and paradoxically – inherently unstable, situational, and intersubjective. We remember different aspects of the same experience when we recall in different contexts, with different interlocutors, and in different points in our lives. In this sense to frame photographs as containers, vessels or expressions of memory is to misconstrue memory by imagining it as a static thing to be contained and transmitted, rather than a practice to be enacted and performed variously on different settings.[iii]

The process of translation through which photographic source images become paintings involves various acts of appropriation and re-contextualising. And behind those strategies lies an earnest question: if communicative or everyday memory, formed and vouched for by personal experience disappears (as it must), in what settings might its departing echoes be made to ring with a sustained reverberation? In some works, this is done through a triggering or disruptive element that amplifies potential psychological dynamics, imbuing the pictures with an alien intensity; in others, through a more diffuse feeling of open-endedness that resists narrative elaboration even as it invites imaginative projection. If this is a dream world, the structures of feeling are vague and emergent but we can also recognise in them tensions, energies and vulnerabilities that are refracted through the greater culture at large. It is not for nothing that Patrick’s preferred term for these works is ‘histories’. Their narrative indeterminacy has the rigour of method. Working closely with the photographer, Michael Byrne, and with a mostly familiar cast of models (often literally so, drawn from the artist’s own family circles), Patrick sets about staging simple, predetermined scenarios. This stage opens to improvised action and intuitive discoveries. Reference images generated through this process are specific in their detail but radically open to association and allow the greatest number of possible interpretive pathways. In recent years, these have begun to involve more complex restaging of found images and layering of art historical references.

In ‘Crossing’, for example, one of the large ‘soot drawings’, a hooded boy balances in tightrope walker fashion upon a fallen tree. Its trunk, bisecting the lower left and bottom edges of the drawing, is a bulky parody of the Nikes victory swoosh on his trainers. The pictorial ground is formed by a collaged surface made up of overlapping pages from outdated dictionaries and encyclopedias. The effect heightens the attention we pay to the interpenetration of image, surface and facture. The printed columns of text ghost even the darkest passages and in the ‘reserve’, or unworked portions of the drawing, set the highest tonal values. Both subject and composition lend themselves to a symbolic reading: the boy’s passage across the liminal space of adolescence. In the convention of Romantic landscapes established by Caspar David Friedrich’s transcendental Monk before the Sea (1808–10), the standing figure is a ‘stand in’ for the real viewer, a literal detail before the radiant depths of the void beyond. ‘Crossing’, in that conventionalised account, is a projection of empathy, a gesturing towards the transcendental unknown. Yet instead of numinous darkness we have the noisy grain of the material substrate. Instead of knowledge, information – uselessly random and with no intentional correlation with what is depicted.

The soot drawings exploit a modesty of means and the affectivity of trace and imprint on the yellowing paper. Direct drawing, made with compressed crayons of the artist’s own manufacture, combines with matt granulated washes of soot proclaiming the drawing’s contingent materiality. The evocative and expressive potential of both the medium (a byproduct of domestic residue) and ground (a recycling of obsolete learning materials) create an oscillation between surface and image and between figure and ground analogous to the involuntary shuttling back and forth of subject positions within the compositions. Each mutually reinforces the other, building in unresolvable spatial, temporal and psychological ambiguities. There is an internal logic to be found at work in the ‘histories’ of this series, it is the logic of distance and separation – the unbridgeable distances in our emotional lives; the impossible distances at the limits of self.

[i] Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Funes the Memorious’ (1942), in Anthony Kerrigan (ed), Ficciones, 1962, 113.

[ii] Neil Cocks, ‘Fort/Da: A Reading of Pictures of Innocence by Anne Higonnet’ in Karl Lesnik-Oberstein (ed), Children in Culture, Revisited: Further Approaches to Childhood, 2011, 148.

[iii] Olga Shevchenko, ‘Memory and Photography’ in Olga Shevchenko (ed), Double Exposure: Memory and Photography, 2014, 5-6.

The Artist of the Chief Mourner

Three images of the Chief Mourner are known to have been made during the Endeavour voyage (1768-1771). [i] All were either acquired or retained by Joseph Banks and are now held in the British Library: A Tupapow in the island of Otaheite (Add. Ms 23921, folio 31a) by Sydney Parkinson; Dress of Chief Mourner (Add. Ms. 23921, folio 32) by Herman Diedrich Spöring, Joseph Bank’s secretary; and Dancing Girl & Chief Mourner (Add. Ms 15508, folio 9) by Tupaia, the Ra‘iatean arioi (a priest from the chiefly class), who travelled onboard the Endeavour from Tahiti as navigator, interpreter and diplomat. The arioi was a religious and aristocratic society throughout the Society Islands dedicated to the cult of the war god ‘Oro.  Anne Salmond gives some indication of the multiple roles they played in Tahitian society; ‘a society of orators, priests, navigators, travelling performers, warriors and famed lovers, distinguished by their tattoos and red barkcloth garments.’[ii]

Tupaia’s depiction of the Chief Mourner is the most detailed of the three. It delineates the elements of the heva costume complex: the parea, the pearl shell face mask surrounded by tropic-bird feathers, surmounted with the fa’aupo’o, a feathered headdress; the pa’utu, the cresent-shaped wooden breastplate ornamented with pearl shells and feather tassels at each end; from the pa’utu is suspended the ahu parau, the chest apron made from narrow rectangular plates of pearl shell, sewn into parallel rows; a number of tapa, or barkcloth, robes, (both raw and dyed) including Ahow-Iboo, a tapa apron covered with small coconut shell pendants, and the black feathered cloak, Ahow-roopè (the last two Tahitian terms are eighteenth-century transliterations taken from Forster’s  1776 catalogue). The Chief Mourner is also shown holding the other accoutrements of the heva dress: the tete, a pair of shell clappers or castinets, beaten to warn surrounding people of oncoming procession and the paeho, a shark’s-tooth weapon, carried to strike anyone that crosses his path. Banks, emphasizing the impossibility of adequately describing the heva tupapa’u ceremony in words, instead directs readers ‘to the annexd figure’. As his journal was unpublished it is unknown exactly to which drawing he intended to refer. However, Marilyn Savill suggests that, in ‘[w]hile it does not appear in any of the engraved plates [of the 1773 edition of Hawkesworth’s ‘Voyages’], this illustration [i.e. Tupaia’s] may have been used for clarification when Barralet created a design for Woollett to engrave, showing the Chief Mourner’s costume quite clearly.’ [iii]

