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Sean Lynch and Brian Hand, Billion Art Journal, July 2011

June 15, 2011

The recent solo exhibitions of Brian Hand and Sean Lynch, shared some common ground, each unearthing peripheral stories from the archives of recent Irish history, and delivering them into the present moment.  Found within these processes of re-enactment were monuments and protests, punctuated with artifacts, revealing the Irish character within a changing cultural landscape.

Published July 2011, on Billion Art Journal.

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Sean Lynch presented two artworks, installed in separate but adjoining rooms.  On entering the first room I was immediately aware of some audio; a voice-over piece, emanating from behind an L-shaped, constructed partition.    Dear JJ, I read with interest… inhabited the expanse of the room, with the partition allowing the viewer to circulate attentively around it, in the act of piecing together fragments of a wandering narrative.

On 24th April, 1986, JJ Toomey, of Bishopstown, Cork, submitted an appeal in the letters section of the Irish Times, for information regarding the erection, and subsequent disappearance, of a most unusual monument he had seen on the summit of Carrantuohill, Co. Kerry, in the summer of 1983.  The monument in question was a ‘High Nelly’, a lady’s bicycle, lashed to a pole, bearing a plaque which read ‘In memory of Flann O’Brien and The Third Policeman’.  What was the nature of this eccentric effigy, and who put it there?

Below and between the sections of audio could be heard the enticing and nostalgic clunk of a slide projector.  Loaded with archival research, circumstantial evidence and snippets of local gossip, the projected images and voice-over narrative documented a correspondence, gradually unravelling the mystery of the bike, and the people that had made its journey possible.  Some locals speculated that the bike would be used as a generator for a lighting system on the newly erected metal cross. The summit of Carrantuohill is the highest point in Ireland and the closest place to heaven.   I began to feel happy that these slides exist in the world.

Sabine Schmidt from Hattenheim, Germany, replied to Toomey, describing how she and a friend had carried the bike up the mountain and tied it to the pole.  She sent photographs which documented the journey (which were displayed in the exhibition). Meanwhile, Michael Kellett from Raheny also replied to Toomey, claiming he had carried the bike.  Were there two bikes? Two separate monuments to Flann O’Brien?

It transpires that Kellet made the journey with his two sons and met the couple along the way (later identifying himself in Schmidt’s photographs).  Observing their struggle, he offered to help them by strapping the bike to his rucksack.  Kellet’s rucksack and climbing boots were displayed in the exhibition on plinths, and exuded an indexical presence.

Bringing thoughts of the metaphysical with me, I journeyed into the adjoining room, where Latoon was on the telly.  No flat-screens or slick HD monitors, but a proper big telly, displaying content which may well have been broadcast into the living rooms of Irish people in the late 90’s.  An epic beard signified the presence of a Eddie Lenihan, who relayed the story of a whitethorn bush in Latoon Co. Clare, which came under threat in 1999 with plans for a €90 million road scheme.  Lenihan protested that the bush was an important meeting place for fairies, (or the ‘good people’), and declared that motorists using the proposed new road may be subjected to great misfortune or even death. Clare Co. Council eventually agreed to re-direct the road so that the site could be avoided.

Lynch described the fairy bush as ‘an object that gets absorbed into folklore (and) worldwide media coverage, surviving the onslaught of a motorway’[2].  Lenihan’s protest also functioned as a request, asking people to resist the allure of progress and efficiency, stating that in getting to a place quicker ‘you lose the stories that mean something along the way, the stories that tell you about life’.

Lynch’s work displays a geographical aesthetic, which provides a departure from the ‘native genius’ and his ‘rootedness in a remote and unique landscape’[3], ultimately offering access to a larger global narrative.  Lynch’s interest in ‘unusual idiosyncratic histories’[4] articulates a desire to highlight stories which seem out of place in the context of current national and European political agenda.  His process is less about ‘identity building’, and more concerned with the ruptures that can occur in the void between progress and cultural survival.

