New art riot… well, not quite… January 11, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in Art, Culture, Irish Politics.
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.
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.