Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 2004 – The Four Directions, by Alice Maher

Artist Alice Maher, the ultimate practitioner of mix’n’match media, brought new meaning to the term ‘shell shock’ with this sculpture

Snail tale: one of four globes that make up Alice Maher’s The Four Directions

Snail tale: one of four globes that make up Alice Maher’s The Four Directions

 

The Irish Museum of Modern Art staged a major retrospective of Alice Maher’s work in 2012. The exhibition title, Becoming, implies an emergence and a transformation. Artworks were arranged in a non-chronological order, suggesting that a “becoming” is less a sequential process of artistic maturation than a repeating return to core concerns, materials and processes over time.

Maher’s work is characterised by the diversity of media, such as drawings, prints, installations and film. It is also characterised by the range of materials used, from bees, brambles, flax and human hair to ox hearts. Variation suggests an enduring search via a circuitous route that slowly gives form to a core set of preoccupations. It is a continual return, like a tongue to a loosening tooth.

Maher’s work with snail shells exemplifies this journey. The shells appear in a photographic portrait, Helmet (2003). They are modelled into spherical forms and become the central feature in the sculpture The Four Directions (2004). These become a key element in the installation Rood (2005). The spherical form then becomes the solo feature in My Empire of Dirt (2012).

The common snail, the dread of every gardener, is repelled by the electric tang of copper wire, drowned in beer trays and killed with pellets. Snails are lowly creatures, moving slowly and leaving behind a slimy, silvery trail. They are hermaphrodites and have a bizarre mating ritual that involves the expulsion of love darts. Poets have extolled the virtues of repose through the image of the snail withdrawing into its shell. The snail is at home wherever it goes.

The Four Directions consists of four globes, each made of snail shells bonded together and mounted on a metal pedestal. The forms are clean and crisp, echoing the simplicity and clarity of the Neo-Classical ideal, where the basis of architectural law is founded on the geometric purity of natural forms. Goethe’s design for Altar of Good Fortune (1777) for his garden in Weimar balanced a stone sphere on a plain cube. It distilled the idea of “the ever-moving sphere of restless desires immobile on the cubic block of virtue”. An ennobled nature is set in contrast to its common variant. The Four Directions works by recourse to a more furtive sense of nature.

Rood incorporated The Four Directions and set these before a rood screen of suspended beech branches, behind which lay a bronze sculpture, Double-Venus. Two casts of Antonio Canova’s Venus are joined together by a snake-like protrusion, reminiscent of the serpents in the classical sculpture Laocoön and His Sons. This image of an agony void of redemptive power is set amid an idealised femininity. The Four Directions participates in a complex art-historical conversation that seeks to undercut rich cultural traditions through which authority takes form.

My Empire of Dirt was the first room the visitor entered in Maher’s Imma retrospective. It contained a single globe of snail shells positioned out from the wall, lit sharply from above, which cast a long shadow beneath. The effect is of a lonely, fragile and distant planet, its gravity drawing the snail shells in on itself. It suggests a community bonded by forces beyond its control and understanding. The piece retained the title The Four Directions. If this implies a measured orientation, it also suggests unknown directions beyond.

The Four Directions has surfaced repeatedly in Maher’s practice. Each time, something fresh has been drawn from its arrangement and context. One can recognise in Maher’s practice a slow, steady, sensual probing of our being in the world, indifferent to the flurry of everyday life and wary of the precarious order of things.

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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