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 As his journal was unpublished it is unknown exactly to which drawing he intended to refer.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

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!