1916 souvenirs and artworks you can eat
Artist Rita Duffy’s shop in Dublin is selling mementoes of the 1916 Centenary for €5
Carson’s No Surrender Ulster Marmalade: art you can eat, made with the Irish Countrywomen’s Association.
No 13 North Great George’s Street in Dublin is a house worth visiting for its dilapidated grandeur alone. It is open from now until June 11th and inside you’ll find Rita Duffy selling artworks for a fiver. Except they’re not quite artworks – or are they? Her Souvenir Shop is part of the Arts Council’s official 2016 programme, so it has to be art, and yet the result looks like an old-fashioned shop where you can buy everything from preserves to soap, tea towels to shoe polish. There are pots of Carson Marmalade: deliciously orange, and made with the Irish Countrywomen’s Association. These are listed like an art work – “mixed media and paper” – and yet if you want to, you can dig a spoon in and have it for your breakfast. The same sort of thing goes for Black & Tan Boot Polish, Patriot Tea, and one of my favourites: Foxrock Sniff, a cologne with a “whiff of superiority [ . . .] almost as good as your betters”.
Having run riot in the shop, I came away with brilliant bags of the aforementioned, and now I find I’m not quite sure what to do with them. They’re souvenirs of this Centenary year, and yet they’re pieces of art. Collectable items that also have a use. Art you can eat. Should I save them in case one day they appreciate like that lost copy of the Proclamation you might dream of finding in the attic? Something to treasure before regretfully turning it over to your nearest auction house while trying to keep the greed from your gaze?
This also touches on the market for celebrity-owned items: Michael Jackson’s glove, Patrick Pearse’s pen; as well as for original artworks in our era of mass manufacture. Just read Walter Benjamin’s Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, in which he argues that even the most perfect of reproductions lacks what he calls “aura”. This, he describes as “its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be”. We care about originals because of the bridge they make to someone or something greater than themselves and, by extension, ourselves too.
The souvenir isn’t usually an original item, and souvenirs aren’t always beautiful, either. It’s the moment that we buy them that is unique. While Benjamin argued that our aesthetic values, that is, taste, changes over time, and that the uniqueness of a work of art is bound up with its place in tradition, it’s unlikely he had in mind any of the items in Doug Lansky’s Crap Souvenirs book, a tome which features a rather special Riverdance clock, a Pope’s-head key ring and a Mount Rushmore table lamp.
This is, of course, because he was talking about artworks not tacky travel booty. But what happens when an artist – Rita Duffy – takes that model to create her pieces for Souvenir Shop? Her bars of Lady Lavatory soap, featuring the image of Canadian national, the aristocratic Lady Lavery, who once graced our currency dressed as a peasant, are definitely tacky, but she’s also using that to draw our attention to the oddness of some of the things – and people – we choose to revere.
Souvenirs are a connection to a moment and a feeling, while artworks can also connect us to bigger ideas about our place in the world. Frequently the Trojan Horse artworks use to smuggle the ideas by us is beauty, sometimes there’s shock and also humour. At Souvenir Shop, you get a bit of all three. You also get some rather great one-liners, such as the Seeds of Revolution range of – you got it – seeds, including: “Territory Grab, wild native variety”, and “Inhumane & Degrading Treatment, bi-annual”.
As I went around the shop, wanting to own pretty much everything in it, I also realised that souvenir shopping is also a little like hunter-gathering for our post- cave-dwelling age. In the case of souvenirs we are hunter-gathering memories of a moment. This is what makes it so tricky to work out what to do with my purchases now. Give them away as presents? Hoard them against a possibly valuable future? Live in the now and use them?
On my way home, I stopped for petrol. There was a carton of 1916 Easter Rising Chocolate Bars on the counter. Each one comes complete with sketches of the Signatories and a copy of the Proclamation on the front. Is life imitating art, or art imitating life?