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‘Labour and Lockout…’, Limerick City Gallery of Art, Visual Artists’ News Sheet, Nov/Dec 2013

November 1, 2013

Labour and Lockout …formed part of a nationwide, labour-themed visual arts programme, devised in response to the 1913 Lockout centenary, marking this pivotal moment in Irish labour history with representations of work in contemporary art. The exhibition, augmented by the ‘Land / Labour/ Capital’ seminar (devised in collaboration with Goldsmiths’), reflected on contemporary labour conditions, against the backdrop of ‘precarity’ prevalent under late capitalism.

Deirdre O’Mahony’s installation ‘T.U.R.F (Transitional Understanding of Rural Features)’ addressed the ongoing dispute over turf-cutting in certain Irish bogs designated under the E.U Habitats Directive. A turf stack, constructed by turf-cutter Colm Harrington, was installed in the middle of LCGA’s large permanent collection room, providing a sculptural focal-point and reminder of the material subject in hand. Newspaper clippings, photographic documentation and an array of reading material further outlined the bitter standoff. O’Mahony’s documentary film portrays turf cutting as a self-sufficient, irreplaceable way of life, alluding to wider implications for Irish society beyond the immediate impact on rural communities. Further illustrating the relationship between ‘Irishness’ and the land – as a site of exile, famine, and political conflict – O’Mahony included a selection of 19th and 20th  century Irish Landscape paintings drawn from LCGA’s collection. Vivienne Dick’s 16mm colour film ‘Rothach’ (1985) provided a chimerical meditation on the Irish landscape; its cacophonous audio having permeated the senses long before the visuals kicked in. Presenting a slow horizontal-pan across a vast rural landscape, occasional activity is revealed. A child’s fiddle- playing gradually morphs with screechy b-movie drones, suggestive of impending doom. Representations of the Irish landscape in the mid ‘80’s have become synonymous with the tensions occurring at the time between Irish nationalism and the desire to embrace European economic modernity. Proving pivotal to a reading of the exhibition as a whole, ‘Rothach’ functioned as a psycho-geographic map from which all the other artworks could plot their co-ordinates.

Anthony Haughy’s ‘DISPUTE’ (1913/2013) documents a 272 day strike by workers of Lagan Brick Factory in Co. Cavan, which closed in 2011 due to the collapse of the construction sector. Although redundancy payments were eventually awarded, the workers’ names and years of service displayed in horizontal uniformity across the gallery wall attested to a greater communal loss concealed beneath the modest victory. Some of the last red bricks produced at the factory were displayed by Haughy, inscribed with words such as ‘justice’ ‘equality’ and  ‘trust’, providing an optimistic commentary on the solidarity of struggle emerging out of  horizontal formations. The remnants of post-industry are further explored by Sean Lynch in his ongoing ‘DeLorean Progress Report’, recording the aftermath of the former DeLorean car manufacturing factory in Belfast.In tracking the financial paper-trail, the defunct transportation vessels, and the scrapped, lost or re-appropriated fabrication tooling, this most recent incarnation of Lynch’s inquiry occupied the gallery floor, with cables and car-parts strewn around, and a small portable T.V perched on an upturned log, as it might appear in some fella’s garage.Also utilising auto-parts, Seamus Farrell’s ‘Agri-culture’ (2013) presented the windscreen of a tractor, which was driven to Ireland (pulling a caravan) over twenty years ago by a Dutchman who settled here with his family. Farrell engraved the glass with a harp and an Irish passport, memorialising a seemingly borderless Europe.

Tracking heavy industry to the eastern periphery, Darek Fortas’s ‘Coal Story’ (2011) traces the industrial expansion and development of a workers’ Solidarity movement in Poland.  Portraits of miners and photo-documentation of incidental objects found at the mine sites, expressed the realities of heavy industry in human terms. Examining how people interact and operate collectively was explored in Deirdre Power’s ‘Seduction of Place’ (2013), examining  co-existence and visibility in public spaces, while ‘The Struggle Against Ourselves’ (2011) by Jesse Jones focuses on representations of the body in film, enacted through choreography underpinned by political conditions. Presented as a stack of printed A4 paper, Mark Curran’s dimly lit installation ‘The Normalisation of Deviance’ sought to expose the myth-making surrounding economic ideologies under Global Capital. The sound-scape (an algorithmic composition derived from Michael Noonan’s speeches) washed over the space in an unexpectedly soothing way. As a monument to capitalist abstraction, Curran’s installation revealed the hegemonic forces of finance in every facet of life.

‘The Question of Ireland’ (2013) by Megs Morley & Tom Flanagan is a 3-Channel Film which considers the relevance of Marxism for post-Celtic Tiger Ireland. Scripts were devised by civil rights activist Bernadatte Deviln, playwright Grace Dyas, and sociologist Kieran Allen and performed across three sections by Bríd Ní Neachtain, Lauren Larkin and John Olohan. The use of ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘you’ implicated the viewer in the unfolding dialogue. In the first act, a seemingly educated, middle-aged woman delivers a soap-box rant about the demise of the Irish Free State and modern-day negative associations of “solidarity” with “conspiracy” and terrorism. Providing an account of inner-city life under the current austerity regime, the second performance by a young Dublin woman portrays “neglected places” and the “dismantling of a generation”, calling on the viewer to actively envisage a fairer future. The third act is delivered by a red-faced, tie-less, rural gentleman, whose breathless, comedic delivery one might encounter in a bar near closing time. Following his animated and poignant descriptions of a “class-war” and the “Gospel of permanent austerity”, the camera pans an empty theatre. Then the lights go out. Who is listening? Where are the citizens? In calling for vision and revolution in local neighbourhoods and workplaces, the contemporary relevance of Marxism for Ireland ultimately lies in a rejection of long-standing hierarchical formations, recalling the main themes that permeates the entire exhibition. 

Cumulatively, the artworks in ‘Labour and Lockout…’ extended this ‘national question’, by looking beyond current economic tunnel-vision.  Instead, there was a strong emphasis on horizontal formations, materiality, and the tools and products of labour, which attested to meaningful artistic engagement in social and political realities, bearing witness to existing, evolving and alternatives forms and conditions of labour. In the context of the backward-glancing nature of centenary commemorations, this task is as urgent as it is compelling.

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