Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1997 – Teacup, by Dorothy Cross

‘Teacup’ displays a short section of the film, ‘Man of Aran’, within the rim of the photographed cup, showing the men in their precarious craft battling the waves

Teacup, by Dorothy Cross. Supplied by the Royal Irish Academy, courtesy of the artist

Teacup, by Dorothy Cross. Supplied by the Royal Irish Academy, courtesy of the artist

 

Over the course of the past 100 years or so, inspired by Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp, artists have been utilising “found” materials both to create art and to subvert expectations of what art should be. In doing so they have drawn on the aesthetic forms and social role of objects for what they suggest and reveal, as signs of the wider culture they represent. Dorothy Cross regularly requisitions family heirlooms of fine crockery and linen, symbols of the traditional domestic role and space of women in Irish society, and recasts them to challenge the opportunities and limitations that such objects have come to symbolise.

Typically, she also combines some dimension of the physical, natural world, exposing connections, comparisons and divergences. She found a jellyfish washed up on a nearby beach, then allowed it to dry out on hand-stitched nightgowns, the trailing tendrils and organic residues implying the cycles of fertility or its loss. She used a full cowskin to shroud a satin wedding dress draped over a dressmaker’s dummy viewed from behind, with the teats of the udder providing the circlet of a virgin’s headdress; it was intended to signify the duties and confinements that lie ahead of a bridal sacrifice.

Teacup, created in 1997, marked her departure into time-based art. It comprises a photograph of a porcelain cup and saucer, and the insertion of a segment of video from Robert Flaherty’s iconic film Man of Aran. Released in 1934, this features a shark hunt carried out by a group of men in a currach, the type of locally hand-made boat that was used by fishermen in the west of Ireland for centuries. Comprising a timber frame, stretched with animal hides sealed with tar, they provided a fragile defence against the heavy Atlantic swells, and could only be handled with experience and mettle. Man of Aran, with its jaunty traditional music, documentary style, and convincing footage of the activity, suggested that basking sharks were still hunted for their oil for household lamps in the western islands of Ireland, when by then, in reality, the practice had been abandoned for more modern facilities.

Teacup displays a short section of the film within the rim of the photographed cup, showing the men in their precarious craft battling the waves. A somewhat surreal artwork, it inevitably brings to mind Meret Oppenheim’s sensuously disturbing Object of 1936, comprising a fur-covered cup, saucer and spoon. Teacup, encompassing a domestic object and an outdoor activity, both conflates and contrasts the aspirations of manly, outdoor pursuits and the interior world of feminine, polite society, within the domestic realm. This fusion of opposites has a kind of mutual dependency. There are some common elements as well; both evince a kind of fragility, both a kind of deceptive capacity to survive. Most crucially, both roles were ultimately obsolete, however convincing their seeming authenticity.

The filmed loop continues its relentless circularity, appropriately enacted within the endlessly round confines of the cup. It begs the question of how seemingly out-dated roles can continue nonetheless to be promoted. Despite an inferred critique of proscribed social roles based on gender, Cross is undoubtedly fascinated too by the respective beauty and drama, by the delicacy of the vessels, by the imperatives of human nature.

Both the currach and the shark, recur in Cross’s work, not just as motifs, but also as the tangible, literal substance of her creative practice. The beach near her home and studio in the west of Ireland is a regular source of materials and ideas, of beached sea creatures, and of excavated, fractured vessels.

You can read more about this week’s artwork in the Royal Irish Academy’s Art and Architecture of Ireland; ria.ie

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