Exiting Lynch’s space, I noticed a flag hanging from a pole on the wall facing me – a purple, white and green tricolour, wafting in the breeze provided by a fan.  It beckoned me across the landing and into room 1, the site of Brian Hand’s solo show.  The entrance was proclaimed by a banner, suggesting the word ‘ANACHRONY’, comprised of letter formations composed from hatchets.  Before crossing the threshold I was aware of some music, possibly an Irish ballad, and paused for a moment to consider what the room may contain. An ‘anachronism’, as I understand it, relates to something that is out of its time or context.  The flag, the banner, the music – could this be a modern take on Republicanism?  On entering the room I observed that the space was also partitioned, in this scenario a central black-out space was created by a shroud of black curtain.  The large rooms in The Dock, although bright and spacious, to my mind, have occasionally proved challenging in the past, in terms of providing the viewer with a lasting engagement with the work on display.

Silence Under the Court, was a large charcoal wall drawing created within an arched alcove.  The word ‘SILENCE’ commanded a reflection on the site-specifity of the piece.  Built in 1821, the building now known as The Dock, was originally the District Courthouse and a seat of colonial administration for many years.  The drawing was based on the holding cell in the basement of the building.  An underground tunnel still remains, which originally lead convicts from the courtroom to the jail, or to the site of their execution[5].

Colour photographic prints by Ros Kavanagh, documented a theatrical re-enactment, with a protesting woman as the central character, featuring the purple, white and green flag of the British Suffragette Movement.  In one scene, the woman stands on an improvised wooden platform, situated in front of an elaborate Victorian carousel.   I considered this visually seductive juxtaposition, and could not escape thoughts of Bakhtin’s ‘Carnival’.

Blurring the boundaries between performer and audience, Bakhtin viewed ‘Carnival’ as a communal act; a site where the hierarchies of official life can be suspended, bringing forth ‘new relations between body, language and the political practice it reveals’[6].  It is a site of liberation.

‘Bakhtin’s vision of Carnival…is finally about freedom; the courage needed to establish it, the cunning required to maintain it, and – above all- the horrific ease with which it is can be lost.’[7]

Another scene depicts the woman as she resists being abruptly removed from her platform, adding a slap-stick effect, concurring with Bakhtin’s subversion of atmosphere through comedy and chaos.   

Inside the black-out space I was confronted with an architectural maquette of a theatre. I looked upon its empty rows of seats and considered the relationship between performer and spectator, between passivity and action, and the false reality that is engendered within the theatrical space.  A HD monitor acted as a stage, presenting the slow scanning of a photograph entitled Mary Leigh, The Theatre Royal, July 1912, a Night When Women were Hunted Like Rats in the City.

 Mary Leigh, was a member of the British WPSU, who threw a hatchet into a carriage in which Herbert Asquith[8] was travelling, on a visit to Dublin in 1912.  The hatchet was wrapped in a message which read ‘this symbol of the extinction of the liberal party for ever more’.  Later that day, Mary Leigh set off several small bombs in the Theatre Royal, set fire to a theatre box, and threw a burning chair into the orchestra pit. She was sentenced to 5 years penal servitude in Mountjoy Prison, where she went on hunger strike[9] and was forcibly fed, but was released after 2 months.

For the exhibition, Hand worked with the Abbey Theatre’s cast of Arrah–na-Pogue (a Dion Boucicault play) in re-creating scenes from that historical day.  The melodic audio, which had resonated so soothingly within all of my viewing up until that point, was a song called The Wearing of the Purple, White and Green, sung by The Abbey cast, as a variation of the street ballad The Wearing of the Green[10] (circa.1800) which features in Boucicault’s play.

I reached the back wall, where a mantelpiece functioned as a platform for the display of some sculptural artefacts and found objects, enclosed within taxidermist vitrines.  Entitled Looking in the Mirror Looking for the Ostrich Egg, the installation seemed over-worked and a tad cluttered.  The strongest of the pieces, an American labourer’s boot displayed within a glass vitrine, offering a coded reference to incarceration, could easily have stood alone.  The wall to the right of the fireplace may also have benefited from one less artwork on display, but this detracted only mildly from what was an expressive and meaningful response to site, which I enjoyed on many levels.

I found the visibility of Hand’s process in the spectacle of re-enactment very appealing.  It was as much a form of dramaturgy[11], as it was a historical commentary.  In this way, my reading of ‘Anachrony’ focused less on the sub-plot of Mary Leigh, and more on the grander narratives which arose out of her cause, namely, the theatricality of resistance, and the socio-historical act of protest.  As an artist, Hand clearly wishes to challenge our assumptions about history. In creating a portal into the militant history of women, ‘Anachrony’ provided some reflection on modern political and economic struggle.  The Guardian’s Joseph O’Connor recently described the current era as a ‘grotesque period of passivity and botched action, which the historians of 21st-century Ireland will ultimately remember as the doom of a country’s self-image’[12].

