Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: your chance to choose the final entry
We began with James Joyce’s ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’, from 1916. Now we’d like you to vote for the work on this shortlist that best represents 2015 for you
George W Bush may or may not have said that the French have no word for entrepreneur, but English certainly has no good word for zeitgeist. The “spirit of the time” is one of those concepts that are hard to define but easy enough to recognise in retrospect. Works of art, in particular, are redolent of the time in which they were created: even the works we call timeless are timeless in different ways in different eras. So is there an Irish artwork that captures the zeitgeist of 2015?
The series Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks, a collaboration between The Irish Times and the Royal Irish Academy, is a transverse section of Ireland’s struggles with modernity since 1916. It is not a list of the 100 “best” artworks of that period. It does not pretend to be anything like a comprehensive account of the activities of Irish creators over the past century: the works chosen are drawn from literature, theatre and the visual arts, not from music, film, television or radio. They are simply a kind of chronology of the Irish imagination working through certain forms. They lay out not a clear pattern but a thread through a dark and winding labyrinth. The hope is that they capture, or at least illuminate, the spirit of the times in which they were made.
And we are now at a point in the process when we need to decide on the work that speaks to the final year of the 100, 2015. We’ve chosen a shortlist of 10 – five from literature and theatre and five from the visual arts, all published or performed or exhibited in 2015 – and we’re asking readers to decide which one best exemplifies the concerns of the present moment.
It may be useful to recall that we did something like this before with another project, A History of Ireland in 100 Objects. We asked readers to choose from a shortlist of objects the one that could best represent our own times. In that case readers went heavily for two: the sign that hung on the Dublin headquarters of Anglo Irish Bank; and a decommissioned AK-47 rifle that had been used by the IRA. The case was so strongly made that we made room for both.
In this case we do not have the option of hedging our bets, because the format of the series is one artwork per year. This has always meant that outstanding creations from particular years have been left out. We’ve had to remind ourselves that this is not an insult or a rejection: it’s just the way this series functions. So do keep in mind that the nonappearance of a work on this shortlist says nothing about its intrinsic value. Remember, too, that we are not suggesting that these are definitively the best creations of 2015. And we are certainly not proposing that there are any rational criteria by which one could decide that a provocative visual-art project on the sexual lives of people with intellectual disabilities is “better” than a novel about John Lennon’s fantasies of an island off the west coast, or that a novel about a disintegrating family is more important than a video exploring depression.
We’re asking instead for your hunch about the zeitgeist. You have to get ahead of yourself and think about what, in the future, might look like a work that somehow breathes in that vague but potent vapour, the spirit of the time.
The process is simple: vote (just once, please) below or at irishtimes.com/100artworks, before June 30th. We’ll feature the most popular selection as part of the series, and it will also be published in a forthcoming book on the series.
So, here are the nominees.
Asking for It
by Louise O’Neill
It’s rare to read a novel about rape. It’s rarer still to read one that doesn’t belong to the crime or hunting-a-serial-killer genre. And it’s downright astonishing to read a novel about rape set in contemporary Ireland.
Louise O’Neill’s main character, Emma, is far from perfect, an ambivalence that is brilliant because it’s just like real life. It would have been so easy to make Emma an angel, because then we’d have no doubt about who were the goodies and who were the baddies. But real life is messy: women who have been raped are imperfect human beings, and their imperfections are utterly irrelevant when the question of rape is considered: rape is rape.
Asking for It made me realise how strange it is that we think we’ve come so far in terms of women’s rights when in fact we’ve made no progress whatsoever. Things might actually be worse than they used to be, because social media can now post images of the raped woman, stripping away any privacy and dignity.
Asking for It is definitely polemic. But it’s also an excellent novel, a great read, with brilliant characterisation. Emma, her mum, her dad, her brother, her friends: they’re all fully realised and believable. As is the atmosphere in the small town in which she lives. Asking for It is also a page-turner: the build-up to the rape is tense and interesting, while the fallout is tragic and all too believable.
O’Neill is righteously angry and utterly fearless, and her voice is the voice of a new Ireland, of young women who didn’t imbibe shame along with their mother’s milk.
Asking for It is the most relevant, most exciting book written about Ireland in a very long time.
By Kevin Barry
Back in 1967 John Lennon bought Dorinish island, in Clew Bay, for the knockdown price of £1,550. In Kevin Barry’s superb novel it is 1978 and Lennon is back in Clew Bay on a mission not entirely rational, not entirely sane: the former Beatle wants to spend three days on his island getting under his own skin.
