Ten objects that define modern Ireland

Sat, Aug 11, 2012, 01:00

THE SIMPLE noun “object” has a surprising, somewhat contradictory, range of meanings. It’s a thing, a yoke, a material entity that can be touched and seen. It’s something that’s there. But it’s also something that’s not really there at all: a kind of abstraction. It can be a focus for emotions: an object of contempt, an object of desire.

It can even be a kind of aspiration: the object of the game, the object of a journey, the object of one’s life. It is, in this sense, not a thing at all but a purpose or intention. This uncertainty of language says something in itself, for many objects work on both levels. They are material things: concrete, physical, tangible. But they also touch on emotions and aspirations. They move us in odd, unpredictable ways. They hint at larger designs.

There is, of course, an entire industry – advertising – based on this idea that an object can stand for much more than its physical self. One might go farther and say our whole consumer society is based on it. We are persuaded that things have meanings and values far beyond their mundane, perfunctory purposes; that they can make us happy and sexy or bless us with status and fulfilment. And this in turn, because we are contrary creatures, makes us wary of the magic of objects. The idea that an object can radiate meaning or emotion is dulled with overuse.

And yet it is still a rich and enriching part of ordinary experience.

Whenever someone says they mourn the loss of something because it has “sentimental value”, they are alluding to it. If you lose your wedding ring and someone asks why you can’t just buy another exactly like it, you suspect that some part of their brain is missing. If you open a long-locked drawer and find your grandmother’s rosary beads, it is not their usefulness or the monetary value of the bits of wood and metal that bring a tear to the eye.

So there is some real magic beyond or behind the ersatz magic generated by advertising, some basic impulse to attach a large human value to inanimate things, even things that are not innately remarkable or beautiful or rare. It is not a rational impulse, but it does go deep – all the way back to our earliest ancestors, who became fully human when they started to make things into symbols.

Much of the magic, though, is generated by the thrill of being brought into contact with the past. The Italian critic Francesco Orlando wrote of the ambiguous relationship between things and time: “Time uses up and destroys things, breaks them and reduces them to uselessness, renders them unfashionable and makes people abandon them.” But time also does the opposite. It “makes things become cherished by force of habit . . . endows them with tenderness as memories and with authority as models, marks them with the virtue of rarity and the prestige of age.”

Sometimes, age alone gives radiance to an object. If you saw the fish trap with which we started the History of Ireland in 100 Objects lying in the street, you’d step over it. It is a tangle of interlaced twigs that could be, at first glance, the bottom of a discarded wicker basket from a cheap furniture shop. What makes it astonishing is time: it dates to between 5210 and 4970 BC. Its aura emanates from our ability to imagine the hands that made it and to realise that there is as long a distance between the time when it was made and the construction of the Egyptian pyramids as there is between us and the birth of Christ.

This is what complicates the idea of picking a contemporary object to end the History of Ireland in 100 Objects. When we look at things from our own world, they don’t have that aura of time. Nor do they have a sense of rarity. When you look back on old objects, you don’t just see remarkable survivors. You see rarities from times when objects themselves were, by our standards, few and far between.

For older objects, therefore, much of the work of selection has already been done. Time and destruction have already winnowed out so much. The backward glance of history has told us which objects will be redolent of significant events. For contemporary objects, though, none of this work has been done. And we have to choose from within a culture that has more stuff than any culture that has ever existed. The range of objects in any ordinary suburban house today is vastly greater than that which could have been found in the palace of the richest high king or even in the hoards of the most successful Viking raider. Some of them – flatscreen TVs, smartphones and wireless laptops – are of a sophistication that could scarcely have been imagined even 20 years ago, let alone 200.

SO HOW DOwe choose? We need some criteria. Firstly, an object, in the sense that has been applied throughout the series, is a single, portable, tangible entity. It is not a building or a motorway, although it could be something that would be found in or on a building. Or it could be, for example, a car. Secondly, the object must be suited to public display. A shredded secret document might well be symbolic of our times, but it’s not of much practical use to the project. Thirdly, we’re looking for an object that is redolent of Ireland in the 21st century, ie in the period since 2000: not the most beautiful or precious thing, but the thing that seems to speak most clearly of what life was like in that time.