A series of eight watercolour paintings in the papers of Joseph Banks in the collection of the British Library had been attributed to the unknown hand of ‘The Artist of the Chief Mourner’ after the arresting subject of one of the paintings, in the same way as anonymous masters are named in the European art tradition. Often considered to be by Banks himself, the true artist is now known to be Tupaia. The evidence only recently came to light in 1997 when Harold Carter, editing the Banks correspondence, discovered an explicit reference to a particular encounter and to Tupaia’s painting of the same scene. [iv] In the letter Banks explains that ‘Tupaia the Indian who came with me from Otaheite Learnd to draw in a way not Quite unintelligible’, an achievement he ascribes to

‘The genius for Caricature which all wild people Possess’.[v]

Parkinson and Spöring are known to have sketched the same subjects and Tupaia and Parkinson seem to have developed a spiritual kinship, so, whether by observation or instruction, it was through these relationships that Tupaia acquired the skill and knowledge of the medium. If one compares Tupaia’s watercolour with the pencil drawing by Spöring, the differences of medium aside, the primary characteristic shared by both is the frontal view which imparts a certain hieratic quality and ensures the geometry of oval and arcing shapes are at their clearest and most pronounced. The effect is possibly more notable in Tupaia’s painting, where the figure fills the full height of the right hand side of the page, whereas Spöring’s figure, smaller, neater and centrally placed, has a wide border with room below for a profile detail of the mask and turban. Other differences, like the coloured tapa skirt and the fact that the paeho staff is placed in different hands, are all suggestive of the possibility that it is drawn from life rather than a derivative image, copied and coloured in. Tupaia’s style can be fairly described as naïve and Sopring’s is close to diagrammatic, the talent of a competent draftsman rather than a trained artist. Neither have the play of shadow and light that intensifies a dramatic scene, exploited, in particular, by William Hodges’ image of the Chief Mourner, made, one can be sure, with the qualities of engraving in mind. Tupaia is not in command of perspectival space or European academic standards of naturalism; the hands and feet are by turns spiky or blocky. Yet, when one becomes aware of the intellectual curiosity and ambition that must have prompted his taking up an entirely new visual language or system of representation, the achievement becomes remarkable. The stylised, frontal depiction, seems, to me at least, to have a severity that the emotional import, say, of Kenelm Henry Digby’s 1810 watercolour could never have.

It is a relevant question to ask what grounding Tupaia might have had in indigenous systems of graphic representation, such as tattooing, dyed barkcloth and wood carving which, although based on intricate patterning, had a degree of naturalism. James Mara, an Irish sailor, who esteemed Tupaia as ‘a man of real genius, a priest of the first order and an excellent artist’, described the ‘astonishing exactness’ with which arioi tattooists traced their lines.[vi]  Close inspection of the high resolution image available from the British Library bears that out. Unfortunately it also crops the companion image of the Chief Mourner, the ‘Dancing Girl’ of the title. The heiva dances were more than entertainment, they were a religious ceremony, performed by highly trained arioi dance troupes. Salmond, observing that Tupaia’s Tahitian sketches ‘feature arioi themes, including marae arioi musicians and dancers, canoes and a chief mourner’s costume, and… employ red, brown and black, the predominant colours of bark-cloth painting’, proposes that drawing became a form of communicative exchange about Tahitian beliefs and culture. If the Tahitian images are teaching images, then the drawings made when travelling in New Zealand and along the east coast of Australia are properly ethnographic, showing a sharp interest ‘in the novel and the unknown’. Evidently Tupaia found his own significance in what he saw.[vii] Their rediscovery, or rescue from the archive, through revised reattribution is a remarkable example of indigenous agency and mutual curiosity. As Glyn Williams concludes,  in the history of early voyages and encounter:

Europeans on the Pacific discovery voyages of the Cook era exercised their superiority not only through cannon and muskets, but through a relentless describing, recording and depicting of the peoples they encountered. Tupaia seemed to have reversed that order of things. He was the observer not the observed, the painter not the painted; he was a dominant rather than a subordinate participant in the contact process.[viii]


Carter, Howard B., ‘Note on the Drawings by an Unknown Artist from the Voyage of HMS Endeavour’, in Lincoln, Margarette (ed.), Science and Exploration in the Pacific: European Voyages to the Southern Oceans in the 18th Century (Woodbridge: Boydell Press), 1998, pp.133-134.

Joppien, Rüdiger; Smith, Bernard, Art of Captain Cook’s Voyages: Volume I: The Voyage of the Endeavour 1768–1771, (London; New Haven: Yale University Press), 1985.

Newell, Jennifer, Trading Nature: Tahitians, Europeans , and Ecological Exchange  (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press), 2010.

Saville, Marilyn, Empiricism, Enlightenment and Aesthetics: Engravings from the Endeavour Voyage, 1768-1771 (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Auckland), 2011.

Smith, Keith Vincent, ‘Tupaia’s Sketchbook’, British Library eJournal, 2005:

Smith, Vanessa, ‘Banks, Tupaia, and Mai: Cross-cultural exchanges and friendship in the Pacific’, Parergon, Volume 26, Number 2, 2009, pp. 139-160.

Intimate Strangers: Friendship, Exchange and Pacific Encounters (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press), 2010.

Williams, Glyn, ‘Tupa’ia: Polynesian warrior, navigator, high priest – and artist’, in Nussbaum, Felicity (ed.), The Global Eighteenth Century (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press), 2003, pp. 38-51.

– ‘Tupaia: the remarkable story of Captain Cook’s Polynesian navigator’ , Journal of Pacific History, Vol. 46, No.3, 2011, pp.401-402

Wood, Paul, Western Art and the Wider World (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell), 2013.

[i] The three images are listed in Joppien and Smith’s descriptive catalogue as figures 1.45a, 1.48, 1.51., respectively.

[ii] Salmond, Anne, ‘Their Body is Different, Our Body is Different: European and Tahitian Navigators in the 18th Century’, History and Anthropology, Vol. 16, No. 2, June 2005, pp. 167–186.

[iii] Saville, Marilyn, Empiricism, Enlightenment and Aesthetics: Engravings from the Endeavour Voyage, 1768-1771 (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Auckland), 2011, p. 98 :

[iv] The painting is ‘A Maori bartering a crayfish with an English naval officer’. The Englishman shown is Joseph Banks himself trading Tahitian barkcloth in New Zealand.

[v] Sir Joseph Banks, Letter to Dawson Turner FRS, 1812, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, Banks Collection, MS 82.

Quoted by Carter, ‘Note on the Drawings by an Unknown Artist from the Voyage of HMS Endeavour’, pp.133-134 in ed Margarette Lincoln Science and Exploration in the Pacific: European Voyages to the Southern Oceans in the 18th Century . Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press, 1998

[vi] Marra, John, Journal of the Resolution’s Voyage of Discovery to the Southern Hemisphere (London, 1775), p. 219. Quoted by Williams , ‘Tupa’ia: Polynesian warrior, navigator, high priest – and artist’ 2003 p47.

