Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 2002 – The Agreement, by Shane Cullen

The etching of its full text on to huge panels promoted reflection on, and discussion of, the Belfast Agreement

Honours the living: part of The Agreement, by Shane Cullen

Honours the living: part of The Agreement, by Shane Cullen

 

Shane Cullen has declared himself interested in working in the tradition of a historian. He is best known for his sculptural texts, and much of this work concerns itself with history and with politics past and present. His Fragmens sur les Institutions Republicaines IV, exhibited in the 1990s at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, is a transcription in monumental form of the tiny communiques written by republican prisoners and smuggled out of the Maze prison during the hunger strikes of 1981.

If these were diminutive and personal missives, written originally on scraps of paper, The Agreement, by contrast, is the transcription, on a similarly monumental scale, of a public and published document, an official paper written by public servants, a text that was distributed to every home in Ireland.

Michael Biggs’s carving of the 1916 Proclamation, completed in 1964 for the military cemetery at Arbour Hill in Dublin, seems to prefigure The Agreement. And Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, from 1982, in Washington DC, is often mentioned in the same breath as the Cullen work. But these are both official memorials commemorating the dead; Cullen’s is an independent artwork that serves to honour the living.

The Belfast Agreement, also known as the Good Friday Agreement, Anglo-Irish Agreement or British-Irish Agreement, and signed on April 10th, 1998, was a milestone in the peace process in Northern Ireland. Cullen’s related work was commissioned in 2001 by Beaconsfield Contemporary Art, in London, with financial support from many, mostly cultural bodies in Ireland, north and south, and in England – notably the three arts councils.

The Agreement reproduces the full text of the official document, comprising 11,500 words, incised in a classical typeface on to 55 3m-high polyurethane panels. Unlike in Fragmens, where the text of the artwork was created by hand, in this instance the text was digitally etched into the panels before being painted.

The panels are plastic because to have used stone would have rendered the work immobile – rooted to a single spot. By contrast the lightness of the polyurethane enables the sculpture to travel, to be viewed in multiple locations. Between 2002 and 2004 the work was seen in Dublin (Project off-site), Derry (Orchard Gallery), Belfast (Golden Thread Gallery), London (Beaconsfield) and Portadown (Millenium Court Arts Centre).

In keeping with the contemporary interest in unusual locations, the Dublin venue, where the work was installed in 2002, was a large warehouse on Sheriff Street, in the north inner city.

In Derry it was hoped to stage the exhibition in the council chamber of the Guildhall, which had until recently housed the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, which investigated the shooting dead of civil-rights protesters by the British army in the city in 1972. Permission was not granted, however.

The purpose of the artwork was to promote reflection on and discussion about the Belfast Agreement. Seeing the text in a new context would stimulate new considerations.

Cullen told The Irish Times in 2002 that apart from the purely informative aspect of having people look at the substance of the agreement, he hoped that they would take some sense of celebration from the work. After all, in its bid for peace, the agreement was expected to bring with it a better future.

The inevitability that both the text of the agreement and its representation in an artwork would encourage discourse prompted the programming of discussion sessions to accompany the display of the work in the different centres. Dialogue, focusing on the political and cultural implications of the agreement and the relationship between art, politics and public space, took place in hand-picked locations, among them Crumlin Road Courthouse, in Belfast, and the Houses of Parliament, in London.

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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