Alice Maher, and getting better at what you do
Most of the press and publicity surrounding Alice Maher’s mid-career retrospective, Becoming, at IMMA’s Earlsfort Terrace outpost focuses on one specific image, a still from a new piece of film, Cassandra’s Necklace. At first glance, it looks like a neck adorned with …
Most of the press and publicity surrounding Alice Maher’s mid-career retrospective, Becoming, at IMMA’s Earlsfort Terrace outpost focuses on one specific image, a still from a new piece of film, Cassandra’s Necklace. At first glance, it looks like a neck adorned with a chain of dissected penises. On closer inspection, it is, forgivingly, a row of amputated tongues.In Greek mythology, Cassandra was tortured by the ‘gift’ of prophecy, her ears licked by snakes in Apollo’s temple so that she could clearly hear the future. In Maher’s film, based on an unpublished script by Anne Enright, she is not adorned with snake tongues, but slightly nauseating slabs reminiscent of unwelcome slops on a transition year desk in a school biology lab.
(Alice Maher, Cassandra’s Necklace, 2012, film-still, via IMMA. Photo: Vivienne Dick)
Leaving aside the new film (which is by no means the most captivating part of the exhibition), Aidan Dunne got it right when he stated that Maher’s amputations throughout refer not to what is detached, not to what is gone, but to the whole. The sculpted heads, details of hair, spherical sculptures and more feel full and complete and don’t leave you wondering about what they have been removed from. Much of this has to do with Maher’s ability to articulate ideas of (as Dunne points out) the Metamorphoses, with captivating animations of humans and animals transforming, merging and disconnecting from one and other, sometimes violently, sometimes sexually, sometimes as calm as you like.
But that’s not what I enjoyed while wandering through the exhibition last Friday (and let’s hear it for the history-heavy rooms of Earlsfort Terrace which offer an added eerie context to work exhibited there, in contrast to the clinical starkness of Kilmainham’s building.) Instead, I began to take notice of the years the pieces were made in, something that was an obvious thing to do, as the retrospective is not exhibited in chronological order, but instead old paintings and sculptures share rooms with newer pieces allowing the viewer to constantly draw parallels between reoccurring themes. What I enjoyed was that much of Maher’s earlier work simply isn’t very good. That sounds like an insult, but it’s not meant to be one. A smattering of paintings, and even pieces such as her Berry Dress appear almost rudimentary in contrast to her more advanced, more complex, and more technically competent later work.
Any process-driven person takes comfort in Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour-rule mooted in Outliers. It’s very rare that something brilliant arrives fully formed. Just like Maher’s animations, things change, develop, merge, separate, and very often become something completely different to not only what they started out as, but to what they were intended to become. Yet most of us still demand high standards with little forgiveness for ‘average’. I don’t like, ‘fail better’, but I do like ‘succeed a little, then succeed some more’. Positioning failure as some kind of achievement rewards mistakes and in extreme cases, forgives incompetence in the name of progress.
The world of the entertainment, media and art is obsessed with novelty. Newness is currency and we are supposed to be excited by something simply because it is fresh rather than studied – immediate rather than accumulative. Maher’s Becoming is just that, becoming something better, and not shying away from historical inadequacies, because time and accumulation can often result in something brilliant down the line.