…who introduces ‘the national’, the people who say “this is Irish art” or “this is Northern Irish art”? Presumably, it’s Culture Ireland, or it’s the British Council… [1]

Nobody was more surprised than Elizabeth Cleary herself when, at the opening of the 2008 Claremorris Open, curated by Lizzie Carey Thomas of Tate Britain, her name was called out as the winner of the Emerging Artist Award with a very welcome prize of €2,000 for her video piece Archive EC. Cleary had wanted to make a self-portrait without using her face and so she trawled through her large personal archive for objects representing her life, choosing one for each decade.Having a long-standing interest in video, Elizabeth set up two cameras, one at a slight distance from her collection of items, the other close up, and then began to select each piece whilst narrating its significance.

For the first decade Elizabeth chose a book of photographs that her father had bought when she was a child, a book full of images of metal constructions, wrought-iron railings and reflections in glass and water.These are things that Cleary constantly photographs herself, so obviously she is still being influenced by things she saw as a child.

Continuing up through the decades to her current, eighth decade, she chose a prop from a video she made with her grandchildren recently.The layered, time-lapsed video piece that resulted is more eloquent and revealing than any figurative portrait could ever be and stands as testament to the strength, determination and creativity of a unique Irish artist.In many respects it also tells of a very typical Irish life in the twentieth century, a life lived through many enormous cultural and economic changes.However, it is a life that, although situated in Ireland, in its specificity also speaks of the universal.

Cleary’s prize and practice are interesting from several viewpoints.At an age when many of her peers struggle to use mobile phones, Cleary is a full-time Media student primarily using video, a medium that appears with enormous frequency in contemporary art shows and international biennials, causing the Sunday Times art critic to suggest that “the whole world seems to have chosen video as its preferred visual language.” [2] Her piece is not a gimmick, tainted by the conceptual ‘good idea’ so despised by Scotland’s Robert Johnston, but instead is “more direct, ‘honest’ art.” [3] While young Dublin artists are organising themselves into numerous groupings and collectives, Cleary works alone, ploughing her own furrow.Her piece is deeply honest and personal, and yet it would survive translation into any language or culture.Her selection for the Emerging Artist Award is significant in light of the selector’s comment that she was attracted to the Claremorris Open by “The fact that it had been running, consistently, for more than 30 years; and that it had continually attracted a really impressive list of selectors.” [4]

In the 1930s, when Elizabeth was born, Claremorris would have been a small provincial town, the centre of the western rail network, in the heart of a remote, poverty-stricken west of Ireland, a region decimated by emigration and the political troubles of the early decades of the century.However, it was also a region romanticised and idealised by writers and painters such as Sean Keating and Paul Henry who, in keeping with the hegemonic ideology of the time, sought to portray an Ireland that was the absolute antithesis of Englishness:

The celebration of the West as an archetypal Irish landscape was part of an attempt to identify with a landscape which was a confirmation of cultural identity….Perceived as both a pool of cultural and racial strength and beauty…the West, in the sense of standing for the whole island and as a source of biological and physiological regeneration, could be seen as embodying the nation. [5]

Seventy years later, in stark contrast to the mythic rural Ireland portrayed by Keating and Henry, amongst others, Claremorris is one of the fastest-growing towns in the west of Ireland, but for very different reasons could still be considered as the epitome of ‘embodying the nation’.Like every other Irish town today, it is no longer “a pool of (Irish) cultural and racial strength” but is instead a pool of cultural and racial diversity, a phenomenon reflected in the name of one of the joint prize winners in the 2008 exhibition, Vukasin Nedeljkovic, whose current location is given as Mayo whilst his name betrays his Serbian origins, his ‘place’. [6] His video, also deeply personal, speaks of his separation from this place of origin and his current lack of place while he waits for his asylum status to be decided. Nedeljkovic’s life, and therefore his art, is defined by place; where he comes from determines where he can go.His art, like Elizabeth’s, speaks of Ireland; it also speaks of Serbia, whilst simultaneously reflecting reality for millions of people around the world.Ireland’s culture also influences him, his “double relationship to host and home country” producing its own aesthetic. [7]

Lizzie Carey-Thomas was asked if, having viewed all the submissions, she understood Irish culture and society in any new ways.Her reply endorsed the idea that, in addressing the ‘politics of location’, it is “in the local and the specific that wider issues are given authentic meaning” [8]:

It was fascinating to see how many of the works reflected the socially and culturally changing situation in Ireland and the effects on the environment and behaviour, which of course relate to wider concerns. Some of the strongest themes were to do with sense of place, immigration and exile, cultural heritage against increasing globalisation….But it was also interesting that the works followed concerns that many artists are engaged with internationally. [9]

In 1987, Joan Fowler wrote that due to greatly improved global communications and travel Irish artists were no longer lagging decades behind international trends or making tentative imitations of them:

Fashion overlaps with fashion at ever-increasing speed.There are artists who respond to changing perceptions of meaning and relevance in art, and there are those who prefer to remain consistent and develop within their own frames of reference….What determines validity in contemporary art practice is not whether abstract or figurative art is uppermost, but whether it is capable of intercepting the crucial concerns of the day. [10]

In a recent conversation with the author, Fowler stated that this view was even more true today and, whilst it is always advantageous to live in one of the important global art centres, instantaneous communications now ensure that contemporary artists living in Ireland are most definitely at no disadvantage and their work is broadly indistinguishable in subject and form from their contemporaries in other countries.

