And so, as well as a star gazer of sorts, whether you like it or not, you’re a public intellectual too. Once I said to my MA tutor, Italian like me, that I felt as if I were exiled; a feeling shared by many in this country who have had to move away to get work. And now some are about to leave or have just left. Maybe a confusion over one’s sense of belonging comes in but, somehow, it is more than a personal affair. The tutor replied: “Julia Kristeva says that when you start thinking, you are in exile." I was taken by surprise by the simplicity of this thought that captured perfectly what it is like. I had a similar feeling when I was Deputy Director of the Central Registry on Looted Art; I explain it with Benjamin’s jetzeit, the ‘now time’, a combination of everyday, ordinary life in London in 2002 and the revitalised past through archives with words standing for what actually once happened leaping off the page at you, that past that feels ever-present, through empathy, I guess, and the faculty of the imagination too, the past-present of the naked, raw horror of wartime Nazi actions documented with reports of their efficient raids, confiscations, and the petty wrangling after the 1999 Washington Conference agreement, as to who to hold responsible for researching the holdings of art collections for looted art. (You can see for yourself. Go to: www.lootedart.com and www.ushmm.org/ for the New York Holocaust Museum which has many documents.)
Did you see the article about art and the Ryan Report by Fintan O’Toole, ‘Memorial to abuse survivors must be dignified – and angry’ (The Irish Times, Saturday, 7 November, 2009)? It says it all. I’ll do my best to make the links. An installation which features a white, padded cell, and a restraining harness, surrounded by heaps of letters about Gerard Mannix Flynn’s incarceration with the Ryan Report in multiple copies on white church pews. When the time-frame of art is so close on the heels of the real, one hesitates, is there an aesthetic filter, some distance, at least, between the real and the piece? But the very fact that the work is by someone who endured the violence of the state-approved system makes the work more than personal, or even narrowly ‘ethical’ (in the sense of what should I do in a given situation), and directly political in that wider perspective that we are reminded of from time to time.
O’Toole notes that the “responses of the artistic community to the Ryan report have, on the whole, been meagre," in relation to a project for a monument, a public art commission in memory of the people who were subjected to abuse. The trouble with monuments is that although they mark something on the ground, like a grave, they have a knack of burying what is vitally important as well. Often that burial begins long before the monument has been completed: forgive and forget. Forgive, maybe, if you can, but never forget.
This is what happened when Gerard Mannix Flynn’s exhibition Padded cell and other stories was withdrawn from the Dunamaise Arts Centre in Portlaoise. What interests me here is a clash of two cultures: one is the Victorian pruderie of politically correct postmodernism that lingers on in influencing decisions like this as to whether you show a shocking but true exhibition or cancel it because it might be offensive, in which the simulacrum, or a version of virtual reality, replaces representation of the real. When what is really at issue is a conflict between two ways of representing the real. Presenting and re-presenting what actually happened (so, including in the exhibition books that broke the silence, Nothing to say, The God squad and Children of the Poor Clares, and the report without the names and consequences) or ‘Disneyfying’ it, so the public (this time a citizenship, not only voters, consumers and clients who ‘buy’ banks rather than sequester them, and are clients or former passengers of public transport) get the commodified catharsis, but give up when it comes to future policies and decisions. That’s precisely Flynn’s point. In an article about the Ryan report (‘A Terrible legacy is born, Sunday Business Post, 24 May 2009), Flynn wrote that: “There are many ways in which violence is perpetrated on humans by humans. As Oscar Wilde would say some do it with a kiss, some do it with a pen, some do it with a sword, the Irish State does it with a report. Silence is violence because in the silence is the hurt and the stress caused by denial."
True, the silence was eventually broken, but it is exiles like Flynn who remind us of what needs to be done by the rest of the exiles and heretics (to use a phrase Pasolini was fond of). Another point he makes concerns the words we use to name what happens. That is also the struggle over what significance you attach to what happens. What you call it encapsulates what it is going to mean. That’s beyond relativism. The good news is that the exhibition is being shown somewhere else, in adifferentkettleoffishaltogether at 18 Ormond Quay, in Dublin 1.