The curatorial inquiry, which aligned the work of these two artists, seemed to place emphasis on the revival of hidden stories, suggesting perhaps that history may be expressed and recovered through ‘traces’, out of which identity is formed.  Clearly this was not a historian’s inquiry, and the real rewards for me, ultimately, were visual.  I also took pleasure in the philosophical offerings; the Duchampian bicycle, the surrealist carousel, ruminations on Epic Theatre, and booted references to rural psychogeography[13].

Both exhibitions could loosely be viewed within the spectrum of the artist researcher,  reflecting a generalised  revival of historical narratives within contemporary art practice, which includes a new fidelity to the ‘local’ in  resisting the homogeny of globalised systems.

Topically, critics such as Gemma Tipton and Fintan O’Toole have asked why artists are not making work about the recession.  I would suggest that this approach may be too literal, and too ‘quick-fix’.  Many artists seem to be currently engaged in a revisitation of the past, a sort of culturalist psychoanalysis, out of which new notions of identity can gradually be formulated.  In the case of Sean Lynch and Brian Hand, the content of neither exhibition could be quickly consumed; I was pleased that the work made me linger, and I felt richer for the experience.

[1] The Third Policeman, Flann O’Brien (a.k.a Irish author Brian O’ Nolan), posthumously published (McGibbon & Keein: London, 1967)  –  A work of surrealist fantasy which describes the hallucinogenic journey of a man, and the introduction of an atomic theory, which allows his metaphysical particles to fuse with that of a bicycle. 

[2] Sean Lynch interviewed by Judith Raum
Lucas Cranach Video Preis, 2007, (Catalogue text)

[3] Tom Duddy ‘Irish Art Criticism – A Provincialism of the Right?’ published in Sources in Irish Art: A Reader,  ed. Fintan Cullen (Cork University Press, 2000 )  p91

Duddy’s article provided an insight into Irish art criticism of the late ‘80’s, highlighting a need for lateral thinking, in the ‘local versus global’ dichotomy. In carving out an identity for Irish art at that time, Duddy insisted that the ‘geographical aesthetic’ can and should resonate within the local, but must endeavour to resist clichés of Celtic mysticism and Nationalism.  Similarly, for Irish art to convey a ‘sense of place’, it should articulate an awareness of international influence, global issues, and economic realities, without pandering to trends.[4] Sean Lynch interviewed by Judith Raum
Lucas Cranach Video Preis, 2007, (Catalogue text)

[5] The last execution occurred in 1847, when Hugo Kelly was hanged. It was thought that Kelly was a member of the secret agrarian society The Molly Maguires, a group which was formed out of the Land War in Ireland, and was later implicated in militant trade union activism in America in the late 19th century; a struggle between organized labour and powerful industrial forces.

[6] Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World,  trans. Helene Iswolsky (M. I. T. Press, 1968) Page xxi

[7] Ibid.

[8] Herbert Asquith was the British Prime Minister between 1908 and 1916.  In 1910 he pledged that on re-election he would grant     women the right to vote, but he reneged on his promise.  The WSPU organised a window breaking campaign including an attack on Downing Street.

[9] The Hunger Artists, Maud Ellmann, (London: Virago, 1993), illustrates a connection between the hunger strikes of the suffrage movement and those carried out by Irish nationalists during the period from the Irish War of Independence, up to and including the protests of republican prisoners in the Maze Prison during the early 1980’s.  Comparisons were also noted in the insistence by those incarcerated that they be treated as political prisoners.

[10] ‘The singer tells of the dreadful fate of Ireland, the “most distressful country,” where “they are hanging men and women for the wearing of the green.” The singer bids defiance, and notes that the grass on the martyrs’ graves grows green’.

[11] Dramaturgy – The shaping of a story into a form that may be acted. Dramaturgy gives a context and structure to performance.

[12] Irish people feel frightened, alone and unled, Joseph O’Connor, The Guardian, Thursday 18 November 2010.

[13] Psychogeography  was a concept developed by the Lettrist International movement, which explored the idea of urban wandering, defined by Guy Debord  in 1955

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