[vii]  Williams, Glyn, ‘Tupa’ia: Polynesian warrior, navigator, high priest – and artist’, in Nussbaum, Felicity (ed.), The Global Eighteenth Century (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press), 2003, p.49.

[viii]  Williams, Glyn, ‘Tupaia: the remarkable story of Captain Cook’s Polynesian navigator ‘, Journal of Pacific History, Vol. 46, No.3, 2011, p.401.

Consecutive drawings

Thomas Kirk’s sculpture of Horatio Nelson’s head, now on display in the Dublin City Library and Archive on Pearse Street, was once on top of Nelson’s shoulders and on top of Nelson’s Pillar on O’Connell Street until it was blown up in 1966. Oversized to account for the acute angle and distance at which it would be seen, up close to the pocked and pitted stone the effect is monstrous and cadaverous – at eye level it’s hard not to see a death stare and rictus!

Starting with a badly rubbed charcoal drawing, I made a series of consecutive drawings on the sheet in my studio. The idea was to document the stages of my own destruction of the drawing through overworking with a heavy hand, knocking back with a cloth, lifting out with a brush and then re-drawing. The day’s work would end with the eventual erasure of the image. I’ve since experimented with ways of turning the consecutive drawings into sequential or ‘cinematic’ images as a way of dramatising the process.  An online exhibition of sequence of six of the twenty-one resulting scans is on my Open Gallery website (in zoomable high def), here.

Each of the six drawings appear to be coming in and out of focus at the same time. The ‘Google art’ style seamless zoom function gives a privileged view of the drawings; one can see the grain and deckle of the paper and the scoring of its surface; one can sense just how fluid charcoal can be as a drawing medium and also just how friable it’s in nature. As ever, magnification gives new significance to the density of a drawn mark and a kind of monumentality to the wavering traces of the hand.

In light of the current destruction and looting of ancient archaeological sites and museums and religious buildings in Iraq and Syria – the latest in a long history of ‘cultural cleansing’ – the thought was in my mind that there was scope to consider ideologically motivated iconoclasm in an Irish context.


The object biography of the head is bizzare too – it was kidnapped by NCAD students for a provo-chic fashion shoot, all balaclavas and Mod dresses! That story is told here. Flann O’Brien couldn’t have made it up!

nelson_fashion_small_nonopt Continue reading

Double-coded Absence

The monument is a legitimising institution designed to naturalise the concept of ‘collective memory’ and shape discourses of public space. While monuments are used to represent specific narratives of authority and history, they also function as discursive sites at the intersection between ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ memory narratives.

Sites of Memory

A short promo for RTE television serves to show how the concept of a ‘site of memory’ is a regular and effective tool to reinforce national identity. In an aureate Dublin,  Nelsons Pillar elongates and soars, morphing into the Millennium Spire. The symbolism of achievement is clear: the movement, swift and continuous; the transformation, inevitable. An image of a dynamic, foreword-looking, self-confident European capital is successfully promoted. But what is left out of this vision? The violence, both symbolic and actual, of the removal and the four decades of awkward absence that lay at what had once been the social and economic heart of the city.

Collective memory, then, can be understood as a cultural process of interpretation and transmission whereby, as Edward Said phrases it, ‘past events are selected, reconstructed, maintained, modified and endowed with political meaning’.[1]  It is not so much a form of knowledge of the past as a pattern of remembering and forgetting. The sense of a shared past is a claim of continuity with a historic community and a key strategy in the formation and articulation of a national identity. However, in the same way that individual memory sustains identity narratives that are in the process of being lived through (and are, therefore, necessarily incomplete), national memory is a construct dependant on the mediation of narratives that focus on the nation or the nation-to-be that are also subject to constant reinterpretation and are equally as  fluid.

Pierre Nora distinguishes between ‘sites of memory’ and the ‘medium of memory’; a ‘site of memory’ is where memory is crystallised in physical form, such as a monument or memorial;  the ‘medium of memory’ is the social environment in which memory is experienced as ‘living reality’, or an everyday part of life. In his analysis, memory and identity are only made available within social and cultural frameworks and, as such,

‘…the less memory is experienced from the inside the more it exists through its exterior scaffolding and outward signs.’[2]

In other words, sites of memory are not evidence of continuity with the past, but rather emerge because of a break in ‘the imaginative grasp of continuity.’[3] This scheme is highly relevant to the two designs under discussion; each, to differing ends, addresses the historic and symbolic context of the site.

The premise that a monument represents a form of ‘memory work’ or moral obligation to contemplate the past involves two modes of inscription: from the top down and from the bottom up. On one hand, normative ideas and values can make sense of personal and transmitted memory narratives to reinforce, reproduce and mobilise a sense of ‘national memory’. On the other hand, the dissonance between the official narratives promoted by ‘sites of memory’ and unofficial, alternative readings can be deeply felt, often to the extent that monuments become a target for symbolic negation or actual violence. For example, the blowing up of the statue of Nelson in 1966, the fiftieth commemorative year of the 1916 Rising, was, in one sense, a symbolic act of keeping faith with, and claiming ownership of, republican tradition, and in another sense, a literal re-enactment of the three failed attempts to blow up Nelson’s Pillar during the Rising. Yet, even after the symbolic de-colonisation process of removal and renaming that followed Independence, Nelsons Pillar had remained a symbol of continuity, both as a distinctive landmark and as an established framing device that echoed and enhanced the Daniel O’Connell Monument.  Most notably, it is a potent presence in photographs of the aftermath of 1916, rising out of the rubble or as a viewpoint for looking down upon the destruction. Nelsons Pillar, it seems, could both signify modern Dublin and British rule. One image contains that tension at a breaking point; the Column remains monumental, the figure of Nelson, however, is decapitated by the framing edge.