But the strange airs of the west coast need to be negotiated. A spirit guide is needed for the ghosts and shapeshifters, the whirl of terrain and myth. Lennon’s driver, the profane and wily Cornelius O’Grady, appoints himself to the role.
What is Lennon after? It’s hard to tell, tied up in who he is. There is the frail figure unable to bear the weight of his own mythology. There’s the hard-headed survivor, the seeker, the rebel, the self-infantilising, guru-seeking peacenik. Lennon composes music by tapping the subconscious and seeing if he can put manners on what comes out. He addresses his own id in the same way.
The final chapters bring Lennon back to the studio, where he tries to string occult sounds together. He is focused on Beatlebone, the album that will never be.
Cornelius O’Grady, for all his complications, is an easier read. There are better ways to get through the doors of perception than battering on them with a bottle of Powers, but sometimes the whiskey is all there is to hand. O’Grady can see what Lennon is up to and is willing to go a few miles of the spiritual road with him. He is a man inclined to big-heartedness under pressure, a steadyish hand in times of concern.
Beatlebone is a novel of necessary invention: profound, funny, hard to pin down. The demanding spirit of Dermot Healy is abroad in these pages, but the execution is Barry’s own. He doesn’t fail.
The Devil’s Pool
By Cecily Brennan
Cecily Brennan first became known, in the 1980s, as a painter of dramatic, vivid landscapes, the large scale of which made looking at them almost immersive. Even then, however, and despite her beguiling colours – flaming oranges, glistening blue water, oily, luscious black – Brennan was looking at landscape as a vehicle to explore emotions. Volcanic eruptions, geysers and avalanches in Iceland or fiery hillsides of rhododendrons in Howth gave her a perfect natural metaphor for human psychological trauma and its opposite, elation.
In recent years, through photographic and video works such as Black Tears (2010), Melancholia (2005) and Unstrung (2007), and in her video The Devil’s Pool, Brennan has dealt more explicitly with the awful, debilitating pain of depression and related conditions, such as obsessive behaviour and self-harm, while examining their historic links to creativity.
The Devil’s Pool showcases several of these conditions. An artist called Paul confronts the horror of his depressive state, obsessively repeating his name and a handful of other key signifiers, and desperately spells them backwards to impose some kind of control on his state and hold on to his identity.
Brennan is acutely conscious of the rise in suicide and recorded psychological illness in Ireland in recent years. At one point in the 1990s she made sculptural casings for vulnerable body parts – shin guards, and wrist and neck protectors – which she referred to as “portable samplers for breaking and repair”. Her short video works offer even greater flexibility to deal with the evils of psychological illness.
If they also require extraordinary courage and sensitivity, and a willingness to go where others have been reluctant to follow, it is clear that the very creativity that seems to strangle many artists is for Brennan the key to coping with such illness.
This fearless theatre company’s production, which premiered at Dublin Theatre Festival, is devised from the testimony of women who are, or have been, prostitutes. The actors, Gemma Collins and Lauren Larkin, repeat that “this is not happening to me, but it did happen”. This emphasises that their words and the scenes they enact are not fictional but derived from interviews with sex workers in Ireland and from Rachel Moran’s memoir, Paid For: My Journey through Prostitution.
Beginning with the two directly challenging the audience’s preconceptions and prejudices, the performance then begins in earnest when five men join them on stage. These are volunteers, not actors, and are different each night. Having agreed to a number of ground rules, including consent and permission to leave, they are guided through the performance with care by Collins and Larkin.
The men’s enactment of a series of sexual transactions is a powerful way to explore questions of abuse, violence and responsibility, here embodied and verbalised.
From the initial abstract debate about current legislation and women as either victimised or empowered, the spotlight shifts on to men’s role and responsibilities. The women’s experiences diverge wildly, from the destitute 14-year-old pushed into a middle-aged man’s car by her boyfriend, to the woman who suffered sexual abuse as a child and repeats acts of self-degradation, and to the middle-class woman who chooses this as a legitimate way to earn a living.
What emerges, cumulatively, is the danger to which they are all exposed: the threat and the reality of brutal attacks, unspeakable abuse and rape.
The many experiences and life stories form a collage, resisting a single argument. The Game’s director, Grace Dyas, and her collaborators are determined to show how complex the subject is, and to ask us to think. They succeed, in a work that is brave, horrific and urgent.