The “was” here is deliberate. What readers are being asked to do, in effect, is to imagine themselves looking back on our own time from the future. What’s the thing that a visitor to the National Museum in 2112 would gaze on and get an immediate sense of what it was like to be us? What’s our equivalent of a Neolithic hand axe or a 19th-century cradle, or a 1950s emigrant’s suitcase?

Two qualifications are worth noting. For something to be redolent of Ireland since 2000, it doesn’t necessarily have to have been made exclusively in that period. If there’s something that was widely used in the 21st century and that is especially eloquent in the way it evokes our time, that’s fine. Equally, the object doesn’t necessarily have to have been made in Ireland or to be distinctively Irish. With Ireland becoming, in this period, the most open and globalised economy in the world, it would be silly to automatically exclude objects made, for example, in China.

Beyond these criteria, the choice is entirely open. We will use readers’ suggestions to draw up a shortlist of 10 objects, which will go on display at the National Museum. We hope this display will provoke further debate and enable the judges to pick a final object that, for good or ill, really encapsulates the way Irish people saw themselves in a period of wild euphoria, bursting bubbles and, perhaps, sober optimism.

Relic: Swimming with sharks

Fergal McCarthy

Artist

I am a huge admirer of the work of the Irish artist Dorothy Cross. I came across Relic suspended from the ceiling of the Kerlin Gallery in Dublin in 2010. Her work always has a touch of alchemy about it. She uses whale skeletons, gannet carcasses and other wild ephemera that wash up on the beaches of Connemara and she deftly reimagines their form, casting them as mythical art objects.

Her work celebrates the mystery and beauty of the natural world. Relic, a shark skin lined with precious gold leaf, is my favourite piece of Irish art.

Talent simulator: Celebrity culture

Iarla Ó Lionáird

Musician

This image was sent to me recently and it’s emblematic of the dark rise of celebrity culture and the notion that talent is available at the push of a button.

Obviously, the object doesn’t exist in reality, but if you think about it, a museum is almost an anachronistic concept because we have to deal with the fact that nothing is really physical any more.

We’re moving into the realm of 3D printing, where a violin has recently been printed out, having started as a digital image. We’re in the transition between the physical to the post-physical world. It’s a challenge to our values, because people think they can also acquire a skill, and the product and benefits of that, at the touch of a button.

Festival wristband: Access to experience

Fiona Kearney

Director of the Glucksman Gallery

The festival wristband is a small object that unlocks access to a big experience. It may seem flimsy but this colourful band is acquired at great cost so that the wearer can participate in a weekend-long carnival of arts and music. Running since 2004, Electric Picnic has become a major cultural event and an end-of-summer rite in Irish life that reverberates in playlists across the country long after the tightly secured strap has been cut off.

Rain or shine, the Stradbally gathering hosts performances and pleasures of all kinds: live bands, DJ sessions, poetry readings, stand-up comedy, artisan food producers, public debates and creative crafts. Even Fossett’s circus is there. This little bracelet enables you to sample it all.

A Euro coin: Greek tragedy

Anthony Haughey

Photographer

On January 1st, 2002 the Irish punt was consigned to history as the euro was introduced, bringing us one step closer to a federalised Europe. The €1 coin features a design by Jarlath Hayes incorporating the Brian Boru harp, surrounded by the 12 stars of the EU. This everyday object is symbolic of Ireland’s current financial woes and economic uncertainty throughout Europe.

The euro symbol was inspired by the Greek letter epsilon, chosen for its historical association with the country that introduced the concept of democracy and societal stability. It’s ironic then, that Greece, the cradle of European civilisation, is rumoured to be secretly printing the drachma in preparation for a potential exit from the euro. Perhaps the punt will also make a comeback, with updated designs by artist Robert Ballagh.

The gold band: A symbol of human rights

Nathalie Weadick

Director of the Irish Architecture Foundation: board member of the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network

An object that represents a defining moment in Irish social, political and cultural history is the gold band in the context of civil partnership. It is an instantly recognisable symbol of the joining of two people’s lives. As an object it exudes power; that of a universal and immediate understanding among family, friends and the State of the status of a relationship, as well as a rite of passage in society.

One of the most significant legal leaps in recent years is the Civil Partnership Act, which was passed unanimously by the Dáil in July 2010. Civil partnerships have transformed our social landscape. Since April 2011, more than 700 couples have gone to registry offices in all counties affirming their commitment to each another and exchanging gold bands. Before 2010, that was not allowed.

