There are plenty of artworks that stand out at this year’s RHA Annual Exhibition, now in its 193rd edition at the gallery on Ely Place in Dublin 2.
Perusing the exhibition earlier this week, I was drawn to Una Sealy’s painting, Floored; Bebhinn Eilish’s wonderful Whyte’s Award-winning artwork; Paul MacCormaic’s portrait of Lucky Khambule; Catherine Barron’s strikingly atmospheric and imaginatively framed piece, Night Studio; and Comhghall Casey’s piece, Hurl, a curiously moving still life of a camán in landscape.
And then there’s David Lester Mooney’s AI-generated image on display. The piece is titled Throwback Selfies #Magdalene, and features four women, three of whom look remarkably similar, staring at the “lens” in selfie mode. The effect, with its soft focus, rather unnatural lighting and potent subject matter rendered curiously bland, is a confusing one. There is no doubt that the image is intentionally inauthentic, leaving the viewer grasping for the point behind it.
Since the exhibition opened, the image has given rise to chatter among artists and others – something the gallery has encouraged, retweeting a post made by RTÉ Arena of the image and inviting people to “call in to the gallery… and see what you think about this AI generated image”.
The annual exhibition is a hugely competitive one for participating artists outside of RHA’s circle. Approximately 40 per cent of artworks are made up of pieces by RHA members and artists invited to exhibit. The remaining 60 per cent are selected through an open submission process. For buyers, it’s a key event in the Irish art calendar. In addition to this vast shop window, €70,000 in prize money is awarded to exceptional work.
The subtext of the Magdalene selfie is not only that the image generated through AI, but so too was its conception. Answering questions over email, Mooney, a film-maker who when experimenting with AI to create posters and concept art, “engaged in a conversation with a chatbot about various topics in western art”, delving into “the theme of memory in art and its relationship to technology . . . including the use of archival materials to evoke nostalgia and explore personal and collective memories” as well as “the decolonisation of Irish history and the importance of amplifying marginalised voices”.
In generating the artwork, he said, “My prompt included keywords related to the Magdalene laundries, the specific year and the characteristics of a daguerreotype camera from the 1840s. I specified a high angle group selfie depicting sympathetic and tired-looking women in the Magdalene laundry in 1839.” Thousands of images were generated before he selected three.
The subject came about during a conversation with ChatGPT about Irish history and marginalised voices
Asked about his motivation for choosing women in Magdalene laundries specifically as a subject matter given the fraught historical and ongoing context regarding laundries as sites of trauma, he explained that “the subject came about during a conversation with ChatGPT about Irish history and marginalised voices in Irish history. My family grew up across the street from the laundry in Donnybrook and my uncle worked there as a kid delivering and collecting laundry. Out of a range of possible subjects suitable for the RHA submission, the laundries was what I was most interested in.”
The subject matter and the result are obviously provocative. But the institutionalisation of women throughout the history of the State is hardly uncharted territory for Irish artists. Many powerful artworks have been made in response to this legacy and its contemporary impact. Depending on the quality, such work can be successful or unsuccessful, but at the very least it tends to have a point.
The key question I was left with after spending some time viewing the piece is: why? The trope of selfies as portrait poses is outdated, and many with time on their hands and the technology available to them could create whatever scenario-based images they wanted to, with mixed results depending on their skill level, obviously. Using AI as a tool to generate imagery that evokes at least a degree of profundity, delivers a robust statement, or excels technically, is not an invalid creative practice.
It’s not that Mooney’s piece stretches the parameters of decency – although some will find it trite or offensive – it’s just that it lacks depth.
Right beside Mooney’s piece is a Mary Nagle sculpture, titled You Always, of what appears to be a likeness of a pair of baby’s shoes, made from human hair. It immediately made me think of Alice Maher’s work, in which hair often features. As it happens, in a nearby room, Maher has a piece on display. It’s an enchanting charcoal, pencil and chalk drawing, titled Mary Magdalene Listening to Her Hair. When I saw that, I wondered if the exhibition’s curators were dropping sly subtextual references in their choice of locating these artworks, connecting an invisible curatorial thread between the AI-generated image of women in a Magdalene laundry, Nagle’s human hair booties and Maher’s drawing of Mary Magdalene’s twisting, winding hair. I also wondered if we were being trolled. And I wondered what women Irish artists who regularly tackle the Ireland’s theocratic past make of Mooney’s piece.
A statement by the RHA said: “The piece in question was selected for the exhibition through an open submission process where works go through a rigorous two-part selection process and the final decision on whether a work is accepted is made by a majority vote. The selection panel believe that it is a strong image.” The statement included a comment from the artist: “My intention was to amplify voices from the past with a relatable and empowering 19th century self-portrait.”
When I asked what his intention with creating the artwork was, Mooney said: “My intention with creating the AI-generated selfie of the Magdalene laundries was to potentially showcase it at the RHA.”
He has therefore achieved his objective. The sale price is listed at €5,000. At the time of writing, it remains unsold.