Entering this exhibition, the viewer was met with a large flag billowing majestically in the slipstream of a motion-sensor fan. This was Mark Clare’s The Two Horns of Phaedrus (2012), the design of which strongly resembles the paintings of the pioneer abstract artist Piet Mondrian. Although the accompanying handout cited the starting point for this piece as a line from Robert Maynard Pirsig’s novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the flag’s initial effect was to put our minds to ideas of revolution and change. According to Thomas Hylland Eriksen and Richard Jenkins, a flag can evoke feelings of pride, progress and optimism, yet it can also conjure up memories of a bygone regime. Clare’s evocation of Mondrian signalled changes in the way art is constructed and valued today, while still remembering the radical moments that have shaped contemporary aesthetics. The undulating flag loomed over the visitor’s head, its title suggesting two related but perhaps opposing concerns in Irish contemporary art: on the one hand to create a progressive and innovative art form, and on the other to remember and pay dues to the important epochs of art history.
Into the Light was a national exhibition which celebrated sixty years of The Arts Council of Ireland. Four of Ireland’s leading institutions – the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin, Limerick City Art Gallery, The Model in Sligo and the Crawford Art Gallery – were asked to select works from the Arts Council’s collection with the intention of mounting their own exhibition which, according to the exhibition catalogue, would also be sympathetic towards the institution’s own existing framework and ethos. With this in mind, it was interesting to see that all the works that were on display in the Crawford Art Gallery were produced during the 21st century, with some commissioned specifically for the exhibition. The exhibition included nearly thirty works from some of Ireland’s leading artists.
Despite the illuminating title, the Crawford’s own rendition of Into the Light had the original working title of Legacy Systems (Residuum Unknown), a term inspired by outdated and outmoded computer technologies. This title would have signalled a concern with contemporary artists whose works explore residual legacies or memories, as well as the works’ relationship with time and obsolescence. For me, the Crawford should have kept this title, as it articulates the exhibition’s key concerns of memory better than the more arbitrary title supplied by the Arts Council.
Indeed, an exploration of memory was evident in many works featured in this exhibition. The memory of media was presented in works such as Niamh O’Malley’s video installation, Talbot St. Vignette (2006), which consists of a painted scene onto which recorded video footage was projected. Here, the traditional medium of painting meets the modern digitalised image, and when the video fades out, we witness the memory of the old methods of scenic representations persisting. The memory of the family home and nature was also evident in Bed and Breakfast (2005) by the Cork-based artist Stephen Brandes.
Here Brandes meticulously drew three houses, each deteriorating in condition, with a tree protruding from the final house shell. The representation of the tree, a basic resource material in house construction, was also found residually in the trompe-l’œil wood vinyl support on which the drawing was made, which evokes the origins of collage in Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning (1912).
The memory of iconic works from art history was a recurring theme throughout the display. In terms of painting, Diana Copperwhite’s Argentina (2006) saw Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656) emerge in a ghostly form from a pastel background, the haunting image of the young Infanta Margarita Teresa hovering in front of the viewer. Meanwhile, Dorothy Cross’ trio of cast bronze crustaceans entitled Family (2005) recalled works by French artist Louise Bourgeois, such as Fillette (1968) and Maman (1999), in their conjunction of spidery animality, sexual associations and acute attention to sculptural materials. Nevan Lahart’s sharply humorous series of Goya’s Gaia (2010) recalled the famous Spanish painter and his disturbing ‘black painting’ Saturn Devouring his Son (c.1820). Gaia, who is the personification of the Earth in Greek mythology and wife of Saturn, is cheekily observed photocopying her Antarctic backside and also digging herself a hole, a cruel omen of the fate of our planet.
According to Maurice Baring, ‘Memory is the greatest of artists, and effaces from your mind what is unnecessary.’ Memory constitutes a necessary hinge between the significant lessons of the past and more mindful action in the future. Into the Light tracked the development of Irish art over the past decade. The central question that was posed for me, however, was whether these works will still have a resonance in another few years. Will their influence be visible in the art of the future? Or do many of the works rely too much on memories of the past? When I first saw Clare’s flag, I immediately saw modernist ‘Mondrian’, not contemporary ‘Clare’. While some of the exhibited works made telling references to iconic works of the past, such as the works of Lahart or Brandes, others relied too heavily on these connections, resulting in their own unique innovations being drowned in weighty waters of art history. Perhaps it is time for Irish contemporary art to break free from heavy references to past legacies, and to start creating legacies of its own.
Into the Light was on view 4 December 2012 – 23 February 2013.