Jaki Irvine: If the Ground Should Open…

Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin

2016 marked the centenary of Ireland’s heroic, if ultimately doomed, Easter Rising, which formed one important event in the country’s path towards independence. In response, there has been more than a fair share of State-initiated, artistic commemoration: so much, indeed, that a sense of fatigue has emerged. Nonetheless, Jaki Irvine’s If the Ground Should Open…, showing at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, is a welcome and vital statement of intent: an artist at her full, considerable, powers, with the ability to approach the theme with real intelligence and clarity. Continuous with Irvine’s long-standing preoccupation with this historical event, it is a necessary contribution to the centenary year; or indeed, any year.

The exhibition runs through a corridor of small rooms on the Museum’s ground floor galleries. Eight clunky television monitors punctuate its meandering space. Over these monitors, a group of female musicians play, each depicting a close-up of a performer, and their instrument: bagpipes, piano, vocals, double bass, drums, cello, and violin. The music successfully envelops the space, nearly object-like, with each vantage point offering a different experience of the work. The musicians play eleven distinct songs, but their boundaries are hazily defined: a symphony, if anything. A series of six small etchings are also hung at intervals around the space, each a segment of text with women’s names circled, and used to formulate musical notation: Aoife de Burca; Miss Christina Caffrey; Eily O’Hanrahan, and many more. Using a traditional Scottish mode of composition, canntaireachd, Irvine has mined these women’s names to create a score; the result of which, seemingly by magic, we can hear all around us. These women, fearlessly instrumental to the Rising, reappear here in music, by proxy; the fact that their names are not known to us, is but one shameful legacy of the Irish State as it has come to pass. Here though, their names become the ground of the work, and the work a counter-history of the Rising.

Most Irish children grow up learning of the Easter Rising in exclusively masculine terms; so much so, that you could think no women—except Countess Markievicz, an anomaly—were involved. To address this, Irvine wrote a novel in 2013 called Days of Surrender, which looked at Elizabeth O’Farrell and Julia Grenan, two nurses active in the events of Easter week, but gradually omitted from its retelling. As Padraic Pearse surrendered to British forces at the Rising’s wretched end, it was O’Farrell who stood beside him; subsequently, she was airbrushed out so it would appear as though he did so alone. On top of the misfortune of being women, though, O’Farrell and Grenan were gay: in a staunchly Catholic, if independent, Ireland, it was of course easier to deny their contribution. Throughout If the Ground Should Open… this sense of foreclosure is ever-present. Without access to language or commemoration, the songs’ vocals are guttural and non-linguistic; their words like shapes scrambled in the dark. Granting these women a voice, through these eleven songs, is akin to a conjuring: creating something from, if not nothing, then close enough to it.

Throughout the work, the immateriality of music is refracted in the immateriality of finance, drawing on another shameful folly in recent history: Ireland’s (similarly spectacular) housing-bubble, and subsequent banking crash. The Anglo Irish Bank, the crash’s shining protagonist, emerges in the work via snippets of conversation—the infamous ‘Anglo tapes’—which were leaked in the aftermath of the bank’s folding in 2010. To put it lightly, the bank had an idiosyncratic relationship with the law; testing the elasticity of immaterial speculation—what Marxian critic David Harvey terms ‘paper entrepreneurialism’—until, of course, it broke (‘we’re all in the shit’). These tapes follow a particular arc, from arrogant inviolability, to fear, to desperation, that has its counterpoint, ostensibly, in the events of Easter 1916. What separates them, of course, is the rationale behind such bravado: the Rising was an attempt to gain sovereignty; the Anglo tapes suggest that same sovereignty is far from an overriding success.

The question of innocence is an important preoccupation of the work, and in particular, the contrast between the women of 1916, and the Svengalis of this most recent, national calamity. Unsurprisingly, the bankers demonstrate a complete disregard for the law. The women, likewise, acted illegally. However, in marked contrast with the bankers, the women did not desire to be seen as innocent, but instead fully accepted the consequences of their actions. What they got, instead, was innocence, granted through their exclusion from the Rising’s historical account. Exclusion meant innocence; instead, these women accepted full culpability; death, even. In contrast, the white-collar criminals of the Anglo Irish Bank have resolutely shirked punishment, going through ludicrous attempts to separate cause from effect. If financial capitalism is a belief system, then, it is apparently not worth dying for. Certainly it is doubtful whether O’Farrell and Grenan, and all those other women, would have risked death so as to ensure this particular status quo: the bank nationalised, its losses were then absorbed by the Irish people.

The effect of being within the space of this exhibition is akin to being submerged: in another time, another sense of history, even another kind of world. These women’s voices ring out, but after-the-fact, through the mediating process of translation, in music. They are not difficult to discern; but, by the same token, they are unruly. They speak of another Ireland, anathema to the chauvinistic hyperbole of finance, and untrammelled self-interest: a hitherto unknown Ireland. What Irvine suggests, in these women’s translation, is that neither history, nor capitalism, is self-evident; both, instead, are constructs, literally and metaphorically. In patent contrast with the wild speculation of recent financial events, Irvine’s translation does, however, have a material basis: links to deeds and actions undertaken, by women, in the hope of a very different republic.

Jaki Irvine, If The Ground Should Open…, 2016. Installation details. Courtesy of Jaki Irvine, Kerlin Gallery and Frith St. Gallery.

Jaki Irvine, If The Ground Should Open…, 2016. Installation details. Courtesy of Jaki Irvine, Kerlin Gallery and Frith St. Gallery.

Jaki Irvine, If The Ground Should Open…, 2016. Print, 1024 x 765mm. Courtesy of Jaki Irvine, Kerlin Gallery and Frith St. Gallery.