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New art riot… well, not quite… January 11, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Art, Culture, Irish Politics.
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To be honest when I briefly heard about the controversy over an artwork by Shane Cullen dealing with the hunger strike my assumption was, because I didn’t read any details, that it was in the North. My mistake.

The Phoenix, which has done a real service by highlighting the story prominently, notes that this was in Athlone, and the details reflect incredibly badly upon those on the Town Council who demanded that the artwork be removed from the local art gallery. The gallery, the Luan Gallery, was set up by the Council, but the selection of the work was made by the gallery manager, the Westmeath Arts officer and a representative of IMMA. The latter has issued a strong statement in defence of the work.

Cooney’s rationale for the motion demanding the removal seems a bit thin. He claimed:

…the installation is “offensive” and should be removed – a view shared by his father. Created by Longford-born artist Shane Cullen and titled Fragments sur les Institutions Républicaines IV, the artwork is based on a collection of Republican prisoners’ messages smuggled out of the H-Block prison in 1981.

And the IT noted that:

Cllr Cooney was reluctant to discuss the merits of his motion. “I put the motion down for the council meeting and I feel it should be debated and articulated from there,” he explained.

Interesting snippet here:

A spokeswoman for Athlone Art Heritage Ltd said “we are aware that there is a motion on the agenda for Monday. We won’t really respond to it at the moment because we don’t have the details.”
She did not know whether the artist had been alerted to the upcoming motion. However, she said, Paddy Cooney attended the gallery’s opening and was vocal in his “unhappiness” with the work and “Shane Cullen was there and he witnessed that”.

At the meeting where the amended motion was put the IT described it as follows:

Scores of protesters attended a meeting of Athlone Town Council where the motion was up for debate yesterday evening.
Those gathered in the packed public gallery included the creator of the contentious piece, artist Shane Cullen, and son of murdered Defence Forces member David Kelly.
The artwork, Fragmens sur les Institutions Républicaines IV, is based on a collection of republican prisoners’ messages smuggled out of the H-Block prison in 1981.

And David Kelly put it like this:

[he supported] the motion as he was “very disturbed” by the work.
“I viewed the piece myself and I find it deeply offensive. It basically glorifies terrorism that resulted in the deaths of Army men including my father and members of the gardaí and many innocent women and children,” he said.
“I’m just very appalled basically that school children are seeing writings by psychopaths and murderers.”

Meanwhile IMMA’s statement (and here is its overview of the exhibition – http://www.imma.ie/en/page_212689.htm ) said that the piece was ‘a major artwork by one of Ireland’s most respected artists’ and that if it were removed it would ‘undermine the Luan Gallery’s position and remit as a facilitator of contemporary art and culture’.

Hard to disagree.

The Phoenix notes:

Cullen’s… work deals with contemporary political issues, using official documents and symbols and he was recently commissioned to do a n artwork on the subject of the Good Friday Agreement.

And the Phoenix asks:

…whether we’ll see Aosdana and champions of artistic freedom like Tony Cronin rise to the gallery’s defence.

That’s a most interesting question.

It also raises the nagging question whether we would have seen this happen say five years ago, and whether the change in administration has anything to do with it. Not directly, of course, but there’s a tone to this that seems odd, and oddly familiar.

Consider Cooney’s thoughts in this comment on the day of the vote:

Cllr Cooney said he did recognise the work as art, but felt the content of the piece was hugely offensive – especially at a time when prison officers and members of the security forces were under attack again in Northern Ireland.
He said there were occasions when everybody had to censor for the good.
“We need censorship to protect our children – sometimes you have do it,” he said.

No credit to those who voted for it either – though its initial demand that the work be removed was softened to a request that the gallery consider its removal – they being FF and Labour.

That in 2013 such a demand could be made is depressing in the extreme. Of course the works could be offensive to some, it’s impossible to look back over that history without that response to some issue or another, and acts by almost all those involved will evoke that response (indeed as we know from continuing controversies over earlier parts of our history similar emotions and responses can be generated) – and to some will be deeply painful. But that’s part and parcel of engaging with that, not trying to conceal that history. Trying to censor cultural work around the history seems to me to entirely bankrupt.

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1. Eamonn Crudden - January 11, 2013

First of an interesting series of videos around council hearing over proposed censoring of Shane Cullen’s work. Interesting to note that around the time the work was made Shane went about asking every resident of a block of flats in Summerhill for permission to mount in neon a fragment of one of the H Block comms featured in this ‘controversial’ work on the gable end of their building. He got their permission. The FGer who brought this motion gives dinosaurs a bad name.

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2. Joe - January 11, 2013

I’m told that oul Paddy Cooney hit the thing with his crutch when he saw it, he was so angry with it.
Just reading what the cllr son said and didn’t, it almost sounds like he only put the motion down to placate the old man.
Storm in a teacup.

