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Exhibition Review – Ireland Roundup, Art Monthly, Issue 449, September 2021.

September 23, 2021


Newbridge House • Luan Gallery • Ballina Arts Centre                           

There has been a lot of talk in Ireland lately about ‘queering the museum’, a complex and wide-ranging conversation which focuses on the role of institutions in shaping culture, particularly lost, forgotten or censored queer histories. One positive development to emerge from the global pandemic has been the renewed focus on museum collections, ushering in new ways to mediate artworks for contemporary audiences. A notable recent example is ‘The Narrow Gate of the Here-and-Now’, an episodic, museum-wide showcase of works from IMMA’s collection to celebrate its 30th anniversary. The first chapter, ‘Queer Embodiment’, probes themes of mourning, bodily autonomy, and identity representation. It also features a significant cohort of recent acquisitions, aimed at redressing a globally recognised lack of diversity within major museum collections. Even traditionally conservative institutions such as the Chester Beatty and the National Gallery are publicly re-examining their collections through a LGBTQIA+ lens, with the aim of inserting oppressed narratives and questioning ‘seemingly heteronormative histories’.

It is perhaps unsurprising that a degree of institutional reflection would follow progressive legislative reform in Ireland, relating to the legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2015 and the decriminalisation of abortion in 2018, yet it also builds on the momentum of the Decade of Centenaries, 2012–22: a commemorative project marking formative events of the Irish state and which has seen the scholarly recouperation of marginalised historic figures, including homosexual nationalist Roger Casement and queer writer and suffragette Eva Gore-Booth.

‘Guest’ is a pilot programme at Newbridge House – a Georgian villa built in 1747 for the Archbishop of Dublin, Charles Cobbe – in which curators are invited to exhibit contemporary artworks alongside the stately collections. The inaugural curator, Marysia Wieckiewicz-Carroll, invited female and gender-minority artists to temporarily animate and reflect on the material legacy of 18th-century occupant Lady Betty Cobbe and on the distinct absence of women in the collection. A glazed earthenware conch-like form by Barbara Knežević, titled Receiver, Perceiver, 2018, blends in seamlessly with exotic curiosities in the Museum Room, while Niamh O’Malley’s silent, monochromatic film Shape, 2017, loops on a chunky black monitor, showing geometric formations on the surface of water. On an easel in the library, Eithne Jordan’s painting Museum XXII, 2019, creates a striking mise en scène by reproducing almost identically the opulent chandeliers, oriental ceramics and rope cordons that populate the rooms of Newbridge House. Partially concealed within a drawer in the Middle Hall, a second painting by Jordan, Museum XXVII, 2020, depicts two young girls. One is a porcelain bust entombed within a glass cabinet and the second is a redemptive figure praying and confined within the gilded frame of a Romantic painting.

In the Sculpture Hall, Alice Rekab’s Family Bodies, 2020, is cleverly sited below a classical statue to evoke material tensions between the two works. Where the singular male nude, elevated on a plinth, appears durable and fixed in pristine white marble, Rekab’s various androgynous icons are scattered across a horizontal surface like devotional offerings, their transience and malleability embodied in variegated shades of plasticine and clay. Installed overhead are Emma Wolf-Haugh’s visually seductive Flags for Queer Cruisers, 2018, which channels the queer working-class vernacular of thrift and recycling. Part of a larger collaborative project, ‘Sex in Public’, the appliqué flags function spatially as ‘performative talismans’, being emblazoned with an iconology of eyes, fingers and tongues. Wolf-Haugh’s compelling solo exhibition, ‘Domestic Optimism’, also runs at Project Arts Centre until 30 October, proposing queer readings of the enduring legacy of modernist architect and designer Eileen Gray.