Limerick Presentation 3


While, monuments can serve an integrative function, the very attempt to give concrete expression to a single vision of the past signals that it is not, in fact, sustained within the ‘medium of memory’. Put simply, ‘sites of memory’  have different interpretive communities; certainly, interpretations of Nelsons Pillar and its fate have hinged on Dublin’s ambiguous status as the second city of Empire, variously presented as colonial subject or imperial partner. In response to the politics of commemoration and informed by the de-constructivist insight that a master-narrative contains its own counter-discourses, a strategy of ‘counter-monument’ has developed within the discourse of contemporary public art. It acknowledges the impossibility of unifying discordant memories and instead seeks to debate the ethics and agendas of ‘memory management’ and ultimately, it has been argued, to ‘challenge the status of memory as a knowable object’.[4]

Monument to Memory

Monument to Memory, designed by the Irish architect Jonathan Bennett, was short-listed in the 1998 competition organised by the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland and Dublin Corporation for a monument for the Nelsons Pillar site in Dublin.  It called for the core of a layered glass obelisk to be hollowed out by computer-guided laser to create the negative form of the Nelson memorial. This metonymic ‘inversion’ or ‘translation’ from mass to volume reveals a self-consciousness about the traditional rhetoric of public monuments; the gendered architectural language connected with the victory column is a case in point. Its massive scale, vertical thrust, and, in particular, the choice of ‘unadorned’ Doric order were understood as representations of masculinity. In Bennett’s design an entrance opening into the interior space would have allowed viewers to experience the void within the obelisk. From inside, the towering volume is subversive of the rhetoric of mastery; Nelson is disembodied; the hybrid of two phallic monuments becomes an empty prophylactic sheath. From outside, the historic tensions between competing identities in Ireland and the ideological opposition of coloniser and colonised appear to be held in ‘holographic’ suspension.


The work explicitly engages with the concept of memory; however, the title refers to  an abstract category rather than a specific event or individual (and by extension, defined identity). The ‘Memory’ acknowledged is both that of the original monument and that of its absence. So, if Monument to Memory can’t be read in terms of nostalgia for an unchallenged imperial order, is it a depoliticised ‘musealisation’? One must bear in mind that for many Dubliners Nelson’s Pillar had been a familiar presence, naturalised as a landmark and embedded into the fabric of the city; something assimilated through use and language as a symbol of modernity and civic identity. The effect of the presentational image, superimposing the proposed monument upon an archival photograph of the site, is to remind one of just how the names and dates of Nelson’s military victories on the base must have been juxtaposed with signs advertising ballroom dancing, dentistry and hairdressing. In this way its official messages had become contingent, if not entirely ‘invisible’. It becomes clear that the ‘memory work’ being asked of contemporary viewers is ambiguous, provisional and layered.  I would argue that this is a strategic attempt to shape memory of the colonial heritage as a ‘sphere of ambiguity, tension, transition, hybridity, between “national” and “imperial” spheres’.[5]

The project would have reintroduced a major element into the symbolic sequence of O’Connell Street that was used to confirm a nationalist meta-narrative, but in such a way as to historicise it. In an essay on monument/memory, James Young uses the metaphor of surface reflection to describe how ‘the tempestuous, social, political and aesthetic forces’ at play in uses of the past are ‘normally hidden by a monument’s taciturn exterior’.[6] In this context, the play of looking in and out and, indeed, through in Monument to Memory can be double-coded; referring to the ‘everyday’ social use of memory in mediating and shaping cultural identities, and to the ‘unavailable’ past enclosed in the glass display case of the museum, distant or ‘untranslatable’.


The success of ‘site-specific’ artwork lies in its mode of address to public space: is it appropriated as ‘spectacular street furniture’  or can it offer some critical purchase on the site?[7]  Tellingly, the jury’s description of the successful design praised the refusal of the Welsh architect, Ian Ritchie, to look back at a ‘native historical secret’.[8] This cannot but be interpreted as a reference to their reading of Jonathan Bennett’s design. In the jury’s description of their consideration of its merits, the nub of the question was the relevance of Nelson to modern Dublin. In a very important sense they missed the point: far from being ‘overly referential’ as it was criticised, one of the strengths of Bennett’s design is that it was not an explicit commemoration. Meaning is not fixed by text on a plaque; instead, it could be produced through the projection of a symbolic language of coloured light through the reflective and refractive core. Possibilities suggested in the  proposal included red for World AIDS day and green for St. Patrick’s day. As contemporary notions of ‘Irishness’ are contested along new axes of differentiation, such semiotic friction between signifier and signified could have proved an elegant and productive reminder of the relational and multiple nature of identities. However, the jury’s unspoken assumption was that this discursive exploration of the monument form would have been a constraint on the reinvention of Dublin as a more attractive consumer and cultural centre.

Monument to Light

A common critical response to the winning entry, Monument to Light, was to relate its design with the culture of contemporary Ireland: one such comment was that the monument might have

‘[no] specific meaning in its own right… it’s not religious, it’s not military, it’s not political…but it does say something about wealth.’.[9]

A counter-argument was that it embodied a collective civic consciousness in the abstract sense of aspiration, and also, literally, in its ‘democratic’ and ‘rational’ relation to space, namely its ‘ability to occupy the most important civic space without oppressively dominating it’.[10] Jury member and sculptor, Vivienne Roche noted that ‘it will stand within the street, be part of it, lifting rather than weighting its surroundings’. [11] Ritchie also located his design in a discourse of urbanism, acting as a point of orientation throughout the city, providing clear sight lines at the intersection of Henry Street and Talbot Street, and an axial marker for O’Connell Street. The ideas of Aldo Rossi of the monument as a ‘freed point in the urban dynamic’ were key in the thinking of designer and jury.[12] In fact, the Rossi quotation included in Raymund Ryan’s essay The Monument in the City, published for the launch of the competition, was quoted back in the Richie proposal.


In keeping with a modernist ideal of purity and universality, Ritchie claimed the pre-eminent virtues of his design were its integrity and rigour; it was, in his words, ‘ideologically Teflon’ having rejected the temptation of the all too easy signification that it might have had had it had carried, for example, ‘the stars of the European Union or the names of Irish martyrs’. [13] It was framed as an apolitical, autonomous artwork, ‘more concerned with the manipulation of space itself than with representing things within it.’[14]  If Monument to Light could be constructed as an escape from history it could not do so with out contradiction. For example, setting out the origin of his design, Ritchie describes how his challenge was to connect ‘ground and sky, past and future’. [15] Such was his enthusiasm for the formal elegance and innovative engineering of the project, that almost every essentialised cliché of Irish memory and identity is then pitched to justify the statement.

Starting with the base, the cast-bronze spiral is apparently inspired by Celtic metalwork and New Grange stone carvings. Moving up to the surface pattern of the lower frustules, which is abstracted from a geological core sample taken when laying the foundation platform, Richie then suggests a further lyrical reading:  ‘as mirrored seas or lakes, or …as hundreds of islands floating in a mirrored sea.’ [16] This represents an imagistic shift from the concept of connection to land and site to ‘ideas of scattering and of ebb and flow’, which he argues is an engagement with the memory of historic emigration and the reality of contemporary immigration. Turning to the material qualities of the polished stainless steel, chosen to reflect the ‘constantly changing subtleties of light, cloud and mist’, Ritchie hits upon the environmental determinism that is one of the enduring characterisations of poetic ‘Irishness’. In the morphology set out by Ryan,  the form itself is inspired by timeless, elemental standing stones,  by way of ‘the blade-like obelisk [of the Wellington Testimonial]’ and in further contrast to ‘the static column [of Nelsons Pillar]’. [17]


To be fair, the very real strengths of the design come from a deliberate openness to different readings. Certainly, as described by Ryan, ‘its elemental shape and allegories of illumination’ have an universal resonance, that can also be culturally coded as symbolising the hopes and ambitions engendered in Ireland at the turn of the Millennium by the Peace Process and economic boom.[18] Richie’s enthusiastic iconographic exegesis encourages a celebratory account of the history of the Irish people from ‘Celtic Creativity’ to ‘Irish Diaspora’ to ‘Ireland of the Future’. What has been missed, however, is an opportunity to do more than piggyback on ideas of collective memory and national identity, which is to make them comprehensible as complex, historically formed relationships.