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EamonnCork - January 11, 2013

I do think that Cooney, old and extreme as he is, represents a wing of Fine Gael who see the GFA as a kind of defeat, not least because of Sinn Fein’s subsequent electoral progress.
Cooney once described republicans and their supporters as being literally insane and that whole ‘they’re all just psychopaths who like killing people,’ line was once quite prevalent on this side of the border though it more or less died away after Hume-Adams and the subsequent developments showed that the republican movement could actually be negotiated with.
It strikes me that the FG anger is about a wish to see the Cooney view of history perpetuated. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few more senior members of the party weighing on this one.

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doctorfive - January 11, 2013

One of the other FG Cllrs said publicly funded galleries shouldn’t display politically contentious art. And you think of some the contentious ways public money has and is spent.

Interesting there wasn’t so many sensitivities about when the Taoiseach unveiled a Kevin O’Higgins memorial last May. A similar artwork could be based on seventy odd death warrants and I don’t think it could be displayed anywhere but a public gallery.

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3. EamonnCork - January 11, 2013

This installation has been doing the rounds for years without any objections at all. And very good it is too. If Aosdana is worth a toss, it should make it clear that it deplores the attitude of Athlone Town Council.
And what’s with this nonsense about ‘protecting our children’? What has this installation got to do with children?
It’s bad enough that Paddy Cooney gets far too easy a ride concerning the stuff which took place on his watch as Minister for Justice without him trying to reintroduce the values of the 1976 Emergency Powers Act into post Good Friday Agreement Ireland.
He’s like one of those Japanese soldiers sniping away in the jungle years after the war has ended.

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NollaigO - January 11, 2013

+1

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WorldbyStorm - January 11, 2013

The more I think about this the more it angers me, to be honest. It’s not like Athlone has no history of visual culture either. AIT, galleries, etc are all part of it.

More broadly, taking the points addressed above, there’s a real sense that the language over the years of the conflict, of imploring/demanding people stop was such that the expectation was that a) they wouldn’t, and b) if they did they’d skulk away afterwards.

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doctorfive - January 12, 2013

One side aiming to take ownership of history.

We only have decade or so of it ahead.

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4. Bartholomew - January 12, 2013

Of course county councils shouldn’t be telling art galleries what to do, and of course Paddy Cooney is a troglodyte with a disreputable past. Still, I’d like to hear someone defend the artwork in question. Maybe I’m too literal-minded, but it looks to me like a sanctification of the hunger strikers. I’m not unsympathetic to Sinn Fein, but I can see why someone might think it was a bit of one-sided political propaganda and get annoyed, particularly if this was being shown in the gala opening show of a fancy new municipal gallery.

I’ve heard two arguments so far, from Shane Cullen in that clip above, and from the head of IMMA (who own the piece), on Drivetime:
– ‘it stimulates debate’. I’m not sure that the absence of a piece of this sort would noticeably reduce debate on the north.
– ‘it’s been shown in Paris and San Francisco and they didn’t object to it’. That strikes me as irrelevant and patronising. (I also suspect it’s self-contradictory – ‘Don’t be so provincial – if it was good enough for Paris it’s good enough for us’)

Anyway, while looking up the piece, I discovered that someone in IMMA has a sense of humour. The title of the piece is a quote from St. Just, and the description on their website says that ‘This major artowork was executed in Paris in the mid-1990s’.

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5. eamonncork - January 12, 2013

As regards your two arguments B. They’re reasonable ones but here’s my take on it.
I remember seeing this piece years ago with a few people and it certainly made me think about the hunger strikes and the political events of the time and led to a few conversations about the situation in the North. And to turn your argument on its head, even if it didn’t increase debate on the North that’s hardly a reason to ban it. Anyway, it has obviously caused debate in Athlone. Had the gallery opened with a show of abstract canvasses, chances are the local people and politicians would have passed no heed at all.
It hasn’t been just shown in Paris and San Francisco, it’s been shown all over Ireland as well in places every bit as ‘provincial’ as Athlone. I think their argument is that it’s done the rounds for years and that it’s odd that someone suddenly objects to it.
Our public galleries are full of political art which people might disagree with, there’s the Ballagh Derry 1972 after Goya painting, there are obviously left-wing works by Brian Maguire, there’s the Sean Keating flying column painting in the National Gallery which is an obvious glorification of the physical force tradition. And much contemporary art is based on political premises as well, the difference being that it’s generally based on ideas with which the audience can agree while feeling good about themselves while doing so, racism is bad, sexism is bad, war is stupid and people are stupid and love means nothing in some strange quarters.
I think it’s interesting to see the H Block Comms reproduced just as I thought it was interesting to see them reproduced in David Beresford’s Ten Men Dead. It’s a profoundly interesting part of our modern history and one which holds a great deal of fascination for a lot of people. I’d presume the reason it was chosen for the opening was because it’s by an artist from the Midlands who’s enjoyed international success with it so it seemed a sensible choice.
In any event we should be able to look at works of art, books, films which we find politically uncongenial. I’ve watched Triumph of the Will without turning into a Nazi, read And Quiet Flows The Don without becoming a Stalinist and enjoyed Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis without becoming, (I think), a reactionary Tory boor. In fact sometimes it’s imperative to be confronted by stuff which raises your hackles. Otherwise you end up in that atomised world which characterises the USA at the moment where the right wingers watch nothing but right wing news for fear of having their prejudices challenged.