The gold band has taken on a new significance, that of human rights and equality, and symbolises a new humane, advanced and open Irish society.

Civil partnership is a landmark achievement in Irish history: the move to civil marriage is not a massive legislative leap. It is in clear sight.

Bicycle Two wheels good

CATHAL GAFFNEY

Brownbag Films

Back when everyone was getting excited about tax incentives for holiday homes, the Bike to Work scheme was introduced and kick-started a cycling boom in Ireland that continues to grow. Cycling has taken off and our roads are full of commuters and Lycra-clad enthusiasts, and it’s easy to see why.

Cycling is a sociable pastime that’s about as environmentally friendly as you can get; it’s great exercise and the perfect antidote to a packed Luas on a Monday morning.

Of all the free-bike schemes, Dublin has the highest per-capita usage, with more than three million journeys made on the 550 familiar blue bikes. So despite our weather, dodgy roads and even dodgier motorists (was it George Orwell who said “four wheels bad, two wheels good”?), the humble bicycle earns its place on the list.

A bottle of methadone: A nontransitional protocol

GRACE DYAS

Theatre director and writer of ‘Heroin’

In late 1999, we decided to try and fend off the onslaught of Dublin’s third heroin epidemic by introducing the Methadone Protocol. Methadone is an opiate substitute. It’s green. It comes in little plastic bottles, like medicated shampoo. Drug users take it with fruit juice.

When you are on the protocol you attend a clinic twice a week and you give a urine sample to a doctor. If you miss your clinic, you get sick. Withdrawals are most commonly described as being like the worst flu you can imagine. It’s very hard to get a job or go on holiday when you have to report to a clinic twice a week.

Methadone eases the sickness and it’s designed to help people get off drugs. It’s supposed to be transitional, but throughout the past decade, we didn’t provide much else. There are 28

detoxification beds in Ireland for a drug-using population of 11,000.

It was designed be a transition, but that is not the true protocol. What actually happens is that a lot of people become dependent on it for life and tied to State services, while smoking heroin at the weekend.

Billion Euro House: A fairytale home

MICHAEL JOHN GORMAN

Director of the Science Gallery

What object represents Ireland in the 2000s? Billion Euro House by the Dublin artist Frank Buckley has to be a pretty strong contender. This consists of a three-room house built entirely from pulped banknotes recovered by the artist from the Central Bank, on show at Coke Lane in Smithfield. As an artistic commentary on Ireland’s property bubble and banking collapse, it is about as subtle as a brick, or indeed a couple of thousand bricks that amount to an estimated €1.4 billion in original value.

Artists have been playing around with money for centuries, from Marcel Duchamp’s fake cheques to Otis Kaye’s trompe-l’oeil paintings of the Wall Street Crash. But something about the brash simplicity and trashiness of Frank Buckley’s work, influenced by his own experience of negative equity, says it all about our moment of collective illusion. This is a fairy-tale home to which the Anglo Avenger might come after the three little pigs in his cement mixer.

The Anglo sign: An almost anagram for a synonym for hubris

TREVOR WHITE

Director of the Little Museum of Dublin

Anglo Irish Bank is a synonym for the hubris of the Celtic Tiger. For that reason, the sign outside the bank’s former headquarters in Dublin would make a fine exhibit in a museum of the recent past. However, it is unlikely that Irish people would flock to see the sign as it was, so it might be best to rearrange the letters. While it is not quite a perfect anagram, “big loanshark” reflects the contempt most of us have for the bank today. This newly tweaked sign would at least bring a smile to the face of the hard-pressed taxpayer.

Sugru: A symbol of innovation

Ann Mulrooney

Curator of the National Craft Gallery

Although perhaps not quite an “object”, Sugru’s ability to alter and improve so many objects makes it a significant milestone in our material culture. This mouldable air-curing rubber, invented by Kilkenny-born Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh and described as “the best invention since Sellotape” by the Daily Telegraph, invites us into a future where we move from passive mass-consumption to individual creation. Very soon, 3D printers will be domestically available and patterns of production and consumption will change dramatically. Sugru is not just an ahead-of-the-curve ticket for us to jump on that bus, it’s a concrete symbol of the power of innovative thinking.

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