The strength of Bennett’s reflexive design is that, instead of attempting to simultaneously repress and transcend the contested meanings of the Nelsons Pillar site, it facilitates the critical examination of the cultural circuit in which such meanings are produced, reproduced and continuously revised.

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Google Open Gallery

The Invite

Last May, following the request I made in December 2013, I received an invitation from Google Cultural Institute to join Google Open Gallery. I’m glad finally to have had the opportunity to more fully investigate what it can do and how it works in the course of a critical evaluation and formal review of its use as a Digital Humanities tool . While assessing how appropriate it might prove to be to my own immediate research project and longer-term artistic goals, I also became aware of a host of questions and issues related to the contemporary reframing of the figure of the artist as a ‘creative entrepreneur’: e.g., the criteria used to assess the ‘eligibility’ of users for a service, like Open Gallery, that one must request an invite for; the evolving role of ‘gatekeeping’ and curatorial practices in the discourse of the ‘democratisation of culture’; and the relationship of freely hosted ‘cultural content’ to the corporate philosophy/branding strategies of a company like Google.

The Sell

Currently, there is no review of Open Gallery on DiRT Digital Research Directory, however Open Gallery features on Alan Lui’s list of Digital Humanities Tools under the category of Exhibition/Collection. The brief synopsis Lui provides is culled from the Open Gallery homepage :

  • Powerful free tools for artists, museums, archives and galleries
  • Easily upload images, videos and audio to create online exhibitions and tell your stories
  • Enhance your existing website, or create a brand new one for free
  • Very powerful zoom for your beautiful images

Help visitors discover your content using search and filtering options
The platform’s goals and methods are clearly set out, although the language, while descriptive, has the promotional tone of a commercial world (powerful tools for your beautiful content) aimed at the proconsumerables market! For all that, Google Cultural Institute has legally non-commercial status and it’s projects and platforms are free to use and free of advertising content. The strong emphasis on images would suggest Open Gallery was designed to enable artists or photographers to showcase their work online; in effect, aimed at the kind of people most likely to have existing portfolio websites (or to be thinking they’ll need one). The suggestion is also made that museums and archives might also want to make use of Open Gallery, presumably those institutions wanting an online exhibition platform but without the means to avail of commercial collections management systems with conservation and loan tracking features.

If the message is Open Gallery is simple to set up, easy to use and, above all, free, then it does what it says on the screen. Google Art Project, the first endeavour of the Cultural Institute, adapted and repurposed existing tools and technology developed by Google, in an effort to ‘democratise’ culture by enabling online access to the collections of major art museums. The project integrated and showcases Google resources- Picasa, Street View, Google Maps, YouTube, and Google Scholar. The same tools and technology and the distinctive template and layout of Google Art Project have been extended to artists or anybody wishing to create online exhibitions or collections of ‘cultural content’.

The key feature, in my opinion is the zoom function, which uses Google’s image viewer (and Picasa software) to work with extremely high resolution images, and can be embedded in an existing website, like wordpress for example. The simplest option is to create a standalone website on the Open Gallery domain, e.g. No technical expertise required. While not strictly necessary, it is also possible to use one’s own hosting service for the custom URL, and as a backup just-in-case! In that case, deployment is a straightforward four stage process. Alternatively, one can simply link though from the header menu bar from one site to the other.

The Look

The clean, streamlined aesthetic of a Open Gallery website is the equivalent of the white cube of the modernist art gallery. On the homepage the browser window is dominated by a single image, ‘featured item’, against grey, black and white background, against which one’s featured image shines. Presentation is sophisticated but codified. As Alanna Bayer writes

The Google Art Project website has almost been replicated in its form and then opened up to the general public. The name “Open Gallery” immediately connotes a relation to the open source movement. However, while Google might make some of its tools available through Open Gallery, this is done only with a restricted template users can upload content to. There is no freeing of source codes, or opportunities for users to creatively alter the template’s underlying data structures.

Bayer’s critique is part of a larger analysis of the concept of virtual museums. Her concern is how symbolic capital accrues to Google through the prestige of their cultural initiatives and, skeptical of the claim to be empowering producers of ‘cultural content’, she concludes ‘both projects claim an “open-ness” that is not necessarily realised’.

Leaving aside questions of the online power relations between artist and institutions, the strong institutional investment in and support of the platform is a good indicator of the sustainability of the tool, (which is essentially an extension of Google Art Project’s ‘Create an Artwork Collection’ feature) but there are no guarantees. The full weight of the Google products and services also aids discoverability (more on that below!). While in closed Beta version (available since December 2013), the interface has the functionalities and stability of the ‘mature’ mother version, Google Art Project (online since February 2011).

Set up

…just upload images, add video, Street View imagery and text, interweaving your story among the images to create an exhibition that will truly engage your visitors

I imagine uploading high resolution images to be the attraction of Open Gallery, and captions and other textual descriptions can be added to images and the site further ‘enriched’ by multimedia ‘mashups’ (albeit with limited supported media files and sizes). By using the ‘drag and drop’ principle to place individual items into panels and sections one can ‘curate’ exhibits and, similarly, compare-and-contrast items with the ‘Compare’ feature. I particularly appreciated how the search mechanism on the ‘Collections’ page allows scalable views but, as Kate Lomax observes, ‘[besides] the ability to upload and organise the files, there’s very little by way of specialised features that enable galleries and archives to create narratives from their digital content.’

Most importantly for the research goals of any digital humanities project is the issue of metadata. The ‘Suggested Tags’ in the item editor are Title, Date Created, Creator, Description, but one can manually add or select from a range additional field to Dublin Core standards or other metadata schema. Advanced users can create a metadata template using Google Sheets and upload metadata from CSV or XML files or via the command line with the gsutil tool.

Quid pro quo?

