In the spirit of Open Access I’m posting my 2007 M.Phil dissertation as a pdf on academia.edu 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!