The Green Road
By Anne Enright
The road after which Anne Enright named her sixth novel runs through the Burren, in Co Clare, and has a view of the Atlantic Ocean, and is hence beautiful, in a very, very Irish way, and hence difficult. In the words of Hanna, one of the Madigan siblings, this place, with its light and its fields and its islands, has always “made itself hard to see”.
The Green Road traverses 25 years. When Hanna makes that observation in the opening chapter it is 1980, and her mother, Rosaleen, has taken to the bed because Hanna’s brother Dan, still high on the fumes of the pope’s recent visit, has announced his intention to become a priest. By 2005, in sister Constance’s boom-era Lexus, Dan is most definitely not a priest, although he does a fine line in pronouncement and in camp.
What Enright has done with this novel is fascinating. It is Irish, or rather Irish-novelly, in such an unashamed fashion – the mammy, the home place, the emotionally banjaxed siblings, the booze and the boom and the pill and the pope – as to be provocative. It does not simply take on but briskly and grinningly grabs hold of all the stuff that, these days, seems too embarrassing to bring up at the dinner table of Irish fiction.
Then The Green Road makes itself all about language anyway, about the challenge and the doubling back and racing forward of getting the sentences right, of getting the shape of lived experience on to a thing as stiff as a page, reminding us – as we need reminding all the more these days, it seems – that experiment is not a matter of category but a matter of approach and of nuance.
Everywhere in this novel are phrases and moments of exceptional fineness, often sharply funny as well as sharply true, coming along with the story as though they come easy as breath. But they do not. They come only with a gift as forceful and as rare as Enright’s. This is an Irish novel that is afraid of nothing, least of all of being thought of as an Irish novel.
Into the Woods
By Gary Coyle
To walk into Gary Coyle’s installation is to walk into a drawing. The visitor is enveloped in a floor-to-ceiling forest, drawn digitally and transferred to vinyl to create the background to a gallery display of charcoal drawings.
Some of these are framed in elaborately and densely drawn frames that replicate the carved and gilded frames of old-master paintings. Some are presented as rectangular or oval presences on white paper. We are immersed in something that should be familiar, a process that we have all engaged in at some time or other, but that only makes the experience stranger, more unsettling, more claustrophobic.
Coyle has always been concerned with the disjunctions between the seen and the unseen, certainty and uncertainty, and how these dichotomies are framed. Here the blue and white walls, with their edgy charcoal, remind us of the 18th-century preoccupation with Chinese decorative schemes, but they weren’t made up of Gothic forests as Coyle’s are.
There is a comforting-looking woodland shack on one vinyl wall, but the gallery information reveals this to have been appropriated from internet images of the hideout of an American terrorist.
The framed drawings also have unsettling sources. One, 27/7/1979, The Death of the Disco, refers to a ritualistic public burning of pop records that turned into a riot. Even playful images of cats or an oval portrait of a boy appear burdened with meaning, but what do they tell us?
In one drawing a hand holding a mobile phone, its camera pointing at something unseen in the dark forest, offers a key to the installation. No amount of technology will quell our unnamed fears and anxieties, no more than the so-called Enlightenment could for our ancestors 200 years ago.
The Little Red Chairs
By Edna O’Brien
A stranger comes to a west of Ireland town, a traveller from the eastern world, upsetting the equilibrium and relieving the boredom of the sleepy community. He is Dr Vladimir Dragan, or Vuk, a healer and sex therapist from Montenegro: handsome, articulate, intelligent, mysterious.
Despite opposition from the parish priest Vlad quickly establishes himself in the village. He has the charisma of a guru, and many of Cloonoila’s women find his medical attentions almost magically beneficial. Fidelma, the local beauty, asks for help with fertility problems and, in the course of seeing them solved in the most natural way of all, falls in love with the mysterious stranger from the Balkans.
But Vlad is not, or not only, who or what he seems. He is in fact a Serbian war criminal on the run. His identification has global significance – and horrific consequences for Fidelma as Edna O’Brien deals with one of the great disasters of recent European history.
Far from being parochial The Little Red Chairs has a global reach, and O’Brien handles with sensitivity and deep insight the problem of evil. Her ambition to extend herself beyond the domestic and the personal, central as that is to all good fiction, is remarkable.
As often in O’Brien’s novels, an Irish country community punishes and expels a woman who has broken the tribal rules of sexual behaviour. But Fidelma’s ordeal is half the story, complemented by Vlad’s and her own exploration of the bigger questions relating to war, man’s cruelty to man, and the baffling strangeness of human nature. O’Brien’s skill in demonstrating the contrast between beauty and ugliness, peace and war, kindness and brutality gives this novel its power.