Still, the debate goes on, fulfilling a persistent need “to place, localise, regionalise, naturalise, ethnicise, ‘root’ Irish artists.” [11] At a recent roundtable discussion on contemporary art and national representation for Sarah Pierce’s Metropolitan Complex, Declan Long stated that among younger artists in Ireland there seems to be “a consensus regarding the irrelevance of the national in the face of more international opportunities and expectations, more ‘globalised’ systems and experiences.” [12] Pierce herself is American but lives and works in Ireland and in 2005 was one of seven artists chosen to represent Ireland in the 51st Venice Biennale.It is obviously common practice to accept the logic of Eddie Murphy, Head Librarian in NCAD, who for the purposes of the library considers as ‘Irish’ contemporary art made by anyone living in Ireland for more than a year. [13]

Despite the presence of some respected names on several visual-culture fronts,Pierce’s group came to no definite conclusions on the question of ‘Irish’ artists / art, which of course it is impossible to do given that the discussion is “not only multi-layered but also without limit.” [14] Ireland’s multi-cultural population will obviously continue to effect change in both the indiginous and migrant population as time unfolds, resulting perhaps in what Salman Rushdie in Imaginary homelands called ‘hybrids’, “people in whose deepest selves strange fusions occur, unprecedented unions between what they were and where they find themselves.” [15] In a world of such shifting boundaries and identities, how then could one define categorically an ‘Irish’ or any other nationality of artist?

Perhaps the problem needs to be looked at from another angle.As illustrated earlier by Elizabeth Cleary’s obsession with photographing reflections and wrought-iron railings, a concern deeply bound up with her early childhood experience, ‘what they were’ is inextricably linked in people with what they later become and the art they produce from the deep well of lived experience.This universal truth confirms Freud’s theory that “the history of the child’s experiences is never eradicated, it is to be found in the archaeology of the city of the mind.” [16] The ‘city of the mind’ is formed by family life and background, play, religion, social class, gender, education, childhood holidays, and the history and cultural life of one’s home country.All these and other germinal influences are deeply engrained in the pysche and can never be erased or acquired at a later date.Therefore, whilst it is possible to belatedly absorb the dominant aesthetics or concerns of a place or a group, or to “respond to changing perceptions of meaning and relevance in art,” [16] there is really no escaping where you came from.

Marie Soffe is a recent graduate in Fine Art and History of Art from NCAD; this text was written in late 2008.

Images from the 2009 version of this article are no longer available.

[1] Pierce, Sarah, 2008.‘The Metropolitan complex’, Paper No. 15: Roundtable Discussion, 28 January 2008; available at http://www.themetropolitancomplex.com/files/papers/paper15.pdf; accessed 4 December 2008

[2] Januszczak, Waldemar, 2007, ‘This year’s Venice biennale is bigger, but not better: Searching for the wow factor in the flickering light of hundreds of videos’,The Sunday Times: Culture,June 17, 2007; available at: http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/visual_arts/article1934628.ece; accessed 3 Decenber 2008

[3] Beagles, John, 2001,Scotland Review, Circa 95,Spring 2001, pp 62 – 63; available at http://www.recirca.com/backissues/c95/scotland.shtml; accessed 1 Dec 2008

[4] Oakley, Jason, 2008, ‘A phenomenon and an institution: Jason Oakley interviews Lizzie Carey-Thomas, Curator at Tate Britain, about selecting the 2008 Claremorris Open Exhibition’.The Visual artists’ news sheet,November – December 2008;available at http://www.visualartists.ie/van_nd08_claremorris.pdf; accessed 3 December 2008

[5] Nash, Catherine, 1993,‘Embodying the nation: the West of Ireland landscape and Irish identity,Tourism in Ireland: a critical analysis,O’Connor, Barbara and Michael Cronin (eds),Cork: Cork University Press, p 91

[6] Recently, artist Bryan Duffy has adopted the name Vukasin Nedeljkovic, with the original Nedeljkovic’s agreement, in solidarity with him and to generate discussion and awareness of the plight of asylum seekers in Ireland.

[7] Hanrahan, Siún and Niamh Ann Kelly, 2008,2MOVE: Ireland, curated by Mieke Bal and Miguel Á Hernández-Navarro, 3 May to 2 June 2008 at Belfast Exposed; available at: http://www.belfastexposed.org/exhibitions/index.php?exhibition=55&show=past&year=2008; accessed 12 Nov 2008

[8] O’Connell, D. and M. Robinson, 1992,‘Introduction’,The Circa Index 1981 – 1991, Belfast: Circa Art Magazine

[9] Oakley, op cit, p 12

[10] Fowler, Joan, 1987,‘Contemporary women artists: Practices and issues into the future’,Irish women artists: from the eighteenth century to the present day,Ryan-Smolin, Wanda, Elizabeth Mayes and Jenni Rogers (eds),Dublin: The National Gallery of Ireland, The Douglas Hyde Gallery, p 77

[11] Nash, Catherine, 2005.‘Mapping emotion: longing and location in the work of Kathy Prendergast’, A Shared legacy: essays on Irish and Scottish art and visual culture, Cullen, Fintan and John Morrison (eds),Aldershot: Ashgat

[12] Pierce, Sarah, 2008.‘The Metropolitan complex’, Paper No. 15: Roundtable Discussion, 28 January 2008; available at http://www.themetropolitancomplex.com/files/papers/paper15.pdf;accessed 4 December 2008

[13] In conversation with the author, 3 December 2008

[14] Fowler, Joan, 2008,‘Is there an author in the locker? The difficulty of ‘self’ in relation to art’,Circa 126, Winter 2008, p 47

[15] Rushdie, Salman, 1991,Imaginary homelands: essays and criticism, 1981 – 1991.London: GrantaBooks, pp 124 – 125

[16] Pile, Steve, 1996, The Body and the city: psychoanalysis, space and subjectivity, London: Routledge, p 241

[17] Fowler, 1987, op cit, p 77