My key concern as an artist would be asserting intellectual ownership over my own work. To meet that, Open Gallery gives the option to disable (or restrict) embedding of items in one’s collection, however close reading of the terms of service shows that by allowing content to be discoverable, the user agrees to give Google

a non-exclusive, royalty-free, worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works… [and]… communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content .

Final Analysis

Organising collections as online exhibits is useful for a ‘thematic research collection’, however it is an open question just how applicable Open Gallery would be for research projects with complex digital collections. In itself, it is not the kind of online resource that serves as a self-contained research environment, like the William Blake Archive, for example, which, as Kenneth Price points out, can ‘provide the virtues of both a facsimile and a critical or documentary edition simultaneously.’ Precisely because of that, some of the questions important to a formal review of a digitial humanities (such as export of data and results, the sustainability of research and whether or not the tool allows one’s research’s results to be verifiable and reproducible) are not applicable.


  • Zoom feature for high resolution images to be embedded in websites.
  • Hosted website for online exhibitions of uploaded images, text video and sound.
  • Metadata management for digitised items.
  • Clear interface allows for searches and comparisons.
  • Free to use but one must apply for an invitation.

Scholarly editing

Last November I participated in a workshop in UCC on Editing Skills for Research Postgraduates  and contributed a short article to an online postgraduate journal we created on wordpress, The November Module.  The introductory reading we were set was by Jerome McGann. Writing in 2004, McGann forecast that

[i]n the next fifty years the entirety of our inherited archive of cultural works will have to be reedited within a network of digital storage, access, and dissemination.[i]

The prophetic note he strikes is borne from the possibilities he sees new digital textualities affording the almost utopian ideal of a ‘transnational and transcultural’ scholarship (and, one imagines, a similar reconceptualisation of what counts as ‘our’ cultural heritage).

Other texts we were directed to (on Google Books) were : ed. George Bornstein, Ralph G. William , Palimpsest: Editorial Theory in the Humanities, University of Michigan Press, 1993.; Hans Walter Gable, ‘Textual Criticism and Theory in Modern German Editing’ in Contemporary German Editorial TheoryUniversity of Michigan Press, 1995.; John Bryant, The Fluid Text : A Theory of Revision and Editing for Book and Screen,  University of Michigan Press, 2002.; Peter L. Shillingsburg, From Gutenberg to Google: Electronic Representations of Literary TextsCambridge University Press, 2006.

The text I chose to respond to was Kenneth Price’s article  ‘Electronic Scholarly Editions’ in A Companion to Digital Literary Studies (published online by Blackwell). Price takes pains to point out ‘the theoretical sophistication, historical knowledge, and analytical strengths’ required to produce a scholarly edition. His definition of a scholarly edition is

the establishment of a text on explicitly stated principles … by someone with specialized knowledge about textual scholarship and the writer or writers involved. [iii]

In other words, the way texts are reproduced and/or altered in electronic form must have a sound rationale and be accompanied by an appropriate scholarly apparatus, such as introductions, annnotations , and bibliographies. So far all very commonsensical, albeit with a clearly stated guiding principle:

Mere digitizing produces information; in contrast, scholarly editing produces knowledge. [iv]

One of the tendencies Price identifies within the field is the development of a ‘textual apparatus’  or digital interface that can combine ‘the care of treatment and annotation of an edition and the inclusiveness of an archive’.[v]  As he goes on to explain, giving the example of the  William Blake Archive project,

‘the “edition” is only a piece of the “archive,” and, in contrast to print, “editions,” “resources,” and “tools” can be interdependent rather than independent.’[vi]

The interdependence of a transcribed text (encoded in an eXtensible Markup Language, ‘tagged’ and, therefore, searchable) and high-resolution, colour-corrected images of the material from which the electronic edition was produced will ‘create an edition of extraordinary depth and richness, an edition that provides both the evidence and the final product.’ [vii]

Joseph Viscomi  has described the illuminated book images developed by William Blake’s  process of ‘illuminated printing’ as

a multi-media space, a “site” where poetry, painting, and print making came together. [viii]

For anyone interested in studying or editing the complexities of Blake’s poetry and art, the advantages of an archive that makes such sites ‘navigable’  cannot be underestimated.

As Viscomi details, the nature of the graphic technologies Blake used and the complex relationship of word and image in his work  meant the William Blake Archive had do more than translate pictures into text and then interpret the translation. [ix] The digital reproductions of ‘the texts in the Archive are specific to individual plates; each transcription is of a particular plate in a particular copy and no other.’[x] Of course, the project is the result of editorial decisions, both ‘in the sense of works selected for reproduction and in the way images are reproduced’.[xi]

Digital reproductions have their limitations (cropping the image as compromise to monitor sizes, for example), but this kind of online resource, is what Price would term a ‘thematic research collection’;  an environment that ‘provide[s] the virtues of both a facsimile and a critical or documentary edition simultaneously.’[xii] It exemplifies the belief

that texts are not separable from artifacts, that texts are fundamentally linked to whatever conveys them in physical form.

Moreover, it stands opposed to typographic transcriptions, which abstract texts from the artifacts in which they are versioned and embodied’ to that, as Viscomi explains, might correct Blake’s idiosyncratic punctuation but at the expense of his artistic intentions.[xiii]

The editorial position that emphasises the intentions of the author and aims to uncover an ‘authoritative text based on “final intentions”’, Price reminds us, is a legitimate one. However, the privileging of the idea of a pure text doesn’t take into account the question of what might be an adequate representation of an actual, printed work.  The ‘hybrid all-in-one edition, catalogue, database, and set of scholarly tools’ developed by the Blake project best attends to the materiality and variabilty inherent in his unique artistic process in the kinds of detail that allows new art historical and critical engagements.

[i] Jerome McGann, ‘A Note on the Current State of Humanities Scholarship’ The Future of Criticism — A Critical Inquiry Symposium , Critical Inquiry 30. 2 (winter 2004), 409-413.

[ii] McGann, ibid.

[iii] Kenneth Price, ‘Electronic Scholarly Editions’, A Companion to Digital Literary Studies, ed. Ray Siemens, Susan Schreibman. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.

[iv] Price, ibid.

[v] ibid.

[vi] ibid.

[vii] Price, ibid.

[viii] Joseph Viscomi,  ‘Digital Facsimiles: Reading the William Blake Archive’, Computers and the Humanities, Vol. 36, No. 1, Image-Based Humanities Computing, (Feb., 2002), pp. 27-48

[ix] “Once archived digitally, structured and tagged (indexed for retrieval in SGML, adapted to the purpose), annotated with detailed descriptions, and orchestrated with a powerful search engine (in this case DynaWeb software), the images in the Archive could be examined like ordinary color reproductions. But they could also be searched alongside the texts, enlarged, computer enhanced, juxtaposed in numerous combinations, and otherwise manipulated to investigate features (such as the etched basis of the designs and texts) that have heretofore been imperceptible without close examination of the original works” Viscom, ibid., p.31

[x] Kari, Kraus, “Once Only Imagined”: An Interview with Morris Eaves, Robert N. Essick, and Joseph Viscomi. By, Studies in Romanticism,  Summer 2002, Vol. 41, Issue 2

[xi] Viscomi, ibid.