There is much to think about in this rich, searching and enthralling book, a novel of ideas as well as emotions, and arguably one of the most interesting and ambitious ever written by an Irish author.
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne
My Mind’s I
By Janet Mullarney
My Mind’s I was an exhibition that opened at the Highlanes Gallery in Drogheda, Co Louth, in January 2015. Although some of its components had been made over the previous 12 months, it was its dramatic installation in a former Franciscan church that completed the work. An art gallery in a former church is a difficult space in which to show contemporary art, especially when many of the original liturgical fittings remain, exerting a strong presence.
Janet Mullarney’s response was to embrace the gallery’s idiosyncrasies and play with shadows and movement all over the space. These ranged from a large lightbox-cum-table in the centre of the floor to the altar area, which was given a minimal cover of sheets of white board, arranged almost haphazardly on the altar steps.
The magic was to place her fantastic figures on the steps and light them from below, so that they grew in stature and moved gently as the lights wavered. At the same time some 21 small figures of uncertain species, some headless, some masked, some half-animal and half-human, cavorted in brazen exultation or crouched shyly on the table.
In typical Mullarney fashion all were made from different materials and processes: some cut-out shapes, some forms moulded from papier-mache and ceramic clay, or sewn, some made from raw corrugated paper, some painted or made from richly patterned dress fabrics.
What do we make of churches now, they seemed to say. Whatever pagan bacchanal took place there, it was as rich in mystery and magic as any of the church’s former activities.
By Aideen Barry
Silent Moves was selected to tour Ireland as the culmination of Ignite, a two-year project showcasing the talents of people with disabilities, with funding from the Arts Council, Arts Disability Ireland and local authorities in Cork, Galway and Mayo.
Aideen Barry, only too aware of the disabling and frustrating effects of an anxiety disorder, invited the dance artist and choreographer Emma O’Kane to work with her and the Ridgepool Training Centre and Scannán Technologies, both based in Ballina.
Together the group explored their joys and frustrations through an age-old story of a love triangle. This time, however, that narrative was confronted by new challenges. What if the lovers had intellectual disabilities? It is an offence, under Irish law, for an adult with an intellectual disability to have sex outside marriage, and such marriages are not encouraged.
The participants in Silent Moves suffered all the frustrations and injustices of this culture, along with other, more banal restrictions: communication strategies, mobility, access to buildings, careless parking that blocks access to wheelchair ramps, among the obvious ones, and shown here, hilariously, as “the old lady” bumped down the stairs on her bottom.
The group, in discussion with Barry and O’Kane, chose to approach those problems through humour and to express them visually, without spoken language. Their title recalled the slapstick comedies of Buster Keaton, as did the stop-motion techniques that they learned along the way.
Connecting all the elements of the narrative was the town of Ballina, reminding us of the history of a typical Irish community that has coped with disabilities in the past in various ways but, surely, never before in such an empowering manner.
In the year in which a majority of Irish people voted to allow same-sex marriage, this was a witty and thoughtful reminder that other inequities remain.
Vermeer Woman in Blue Reading a Letter 1662-65
By Brian Fay
Over time, objects we love from the past acquire a veneer of history. Old-master paintings change as their surfaces dry out and contract, causing tiny fissures, more or less invisible to the naked eye, in which dust gradually builds, creating a film of fine lines. That tracery is the equivalent of time’s wrinkles on a human face.
Time in all of its complex manifestations is central to the work of Brian Fay. We tend to think of it as measurable, unfolding evenly, yet we also know that it seems to stand still in some circumstances or to accelerate in others. Fay’s drawings of artworks from the past present a scenario where we can simultaneously think about the time in which the original was made, the time and the lifestyle represented in it, the times and modes of its reproduction, and, not least, the contemporary moment in which we experience it.
Vermeer’s paintings were particularly attractive to Fay because they themselves are thought to distil time and invite the viewer to contemplate it. Fay used a conservator’s image of the original Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (now in the Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam), in which the fissures, or craquelure, are made visible, and reproduced that time-altered surface in the form of a drawing.
Vermeer’s paintings are very rare. Only one drawing attributed to him is known, so for Fay to represent this work in the form of a drawing adds a dimension to the work that Vermeer himself would not have known. The original remains quite recognisable but is filtered through the delicate lines of Fay’s drawing. By creating that subtle veil between viewer and original he offers a further homage to Vermeer’s reticence.
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