A resounding summer highlight was the group exhibition ‘Queer As You Are’ at the Luan Gallery, curated by Aoife Power and Carmel Duffy. First encountered are three flesh-coloured, lumpen animal forms (dog, toad, deer) by Kian Benson Bailes. Conceived as ‘proxy artefacts’, these stone-like plaster sculptures channel mythologies of the púca – a ghostly shapeshifter, looming darkly in the Irish imagination. Canine figures preside over another mixed-media sculptural offering, Carbo Loading Before Chemsex, 2021, in which plastic piping weaves through an assortment of bejewelled vessels and phallic forms. Bailes’s digital prints depict unremarkable-looking cruising sites, enlivened by the addition of colourful glitches that reveal visceral glimpses of entangled bodies. In the same space, Stephen Doyle’s Attending Colaiste is a beautifully rendered, two-part self-portrait compositionally joined by a weighty interconnecting rope. Where one depicts adolescent males in school uniforms, the other shows a flamboyant character in stilettos and fishnets, offering commentary on a lack of robust representation for queer, trans and non-binary young people during a formative period in their lives.

In the largest space, Conor O’Grady has created an exquisitely understated wall and floor-based installation. Channelling sacred geometry, this delicate work was fabricated in gold cigarette foil, collected over one year in sites frequented by gay men. Austin Hearne appears ubiquitously throughout a series ofnudeself-portraits, For Ray, 2021. Rendered in chiaroscuro style with classical drapery and cherub-like demeanour, Hearne gazes pensively upwards towards the light. Meanwhile, his floor-based concertina screen, Divine Divider, 2019, highlights the glorious campness of Catholic vestments and fetishistic surfaces. Breda Lynch’s defiant yet playful wall vinyl, Satan Was A Lesbian, forms part of the ongoing research work Fragments of a lost Civilisation, 2016–, which aims to reveal hidden histories of female same-sex desire. Lynch has amassed a collection of cultural ephemera (badges, flyers, paperbacks), some of which are affectionately reproduced as blue Cyanotype prints – a radical gesture, considering that a distinct lack of material culture (due to erasure, self-erasure or the censorship of archives and artworks) remains a significant barrier to articulating queer heritage.

‘I Am What I Am’ at Ballina Arts Centre was developed through various community-based partnerships undertaken by Sinéad Keogh, whose radically inclusive curatorial approach served to enrich encounters with the exhibited artworks. A colossal new sculptural commission by Louise Walsh, To Fruit (and multiply), 2021, occupied the ground floor, with fallopian-like tendrils extending powerfully upwards. Among the many other noteworthy participating artists, Kevin Gaffney and Bassam Al-Sabah have cultivated unique and aesthetically distinctive practices, with shared interests in fantasy, identity and reconfigurations of the body politic. Al-Sabah’s CGI film Dissolving Beyond the Worm Moon, 2019, fuses childhood memories of Iraq with fantasies of time travel, where iridescent bodies traverse planes of lush vegetation. Gaffney’s film Expulsion, 2020,imagines a speculative queer state forged by terrorists through gender dissidence. Shots of colourful flags in hostile environments are spliced with thrilling archival footage of African-American drag queen Joan Jett Blakk, a candidate in the 1992 US presidential campaign at the height of the AIDS crisis. Ireland’s position within this global narrative is anchored through the poignant display of an AIDS Memorial Quilt from 1990. Now housed in the Queer Culture Ireland archive, more than 20 quilts were fabricated as part of the Irish Names Project to honour those who died from AIDS at a time when homosexuality was still a criminal offence in Ireland.

The exhibition was augmented by an excellent discursive programme, including lectures on the Irish Trans Archive by Sara R Phillips and on Irish postwar queer art by Séan Kissane, curator of exhibitions at IMMA. Kissane noted how ‘queer’ – a 20th-century term meaning ‘odd’ – was recouped by activists in the 1980s and academics in the 1990s but has since begun to operate as a verb: ‘to queer’. Kissane’s rigorous research shows how reclaiming previously untold LGBTQIA+ histories can offer communities who have been oppressed a chance to work through that hostility.

Admittedly, a queer reading of Irish art is still in its infancy, yet it profoundly demonstrates that meanings of artworks are neither fixed nor impervious to fresh interpretations. I would add, however, that queering the museum should not simply enhance the visibility of queer heritage in the arts; it must also scrutinise the extent to which institutions actively construct or uphold unequal systems through entrenched processes like selection and classification or formal structures that habitually obscure more entangled but inclusive museological alternatives.

Joanne Laws is a writer and editor based in the west of Ireland.

[Featured Image: Austin Hearne, Divine Divider (side a), 2019; courtesy the artist and Luan Gallery]

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