art
 and 
context
Relations and Divisions in Work and its Representation, Part 1
October 2013

Currently, Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane have assigned several of their Rooms to an assembly of portraits of turn of century dignitaries and leaders who had roles, directly or tenuously, in the Dublin Lockout of 1913. The exhibition, Dublin Divided: September 1913, is one of the Gallery’s contributions to the centennial commemorations to the era that brought about the Irish State—the ‘Decade of Commemorations, 1912-1922’, or 1913-23 according to some. While the exhibition title utilizes WB Yeats’s poem September 1913 with its attack on philistinism in local governance, the rows of portraits show off the propertied, patriarchal class in disproportionate measure. In truth the workers and the poor were never going to achieve equal representation in this exhibition of paintings, drawings, prints, and a few portrait busts. Turn of century fine art depictions of the lower classes are confined to the picturesque and here these are in a distinct minority.

Over and beyond the rows of academic paintings, there are two works that in different ways are more memorable for a twenty-first century audience yet are not contemporary with the events that the exhibition is constructed around. These are Louis le Brocquy’s lithograph, ‘Sackville Street’, from a 1986 series based on James Joyce’s Dubliners, and Maurice MacGonigal’s painting Dockers, 1933-34. With its bird’s eye view of crowds in which people are reduced to dark blobs on white ground, Le Brocquy’s ‘Sackville Street’, now O’Connell Street, is indelibly fused in the public imagination with Joseph Cashman’s widely reproduced photograph of Bloody Sunday which occurred in the early days of the Lockout. In effect Le Brocquy’s decorative motif is bound up with what is now considered a historic as well as traumatic event, and Cashman’s photograph represents this significance. MacGonigal’s painting foregrounds three Dockers in such heroic terms that it is worthy of the Social Realism found in other parts of Europe during the Thirties, and is highly unusual in the Irish context. However, memorable imagery isn’t necessarily a direct result of its artistic construction, a matter I will return to.

The exhibition, Dublin Divided, isn’t so much about the Lockout and the working and living conditions of those who suffered most prior to and most especially during those months as it is about the concurrent controversy over the creation of the Gallery, or specifically, the costs involved in housing Hugh Lane’s art collection for public display. There is some justification for this: those opposed to the Gallery tended to be the city burghers who organized the Lockout against the workers; and, the controversy surrounding the establishment of a city gallery was a central issue in Dublin politics in 1913 to an extent that today is hardly credible when such matters are marginal to current affairs. Further, the exhibition catalogue makes the point: ‘James Connolly identified the Lockout as a classic development in the class struggle, where the intellectuals and workers joined forces.’ Perhaps the exhibition should have examined these issues to a greater extent rather than simply presenting artists’ representations of the great and the good of 1913. In this, the present context is also a factor. For arts organizations the financial year is a long time, but a decade of commemoration will weigh heavily on the resources of the various institutions. Without doubt commemoration of 1916 will remain the prize. Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane stuck to a narrow remit with this exhibition, leaving photographic record and other forms of documentation that might support a narrative to other institutions.

In this respect Dublin City Council has come forth with publications in various media. While most of this is very creditable, the Council and trade unions bear responsibility for one of the most questionable, the ‘reenactment’ of the arrival from Britain of the SS Hare  which docked at Dublin Quays with food for distribution to the families who were victims of the Lockout, an event which received most media coverage. While in theory it may be good that school children, for example, ‘experience’ their history, 1913 and near starvation is so far outside the lived experience of participants in a re-enactment as to become crass pastiche. Many of the commemoration exhibitions though are at the other extreme in maintaining a somewhat academic tone. Dublin City Council is supporting a travelling exhibition of photographic and archaeological record of ‘the Monto’ area of the early twentieth century and this is currently at Cabra Public Library. The old photographs of Dublin tenements and the families who rented rooms therein along with recent archaeological studies of the buildings are presented in such distanced third-person terms as to feel as though the exhibition is from a past era. The ironies involved in depicting the Monto as a then red light district that contained some of Dublin’s worst slums and its condition in the present are absent. For example, from the location of The LAB Arts Centre on Foley Street, some twists of history are within a stone’s throw. The undistinguished and renamed James Joyce Street is supposed to signal one of the country’s great writers who used his experience of the Monto in his writing. Or that the Irish Independent newspaper now has offices practically next door which is a reminder that William Martin Murphy, the capitalist and devout Catholic most associated with generating the Lockout, also owned the paper in 1913 and he used his power to ensure anti-worker coverage within.

Forcing contemporary ‘relevance’ on historic events is a tricky business that often ends in banality. While the National Library of Ireland has made good use of the digitalization of its archives in its 1913 exhibition in Kildare Street and online, the inclusion of a contemporary street artist’s interpretation of the Lockout done on Lower Leeson Street jars with the rest of the material. There is the sense that these are two separate projects where the audience does not know what the point of the latter is other than serve as an advertisement for the commemoration. While it is a rather large jump of context, one might compare this with Florian Illies’ book, 1913, where the author reconstitutes the year by drawing in events that we now consider momentous and related but which are described in the book as if they were unrelated and insignificant. The result is a large collage with hundreds of elements bouncing off one another. Of course the author takes some contemporary and irreverent licence with what some of the heroes of modernism may have been feeling in 1913 that is way beyond what our institutions feel permitted to present as history. The point is to highlight Illies’ means of engaging with history.

Multi-media installation is another means of building relationships between past and present and is central to another exhibition running concurrent with the commemoration of the Dublin Lockout. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air is at Manchester Art Gallery in England but unlike the Lockout commemoration it is the result of a single authorial presence. This is the artist Jeremy Deller who it must be said remains best known for his the Battle of Orgreave, 2001, a reenactment of a battle between miners and police during the miners’ strike, 1984-5. While the staging involved veterans of 1984 and is therefore bound up with re-experiencing reputedly cathartic for some, it has achieved a status in the globalized art world which means it has taken leave of the event which prompted it. That said, Deller’s current exhibition goes back to source as it were and traces instances of the rise and decline of Britain’s manufacturing industries through visual and verbal documentation in art, written record, song, photographs, and film among other sources. The outcome is an experience of several dimensions and the nearest comparison with the Dublin Lockout commemoration is the RTÉ Radio series broadcast during August and September and now available online. RTÉ was able to use its archival material with witness statements, ‘experts’ from the present, as well as song and other forms of commentary. Deller, unbridled by the impartiality expected of national or state institutions, makes one particular photograph the emblem for the show. It is a photograph foregrounding father and son down a coal pit, dated 1973. Where the father is clothed accordingly, the son is a Liberace-type figure in bling and long blond wig, (the photograph can be viewed online at Manchester Art Gallery and BBC/News/Entertainment sites). He is Adrian Street and he avoided following his father down the pits by becoming a professional wrestler in which he performed as a transsexual. Deller’s interest in the photograph is that for him it encapsulates Britain’s post-war shift from an industrial culture to a service and entertainment culture. Whatever about the ethics of recycling what remains to some extent a family photograph, it is not just a memorable image: it is unforgettable.