[xii] Price, ibid.

[xiii] Viscomi, ibid.

The museum says no!

Two related articles in the art press this month prompted reflection and cast light on the direction my dissertation project might take. The first was the opening of an exhibition in the Irish Museum of Modern Art of the Irish artist Duncan Campbell  which runs from 8th November to 29th March  and includes the artist’s film It for Others (2013) originally commissioned by The Common Guild for Scotland + Venice 2013 (the Scottish representation at the at the 55th Venice biennale) for which Campbell was awarded the Turner Prize 2014. It for Others is a response to Alain Resnais and Chris Marker’s 1953 documentary, Les statues mourient aussi (Statues also die) that, as is characteristic of Campell’s practice, combines archive material with his own footage. The two films have been shown in tandem with Les statues mourient aussi presented as a ‘found film’ with an English transcript available.

Resnais and Marker’s ‘essay-film’ was commissioned by the journal, Présence Africane, associated with the ‘negritude’ movement. Such was their critique of French colonialism in Africa that the film was not shown in France for fifteen years as Resnais refused to accept the French censor’s cut. One celebrated sequence, made with the help and expert advice of the British curator, was filmed in the vaults of the British Museum; a parade of Benin Bronzes glitter in Eisenstien-like high contrast float out of the dark as the voiceover intones:

An object dies when the living glance trained upon it disappears. And when we disappear, our objects will be confined to the place where we send black things: to the museum. [i]

However Campbell, seeking to revisit these ideas about the commercialisation and commodification of African art, found it difficult to have permission granted to film the same objects; access, if not denied outright was not facilitated either. The strategy he adopted in the end was to film using ‘approximate replicas’ of traditional West African sculptures. In fact, from my point of view, the decision only serves to reinforce the point – the systems of exchange, histories of collection and practices of display that have  determined their value as artworks in western museums can be linked to their ‘death of purpose’, detached from their religious and social contexts. In an excerpt used in the Tateshots profile of the artist below, we can see the critical effect of the reversal of the principle of the spectator  gaze, ‘seeing not being seen’: the camera is placed behind the eyes of the masks looking out.

All this brings me to my main area of research interest – the issue of the repatriation of cultural artefacts– and to the second art-related announcement of note: the British Museum’s loan of a Parthenon sculpture of the river-god Ilissos to the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. In the words of the British Museum’s director, Niel McGregor, the artwork

…embodies the belief in the supreme value of rational debate among free citizens. There can be no better celebration of the Enlightenment ideals which the British Museum and the Hermitage have shared for 250 years.[i]

McGregor has perhaps been the most eloquent in defense of the concept and mission of the ‘universal museum’ in the face of post-colonial critiques, emphasising the ‘pre-imperial’ foundation of the British Museum and the cosmopolitanism of its address to publics. The Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums  (2002) sets out the official line:

The objects and monumental works that were installed decades and even centuries ago in museums throughout Europe and America were acquired under conditions that are not comparable with current ones. Over time, objects so acquired – whether by purchase, gift, or partage – have become part of the museums that have cared for them, and by extension, part of the heritage of the nations which house them.[ii]

The Pergamon Museum in Berlin, while not a ‘sister museum’ like the Hermitage, is also a fellow signatury to the declaration. Negotiations with the Dutch artists Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan (whose work I discuss below) were not protracted, they were simply denied permission to film the Pergamon altar or access to archives, stating they had no interest in stiring debate about repatriation. So much for ‘rational debate among free citizens’! The artists had proposed ‘to produce a film work, which reflects upon the contemporary condition of displacement from a historical perspective’.[iii] That would include the monument’s own layered history, transported to the Berlin, capital of the German State from Bergamon in modern day Turkey in the late 19th century, taken to Moscow as war booty and then returned to the GDR after the death of Stalin.

Monument to Another Man’s Fatherland (2008-12) was commissioned by the Project Art Centre  and shown in Dublin in 2009. The installation consisted of two parts: the first, a 35mm film, Revolt of the Giants Reconstructed from Reproductions (2008 -2009), the second, a 16mm film Revolt of the Giants – recited by prospective Germans (2008). From the film, below, of the Project’s visual art curator, Tessa Giblin, introducing the work, one can get a sense of the imposing size and sound of the film projector in the centre of the room.

In the essay Follow the Hybrid, the artists set out their thinking and process. Firstly, they recreated the altar from over 100 print reproductions culled from art historical and archeological texts and guide books found in libraries, street markets and even the museum’s gift shop. As the 35mm film slowly pans the sculptural frieze, one is aware of the various photographic forms in which it has been inscribed in since the 1880s, ‘with their diverse grids, qualities and illumination … and formal qualities, such as contrast, printing technique and texture’. [iv]

Secondly, in a move to counter or make visible the exclusionary position of the museum, the 16mm film shows, in a screen test format, students on a language proficiency and intergration class (required for all aspiring Turkish migrants to Germany) in the Goethe-Institut in Istanbul. They read, in German, art historical descriptions of the frieze, grappling with difficult pronunciation and unfamillar terms. Maeve Connoly’s review in Artforum, describes how, in contrast, to

the methodical, relentless progression of the camera across the surface of the monument in the larger projection, the static cinematography in the second film reveals smaller and more hesitant movements, the facial gestures of the readers who attempt to decode the words shown them.[v]

The effect is open-ended and nuanced but points to language as a form of ‘symbolic violence’ that underpinns the appropriation of cultural heritage and in particular the  German value of Bildung, the individual internalisation of high culture.

So from negritude to Bildung, what does it add up to? Well, having prepared an outline proposal for a digital art project, the viability of which depends in large part on the degree of access granted to me by a national instituion to its archives and storerooms and phyical holdings, I’m heartened to see the creative possibilities, solutions and critical strategies of artists working within beauracracy or around refusal. Sometimes it’s more interesting when they say no!


 [i] British Museum press release Friday 5 December 2014

[ii] ‘Museums Serve Every Nation’, text of the ‘Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums,’, Wall Street Journal 12/12/2002.

[iii] van Brummelen & de Haan, ‘Follow the Hybrid’ in The moon has a complicated Geography, Middelburg: De Vleeshal/Roma Publications, 2013. (

[iv] Tessa Giblin, curatorial notes for the exhibition Monument to Another Man’s Fatherland, Project Arts Centre, Dublin, December 2008.

