Imma’s relentlessly on-message programme highlights its identity crisis

Ideological narrowness of 30th anniversary line-up emphasises contradictions of museum

The Narrow Gate of the Here-and-Now, Imma: 30 Years of the Global Contemporary runs until the end of the year at the museum’s home base in the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham. Photograph: Tom Honan

The Narrow Gate of the Here-and-Now, Imma: 30 Years of the Global Contemporary runs until the end of the year at the museum’s home base in the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham. Photograph: Tom Honan

 

Call me a homophobic, misogynistic, climate-change-denying reincarnation of Cecil Rhodes if you must, but there’s something dispiriting about the relentlessly on-message progressivism of the programme launched this weekend by the Irish Museum of Modern Art (Imma) to mark its 30th anniversary.

Titled The Narrow Gate of the Here-and-Now, Imma: 30 Years of the Global Contemporary, the four-part sequence of exhibitions and events running until the end of the year at the museum’s home base in the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, focuses on a number of different thematic concerns.

The first chapter, Queer Embodiment, which has just opened, reflects on legislative changes such as the decriminalisation of homosexuality, provision of divorce, marriage equality and the repeal of the Eighth Amendment. “The museum’s collection and archive reflects a strong history of feminist practice, relaying the defiance of women in Ireland against church and state oppression; as well as queer histories that capture moments of resistance and joy,” says Imma’s press release.

Chapter Two: The Anthropocene, from September 24th, considers how human activity has become visible “as a dominant and destructive influence on Earth”, with a focus on “rising sea levels, heatwaves and species extinction, the exhibition looks at the temporalities and underlying structures of the Anthropocene”.

The third chapter, Social Fabric, opening on November 5th, “shows how artists have used textiles as a space of resistance and activism”. And finally, Protest and Conflict, beginning on November 19th, “celebrates how artists have utilised protest as a dynamic act of resistance and assertion; subverting power while surrounded by turmoil and conflict”.

Perhaps to make sure no box goes unticked, the programming, we are told, also “embraces decolonisation as a process to actively reflect the diversity and the voices of the people within the collection and around us.”

‘Transition year project’

Obviously, taken on their individual merits, all these themes are worthy of exploration and interrogation. But presented here as a full package to be delivered over several months, they feel like being trapped for a very long time in the worst transition year project ever. As a representation of three decades of cultural practice, they also seem hopelessly in thrall to an instrumentalised theory of creative expression, which sees culture’s function first and foremost as an agent for effecting certain forms of social and political change. It can, of course, be that, but often it isn’t. Reactionaries and social pessimists make art too. Some of it equally thought-provoking.

Apart from the ideological narrowness, the overall narrative, as laid out by Imma’s promotional material, seems to leave little enough space for other considerations. What, for example, of the tensions, which haven’t gone away, between the words “modern” and “museum” in Imma’s own name? Or the awkward fact that the turbo-charged contemporary art market means that purchases of major new works are mostly beyond Imma’s modest means? In fact, what about art’s very interesting place in the story of modern capitalism? In his superb book, Empire of Pain, Patrick Radden Keeffe describes how some members of the eye-wateringly rich Sackler family made billions off the misery and death of the opioid crisis, while others were acclaimed for the philanthropic donations they made to museums and galleries, whose self-consciously progressive mission statements sound very like the language used by Imma.

Interesting hypocrisies

Perhaps some of these interesting hypocrisies and thought-provoking contradictions will be teased out in the “painting, sculpture, film, video, installation, performance, internet art, sound, textiles, drawing, community-based practice, collaborative practice and socially-engaged practice” promised over the coming months in Kilmainham. Or maybe they will be debated as part of the “engagement-and-learning programme with a significant online presence including virtual tours, online presentations, lectures and public programming”. Or in the promised major publication on the history of Imma’s collection, “bringing international voices together to probe what it means to be both global and local in 2021”.

Since its establishment in a typically grandiloquent gesture by then taoiseach Charles J Haughey, with a bequest from collector Gordon Lambert and under the directorship of Declan McGonagle (who fatefully insisted it should be located in the Royal Hospital), Imma has struggled to define itself against the backdrop of a beautiful but not very well-suited exhibition space and of perennially limited resources. That has sometimes led to it portraying itself as some sort of platform for resistance against the hegemony of the establishment and the status quo. This was always a faintly absurd position for a state-funded body housed in one of the country’s grandest historic buildings to take, but it looks as though awareness of that ridiculousness continues to elude the current custodians. Perhaps in its own way, the programme they have laid out for Imma’s anniversary perfectly illustrates Imma’s problem.

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