Una Mullally: Enough of the bizarre furore, evictions are not new touchstones for artists

The artwork, inspired by North Frederick Street eviction, is at the centre of the kind of bizarre furore this week that many Irish artists probably thought was confined to the past

In 2017, the Irish contemporary artist Jesse Jones represented Ireland at the Venice Biennale with a piece titled Tremble Tremble. In this artwork, Jones’s practice of “expanded cinema” was inspired by the 1970s Italian wages for housework movement. The work also emerged from a very Irish context, the social movement that would not just bring about the referendum on abortion rights, but along with the marriage equality movement, was directly challenging the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Irish State.

Jones’s work, as per her own artist biography, “explores magical counter-narratives to the State drawn from suppressed archetypes and myth.” Jones’s work is, by its very nature, political.

This week, Jones posted another artwork on her Instagram page, a piece at the centre of the kind of bizarre furore that many Irish artists – themselves highly attuned to the history and culture of the censorship of art in Ireland – probably thought was confined to the past. This artwork, by the artist Adam Doyle, also known as Spice Bag, is a remix of a 19th century painting, including more contemporary images taken from real life evictions in Ireland.

“Artists have the right to respond to political crisis through their work,” Jones wrote of the piece, which generated controversy when Government politicians reacted angrily to Sinn Féin TD, Eoin Ó Broin, sharing the artwork on Twitter. “This image to me expresses the deep-rooted trauma our country faces in relation to the current housing crisis,” Jones wrote, “It is a clear message of anger and defiance of how the State is in collaboration with landlords and vulture funds and that relationship in the wider context of Irish history. The message of this artwork is clear, if we do not stand up to evictions we risk repeating history and becoming as bad as our historical oppressors.”


In Irish media, the artist Banksy has been referenced in relation to this artwork, a clichéd shorthand for a wide spectrum of reference-heavy contemporary pop art. While citing Banksy is akin to characterising anyone who steps up to a microphone on stage as “kind of like Elvis”, perhaps those making such a reference are specifically referring to Banksy’s 2005 Crude Oils exhibition, in which the artist migrated his street art into a gallery – a path familiar to many street artists before and since – establishing a direct confrontation between his contemporary practice and the traditional artistic canon, hijacking famous oil paintings by overlaying them with his own imagery.

Eimear Walshe, whose How Much no Thanks (2020) billboard image is in IMMA’s collection, is the artist behind The Land for the People: The Sexual Case for Land Reform in Ireland. In this workbook artwork, Walshe, somehow, subverts the rote learning of the Irish education system, activates the audience in a direct engagement in “exercises”, and creates wry and thought-provoking links between 19th century land conflicts in Ireland and the present day. Their video artwork, The Land Question: Where the f*ck am I supposed to have sex? (2020), “presents a brief history of land contestation in Ireland, and questions how the history of land relations persistently impacts our most intimate thoughts, aspirations and interactions.”

This month, an installation by Avril Corroon, Got Damp, launches at Project Arts Centre in Temple Bar, Dublin, exploring “damp as a crisis of nature in the home and considers housing insecurity, the cost of living crisis and its health impacts, and forms of community protest.” A recent play in the same venue, Welcome to Ireland – Meltdown of an Irish Tour Guide, was based on real life experiences: “By day he sells Brand Ireland to tourists from far and wide with enchanting tales of ceol and craic; by night, he faces the threat of eviction from his chronically damp Capel Street flat.”

This is merely a smattering of countless recent artworks centring our relationship to land, property, and the housing crisis. These are not new touchstones, as we see from the eviction paintings of the 19th century. One of these paintings forms the canvas for Doyle’s work, the Daniel MacDonald painting, The Eviction (1850). Forty years on from The Eviction, Elizabeth Thompson Butler’s painting, Evicted (1890), of an anguished woman in front of a ruined cottage, faced the kind of pushback we see echoing today. In the 2019 essay on the politics of Thompson Butler’s painting, Nathalie Saudo-Welby wrote about the reaction to the painting from the British public, “whose unfavourable response to the political implications of the painting was disguised as indifference or, worse, as purely aesthetic appreciation.” Thompson herself reported that the then British prime minister, Lord Salisbury, joked about the painting’s tragic subject matter: “the ‘breezy beauty’ of the landscape ... almost made him wish he could take part in an eviction himself.”