[v] Maeve Connoly, ‘Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan, Artforum’, March 2009.




Open access papers

In the spirit of Open Access I’m posting my 2007 M.Phil dissertation as a pdf on and here on wordpress under a Creative Commons licence. Titled ‘Repositioning Irish identities’, the subject was exhibitions of Irish art abroad from 1980 to 2005. It examined the complexities of national representation in the international contexts of contemporary art and cultural diplomacy. One can get an idea of my take and findings from the Trinity Long Room Hub poster on TARA, Trinity College Dublin’s  open access repository. That year I was lucky enough to share the History of Art’s Crooskhank-Glin Prize for best dissertation with Jennifer FitzGibbon.

I’ll take this blogging opportunity to thank again Dr. Donna Romano, director of the National Irish Visual Art Library, for facilitating my archival research, Dr. Yvonne Scott, director of the Trinity Irish Art Research Centre for her patient supervision and Patrick Murphy, director of the Royal Hibernian Academy, for his insightful interview on exhibition making.

 A culture of exhibitions

I came of age as an art student in the late nineties at time of several large-scale, touring group shows of Irish artists (Irish Art Now at IMMA, 0044  at the Crawford) but it wasn’t until I was working at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, thrust into the heart of the spectacle of the 51st Biennale, did the critical discourse fully register. And then it was in the air!

The issue of Printed Project (‘another monumental metaphor’ edited/‘curated’ by Alan Phelan) published as part of the Irish participation in Venice in 2005, allowed one to gauge the kind of conversations that were happening. The 2005 special edition of Third Text, edited by Lucy Cotter, was dedicated to considering post-colonial perspectives on Irish art practices and histories. Timely and welcomed!  Fiona Barber’s forensic chapter ‘Excavating Room 50: Irish Art at the 1950 Venice Biennale’ (2005) ably demonstrated the possibility of a history of exhibitions. A culture of exhibitions was a developing intellectual field and I was happy to engage with that conversational world; Róisín Kennedy’s article on The Irish Imagination 71 (2013) published online in the  Journal of Art Historiography I first heard as a conference paper and suggested the angle to take; Riann Coulter’s Irish Modernism seminars on the Living Irish Art and Rosc exhibitions set the context. And to cap it all, I discovered a wealth of material in Nival, including the folder marked ‘Irish Art Abroad’!

If I was to single out the two contributions by Irish critics that were most significant to my thinking on the topic,  they would be Mick Wilson’s pugnacious essay Tricks of Trade and Terms of Art (2005) in Third Text and Gavin Murphy’s more resigned article Global enterprise (2007) in Circa.  My conclusions matched Gavin Murphy’s: as exhibiting abroad and international dialogue become ever more important for Irish artists, curatorial discourse over that period was moving away from ‘the problematics of national sovereignty and modes of representation.’

Enough with the art history already!

One of the appendices is an exhibition chronology (1980 -2005), listing the venues and dates of exhibition, the exhibiting artists, the curator(s) and major funding partners. I think there is scope for a digital humanities project, turning a list into a searchable database, possibly linked with Nival’s online artists and exhibitions database. The method of my dissertation was analysis of a developing curatorial discourse evidenced in catalogue essays, exhibition reviews and art criticism. I’m not sure that the patterns and connections that would become apparent  if one takes a ‘data’ led approach  would come as a surprise to anyone who had to sift through the files and press cuttings but the point is who knows what will come from research made publicly and freely available!


More Pierre Bourdieu, less TED gurus

In our discussion of the importance of creative and divergent thinking in teaching and learning we were pointed to Ken Robinson’s critque of mainstream education practice  and asked, in particular,  to consider the visual presentation of an section of his speech, Changing Education Paradigms, delivered at the RSA in 2008.  The full lecture and unedited transcript are available online. My immediate response was positive but, on reflection, I’ve reservations about the elements in both the argument and the animated film, which I share below.

goya ass
Francisco de Goya, Si sabrá mas el discipulo? (Might the pupil know more?) 1797c.

In his 2006 TED talk How schools kill creativity, Ken Robinson gives the example of the little girl finally allowed to dance and going on to achieve Broadway and West End success with Andrew Loyd Weber. Rightly, to my mind, Robinson has little time for the maginalisation of dance in the liberal art heirachy of disciplines.  However, my suspicion is, as the accomplished speaker he is,  Robinson knows and plays to his audience. I’m no doubt betraying my own prejudicies, but as a defense of the pursuit of creativity, a narrrative involving ‘multimillionare’ showbiz/choreographer is, for me, all too American, too market orientated. Contemporary dance is an art practice; at its best it’s an in-depth and open-ended inquiry that involves reflection, reflexivity and criticality. In the words of Gillian Lynne herself:

You have to understand that movement and thought are wedded together. You can’t just go and dance without a thought in your head. You need to know why you are doing the movements, what they mean to you and what they may mean to others.

I wouldn’t argue about the imperative to teach the whole child (only point out that the idea has a long history from the Enlightenment and its Romantic critique: Jean-Jacques Rousseau; Johann Pestalozzi and Friedrich Froebel). If a change of educational culture is needed, it’s one that should attend to art processes, for their own sake, as part of a broad and balanced curriculum. There are many (historical) definitions of creativity, but I understand it as a series of related conceptual and physical skills that can be taught through art. Rebranding creativity as something measurable and quantifiable, as ‘divergent thinking’ (which is the rhetorical move in the RSA Animate talk -‘isn’t the same thing as creativity…is the essential capacity for creativity’) won’t make up for schools increasing class sizes and pupil teacher ratios and underfunding learning supports. Ultimately, for all his talk praising the arts, Robinson doesn’t address the question tacitly raised by the animated film: how is it that he can enjoy a performance of Shakespeare whereas as for a child, he would have us presume, Shakespeare is in the category of the ‘boring stuff’ of a subject-specific curriculum? Robinson’s cartoon avatar is shown seated in the theatre, glowing with aesthetic experience, linked by a dashed red sight line to Hamlet on the stage. This image of the rational subject fully realised in a bourgeois public sphere (6:11) is in contrast to that of the screen addled (and, we are asked to think, drug addled) teenager struggling to distinguish his bedroom from his classroom (4:53).




The move may be on to reconceive creativity as a new form of  productivity, ever ‘more social, practical, and mercantile’, but I’d argue that to think critically about education one would also need to consider the transmission of cultural capital and the formation of habitus within the home (something Robinson brings up in his 2006 talk only to skip over as a joke scenario with Shakespeare’s father telling William to ‘put the pencil down. And stop speaking like that. It’s confusing everybody.’). More Pierre Bourdieu, less TED gurus.