Walking into the recently refurbished Limerick School of Art and Design you find yourself in a glass-encased space which breaks with the gloomy Victorian past of the building to announce a bright, transparent present of creativity and human emancipation through education. Until not so long ago, however, this was the site of the Magdalene Laundry and the Good Shepherd Convent, established in 1848.
Breaking The Silence comprises many interventions in the art college, from glazed lobby, to internal lobby, to former church, to library and main building corridor. It is a composite installation, spreading across the width and length of the ground floor of the art college, a silent, subtle reminder for today’s students: oral history recordings, two terminals giving access to a new website (www.magdalenlaundrylimerick.com), a video made from a room under the eaves, where cooing birds inhabit out of bounds spaces.
Abandoned, described as found object in the exhibition notes, describes the statue of an angel holding a child’s hand. For just one week, this old statue of Archangel Gabriel, still garbed in a fading teal blue, stands behind the glazing, between reception and the forecourt. He once lived next door, in the former St. George’s Orphanage, and stands here, forlorn witness, his shoulders besmirched with pigeon droppings, a reminder and gesture perhaps in the direction of the possibility of dialogue, so that Batt O’Keefe’s memorial plaque for the opening of the ‘new building’ may soon be accompanied in the foyer by another plaque and, who knows, a sign to a ‘new’ room located somewhere in the building in which the present might acknowledge its past.
Points of Viewing are three digital projections of oral histories, short sentences from interviews scrolling down the facing walls of the former nave of the church, recovering the words, the thoughts and memories from the passage of time and defying the secrecy of the monastic order and the silence of the present. How strange to notice the temporary signs naming the former function of architectural spaces which have only recently been labelled with new signage, dating from the last refurbishment; Palimpsest is an apt title. Traces consists of fluttering sheets of tracing paper, so fragile that time and again they tear away from the pins that secure them to the wall of the inner lobby to the building. On them are faint tracings of the bathroom tiles, surviving from the not-so-distant past. The irony is that every time a passer-by opens one of the swing doors, the outward motion moves them, billowing and the return swing takes them in the opposite direction, eventually resting them from the wall onto the floor.
What was once the church of the Convent of the Good Shepherd is now used as an art gallery hosting temporary shows. The change of function has led to large partitions obscuring the apse and the altars. An Altar to Lethe interrupts the current function with a digital projection of the spiral staircase onto a large screen, obliterating the former altar, a ghostly grey tracing of a spiral staircase, several feet high, reaching up almost in a gesture of transcendence, a tragic Borrominian-type baroque movement, monumental, if temporary. Consigned to the Attic is the title of a pencil drawing to scale of a spiral staircase, exhibited along the wall of the Victorian tiled corridor, coinciding with the spot where a staircase was once located which served to connect the ground floor to the sleeping quarters. It was only a few months ago that those empty rooms, out of bounds from the college, were cleared out.
Here is an instance in which an artistic intervention succeeds in crossing the border between life and art, breaking the silence of aesthetics and its ivory tower autonomy, shattering postmodern approaches to the past as one of several ‘master narratives’ or reducing it to small-scale minor histories. Although the legacy of the Magdalene Laundry is silence as far as the Limerick Institute of Technology is concerned (faced with the challenge of reconciling a place in which today creative minds are nurtured with what was once a women’s workhouse), elsewhere its history has attracted researchers and film-makers, and a playwright, each in his or her own way bearing witness and breaking the silence. The artist writes that ‘bearing witness to the Magdalene laundries asks that we bear a burden. It requires that we own a history that was prepared to incarcerate thousands of women to lives of punishment, atonement and hard labour that forcibly separated mothers from their children; that took women’s identities from them in life and buried them in unmarked graves on their deaths.’
Those words – bearing witness – bring to mind Primo Levi’s contribution to Shoah literature and to philosophy, from If This is a Man to The Drowned and The Saved, an impassioned plea to remember, witness, and document. Since the 1990s, the philosopher Giorgio Agamben has thought about Hannah Arendt’s claim that the very conception of human rights as a project is severely undermined in the face of how human life was treated in the camp. (Agamben, Homo Sacer, 1995). Since the 1990s, Agamben has made the association between the inhumanity of the Holocaust and the many crimes against humanity which have occurred since. He argues that in today’s world the state of exception (in which human rights are temporarily suspended) has become the rule. In State of Exception (2003), he adopts Walter Benjamin’s idea that what characterises our society is the state of exception. This juridical concept of a situation in which democracy is suspended by means of exceptional measures, was extended by Benjamin to a routine technique of governance. Consider not only Guantanamo Bay, martial law and emergency powers, but also the negation of the referendum as a democratic right when decisions and choices for which there is no electoral mandate are imminent. In Means Without End (1996), Agamben states that the camp is not an anomaly, but the name of the political space we still inhabit. The camp is ‘the space which opens when the state of exception becomes the norm’. The camp as model of social life is today regarded with horror, but the argument is that it can be identified in a variety of contexts, including, I would argue, the incarceration and forced labour of the Magdalenes.
Breaking The Silence begs the question as to what the ethical and political consequences would be of not attending to the spectrality of the past. Fintan O’Toole’s article evokes how Ireland’s past tends to haunt it. O’Toole observes that we owe the resurrection of the Magdalen story to artists, not to politicians or journalists which ‘makes it all the more ironic that an art institution should be literally built on the occlusion of the Magdalens’ (Irish Times, 29 October 2011). In Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx (1993) haunting takes on a new cultural and political meaning. A spectre (even in the form of an overlooked or forgotten concept) haunts by continuing to exist and operate in the present. At the same time, as heirs of our past, we have to deal with it. What matters most about memorialisation is the central role of witnessing events, of attending to history and histories; bearing witness to what has been ignored.
Breaking the Silence was on view 20 – 28 October 2011.