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WorldbyStorm - January 12, 2013

I’d agree very much with your thoughts EC, though I think Bartholomew’s questions are entirely valid. To me – and unfortunately or fortunately I’ve had a life time exposure to art colleges and fine art practice and theory – art doesn’t have to provide much justification beyond its own existence. This can be bad, much of the time it is, but sometimes it can be good and useful.

But this seems to me to be a particularly interesting piece – even acknowledging it may be problematic for some. I’ve not seen the piece in question in the flesh so to speak, but I’ve never seen H Block Comms in the flesh either IIRC, so that alone would have me there. And that’s sufficient. The cachet one wishes to attach to it is then personal, either negative, positive, neutral, interested, disinterested. These objects exist, it’s perfectly valid either as an artistic or historical research statement to reproduce/represent them. It’s interesting that an artist would do so in the context of artistic work, but one way or another with my historians hat on they’ll be reproduced, represented at some future point in an historical context. It would be absurd to imagine that they would in that latter context be censored, or worse again destroyed.

And that in a sense is the fundamental aspect of this. What do Cooney et al want at base? They want these objects not to exist. But they do and they will continue to do so. And this work brings that home.

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6. EamonnCork - January 12, 2013

Perhaps Paddy Cooney, AKA the Westmeath Christo, is cross because the installation he created in 1976 by covering Frank Stagg’s grave in concrete received very poor reviews and was eventually destroyed. Hell hath no fury like an artist scorned.
The performance piece, ‘They Fell Down The Stairs And Hit Their Heads Off The Wall,’ wasn’t much more successful.

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7. RosencrantzisDead - January 12, 2013

By what criteria should we judge art, Bartholomew? If we are to defend it, we need some criteria or standard which can be met in order for it to be successfully defended or condemned. Can you provide that?

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8. WorldbyStorm - January 12, 2013

BTW, one of the artists I like best is Gerhard Richter, who has produced both abstract and representational work, but more specifically a range of works based around Baader-Meinhof. In a way these raise similar issues to the Cullen piece.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerhard_Richter

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9. Bartholomew - January 12, 2013

Thanks for the replies, lots of food for thought there. I don’t have a problem with political art, I just wondered about this particular piece. Like EamonCork I saw it years ago, in the late 90s in Dublin I think. I had mixed feelings about it at the time, and was surprised to discover that it’s in the more-or-less official state collection.

The piece does two things. On the one hand, writing what were illegal, secret and literally shitty messages in the visual vocabulary of the state, and in a monumental form, was a wonderfully subversive inversion of the realities of the power relations in the gaol. On the other hand, presenting republicans (or their words) in this way (as an official state ideology) seemed to me to accept too easily one of their own fundamental self-images, which is that they are the legitimate government of the Irish people, in succession to the first (or was it the second?) Dáil. It’s properly critical of one form of authority but not at all critical of another, not distanced from one of the less appealing anti-democratic aspects of republicanism. Then it adds another form of apostolic succession by associating itself with a French revolutionary republican. That’s why I think it a reasonable interpretation to see it as propagandistic, which is a bit more than political.

Rosencrantz, I don’t know what criteria art should be judged by. I don’t even know by what criteria something qualifies as art in the first place. But we own this piece, since it’s in the state collection, and I’d love to find out why it was chosen, or bought if it was bought. That applies to the whole collection, of course, not just this work.

” The performance piece, ‘They Fell Down The Stairs And Hit Their Heads Off The Wall,’ wasn’t much more successful.”
In fairness, Dario Fo had already done it so well that Cooney clearly felt he couldn’t risk the comparison.

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eamonncork - January 12, 2013

Fair and well made points Bartholomew. But in the end isn’t the most important thing that it is thought provoking, as evinced by the debate we’re having here? I don’t think its political implications should necessarily exclude it from the state collection. Aren’t these the kinds of arguments engaged citizens of the state should be engaged in? Anyway, if anyone hasn’t seen it, it’s well worth a look. It may even be worth a trip to Westmeath.

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RosencrantzisDead - January 12, 2013

Rereading that, Bartholomew, I realise it may have seemed more aggressive and sarcastic than I intended. I suppose my point was that there is an inherent difficulty in defending an artistic piece in the absence of criteria of what is permissible and what is not. If art is bad because it is ‘offensive’ then that excises a hell of a lot of art from galleries.

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WorldbyStorm - January 12, 2013

I think it’s good that it’s in the national collection, it does after all address part of our history, and a particularly important one (after all the HS’s represented the first signs of a shift to politics on the part of the RM). And I think even if regarded as ‘offensive’ that’s good too. It is part and parcel of art that it makes people think and rethink about issues – if it’s any damn good. To be honest, having been through scores of degree shows, art exhibitions and so on I’m a lot more sympathetic to Cullen’s work than some stuff which is either wildly pretentious or essentially conceptually banal.

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10. Eamonn Crudden - January 13, 2013

Kind of shameful IMO that Aosdana have not reacted to this.

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11. TheOtherRiverR(H)ine - January 17, 2013
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