We take an Irishman to Tides, an exhibition of work by artists from Northern Ireland.

| March 08, 2007

The Regina Gouger Miller Gallery provided no explanatory text beyond artists' names and titles for Tides, an exhibition of work from Northern Ireland. So after walking all three floors, I knew there was only one thing to do: Find an Irishman.

Antoine Leyn, born in the Irish Republic in 1930, still has sisters there. He moved to Pittsburgh in 1960. I fetched him to become my walking text panel.

The show includes Aisling Beirn's "And Other Storeys." Miniature buildings scattered about the floor and perched on the wall are carefully crafted out of FedEx boxes and straight pins. On a wall-mounted screen, each is also rendered in line animation.

Antoine said, "Ah, the Marcello Towers. I know them. They're granite, about five feet thick. There's one where James Joyce lived in Sandy Cove. They aren't spacious; they were built to ward off pirates. I was looking to buy one once. There's a lot of them around the Irish coast." Bogside, Derry: "Derry. That's where the Irish insurgency started. Black Friday. Killed lots of Catholics. I don't know this tower, but the IRA blew up a tower in the center of Dublin: Nelson's Pillar. Bunch of assholes for blowing it up. They replaced it with a pointy steel thing. There's lots of jokes about it."

The Superdome, New Orleans; Isfahan, Iran's Tower of Silence; the Palestinian/Egyptian border airport tower in waiting. Antoine said, "It's about towers, isn't it? Maybe keeping some in and others out? Having different purposes: no more pirates in Ireland, bases without statues, that air tower without an airport ..."

In Michael Hogg's "Pivot," political posters stretched to jut from a stepladder read "Sinn Fein." They're cinched flat with plastic fasteners -- perhaps suggesting candidates bundled under one ideology. Antoine said, "Sinn Fein means 'us ourselves.' It was political with the IRA, a slogan of Irish Catholics."

In "Tessies," an installation by Seamus Harahan, we sat on kitchen chairs in a dark room with video images of working-class guys drinking and singing in a kitchen, projected on a screen. "Can you understand anything they're saying?" Antoine asked. I told him I couldn't, even though the singing booms moodily through the gallery. A handheld camera shudders in and out of focus on clasped hands, a belly, oily glasses of whiskey; pulls back to the Sacred Heart of Jesus above the doorway, a candle burning beneath. A handmade sign: Please use the ashtrays not the floor. "I can't tell when this is set, you know? But in the old days it was like this in Ireland," said Antoine. "Everyone would do his song -- even as kids. Now it's much different. Everyone is out to make money."

In Peter Richards' "Too Little Action," a sepia-toned negative image is broken into 3-by-8-foot photographs. An intriguing, disjointed scene that includes a rabbit-headed human, it's otherworldly but with a ceiling sprinkler-head visible. It's like an afterthought or a dream, we think. Antoine called the next day: "The older people tied together with rope? Maybe they're the people that have been pushed aside by the immigrants to Ireland? You know, they can't afford to move even though their house is now worth a lot of money. Maybe all they have is themselves? Maybe the black-looking lady walking away represents Irish prejudice? Maybe the priest is the church's influence, but it has become very secular now. The other people in the photo having a good time are the new generation."

"It seems to be coming back to the Irish troubles, doesn't it?" Antoine said as we left the gallery. "It was on the news every night there growing up. My mother was afraid I was going to meet the IRA and join up. But insurgents aren't that bright, you know. Always seemed kind of stupid to me."

I could tell Antoine felt he hadn't done his job. He said, "You sort of need the whole history of Ireland first, don't you?" Asked whether his insights would help City Paper readers understand the show, he said, "They're still not gonna be better off once you write about this, are they?"

Tides continues through March 30. Regina Gouger Miller Gallery, Carnegie Mellon campus, Oakland. 412-268-3618 or millergallery.cfa.cmu.edu

With this rung: Michael Hogg's ÒPivotÓ incorporates Sinn Fein political posters.
  • With this rung: Michael Hogg's ÒPivotÓ incorporates Sinn Fein political posters.

Comments (1)

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Dear Sherrie Flick If there is ever an exhibition of American artists in a gallery in Belfast, would you recommend that I stop the first American tourist passing by and invite them in to explain it to me? How does being born in the Republic of Ireland and moving to Pittsburgh 47 years ago qualify Antoine Leyn as an expert on contemporary art from Northern Ireland? How nice to know that he still has sisters in Ireland. I hope they are well. It would be useful for your readers to know that the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are two completely different political entities and have been for the last 86 years. Maybe a Canadian tourist would be a better bet to help me interpret an American exhibition in Belfast. Your readers and potential visitors to the exhibition would have been better served with a more responsible and better researched piece of journalism than the review which appeared in last weeks City Paper. I am sure that a request to gallery staff would have provided you with helpful background information or a quick visit to the Miller Gallery website listed on the available poster. As much as Antoine Leyn is entitled to his opinions, why should he be put in the position of having to provide ill informed interpretations of the artworks on display for a reviewer who seemingly could not be bothered to do any background work. In place of an intelligent art review why would you prefer to foist on your readers piffle about pirates and wild prejudicial generalizations such as people in Ireland being "pushed aside by the immigrants", insurgents not being bright and everyone in Ireland these days just being out to make money. In your final paragraph you say that "Antoine felt that he hadn't done his job". It was your job that Antoine didn't do very well and neither did you. If any one is seriously interested in finding out more about the background to this exhibition and the Northern Irish context out of which it comes, there is a panel discussion at the Miller Gallery at 6pm on Thursday March 22nd. Four Carnegie Mellon Professors will offer perspectives on the TIDES exhibition, discuss the themes and issues raised by the artworks and invite responses from the audience. It is free and all are welcome. Further information on www.cmu.edu/millergallery Yours sincerely John Carson Head of the School of Art, Carnegie Mellon University

Posted by John Carson on 03/12/2007 at 3:00 PM
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