Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Myth of the Golem

Rabbi Loew's Golem

The Golem in Jewish folklore
In Jewish folklore, a golem (גולם, sometimes, as in Yiddish, pronounced goilem) is an animated being created entirely from inanimate matter. The word golem is used in the Bible to refer to an embryonic or incomplete substance: Psalm 139:16 uses the word "gal'mi", meaning "my unshaped form" (in Hebrew, words are derived by adding vowels to triconsonantal roots, here, g-l-m). The earliest stories of golems date to early Judaism. Adam is described in the Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin 38b) as initially created as a golem when his dust was "kneaded into a shapeless hunk". Like Adam, all golems are created from mud. They were a creation of those who were very holy and close to God. Early on, the notion developed that the main disability of the golem was its inability to speak. It is said that if a golem were made able to speak, that would give it a soul, and—because a golem cannot be made perfectly—that ability could make it very dangerous.

The Golem paradox
There is, then, a profound paradox in the basic attitude to the Golem in so far as he is made in the image of man who is himself made in the image of God. Accordingly, the Golem both resembles his human creator and yet fundamentally lacks his creative power (that is, the yetser which expresses itself in imaginative projects, speech and sexual desire). The Golem is incapable of producing more Golems.
Richard Kearney The Wake of Imagination (p 58)

The myth of the Golem is a good example of anti-nature ideology. The project to usurp the role of mother symbolically was a failure. Since the Golem is 'made in the image of man who is himself made in the image of [a patriarchal] God', i.e. not born of woman, it is not surprising that it cannot speak [no soul] and lacked sexual desire. Even though it was made from mud the golem held a privileged position over female creations [e.g. Adam was created as a golem (made from the dust of the ground which in Hebrew is adamah), Eve was made from a rib taken out of Adam]. A standard feature of golems in popular culture is that of uncontrollable violence and killing its creator. Thus the golem becomes violence purified, a figure that is not human, therefore having no empathy with humans. Frankenstein could be considered a modern version of the Golem, a criticism of the negative or anti-human aspects of modern science and technology and its potentially disastrous consequences for the whole human race.

Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus
Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus
is a novel written by the British author Mary Shelley. Shelley wrote the novel when she was 19 years old. The first edition was published anonymously in London in 1818. Shelley's name appears on the revised third edition, published in 1831. The title of the novel refers to a scientist who learns how to reanimate flesh and creates a being in the likeness of man out of body parts taken from the dead. In modern popular culture, people have tended to refer to the Creature as "Frankenstein" (especially in films since 1931). Frankenstein is a novel infused with some elements of the Gothic novel and the Romantic movement. It was also a warning against the "over-reaching" of modern man and the Industrial Revolution, alluded to in the novel's subtitle, The Modern Prometheus. The story has had an influence across literature and popular culture and spawned a complete genre of horror stories and films. The novel raises many issues that can be linked to today's culture. These issues include the evolution of man and whether technical progress can be self-destructive. Frankenstein is in some ways allegorical. The novel was conceived and written during an early phase of the Industrial Revolution, at a time of dramatic advances in science and technology. That the creation rebels against its creator can be seen as a warning that the application of science can lead to unintended consequences.

The Paradox of Tradition

Driving past an old thatched cottage on the way to Skerries, north Co Dublin, I noticed it had been recently re-thatched. That seemed like a strange paradox. Here was an example of our traditional vernacular architecture, what we hold up as a surviving sample of our history, yet the thatch was not old – it was brand new. How could we see it as an old house when a good portion of it was brand new?

Constable's Tower before renovation
(Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)

Constable's Tower after renovation
(Photo: Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin)

In Swords, also in north Co Dublin, where I grew up, there is a castle which is being renovated at the moment. It is a very slow process. In March 1995, a plan for the phased restoration of the castle was approved by Fingal County Council. In 1996, work commenced on the restoration of the Constable's Tower, and this was completed in 1998. The castle was falling apart as stones became rotten and then loose, eventually creating holes in the walls which would soon collapse. The walls are being restored with new stone in a slow yet exquisitely professional manner. The windows have been finished in newly carved sandstone and a wooden replica roof has been put on the Constable's Tower and the chapel. Again following the example above, there are many new features on an old building.

New chapel roof
(Photo: Michael Killen)

One of five heads commissioned by Fingal County Council
for the refurbishment programme being undertaken at Swords Castle.
Each head is authentically dressed according to research into the
clothing popularly worn within Ireland’s Medieval Norman
community in the late 12 th and early 13 th centuries.
Sculpture by Michael Killen (
(Photo: Michael Killen)

In Skerries Mills, again in Skerries, much of the material in the mechanisms had rotted. Many parts had to be recreated and rebuilt with old craft skills. The mill is now functioning as before with two windmills and a watermill. Yet, in all of these cases, without constant maintenance these buildings would be a pile of rubble and rotting thatch.

Our past and its traditions are constantly being renewed in the present. Assuming that this process will also continue on into the future, then both the past and the future collapse into a continuous present. The maintenance of the building also requires the constant learning of the skills needed to keep them in good shape and in working order. This knowledge is as important as bio-diversity in that we do not know when in the future such skills and knowledge may become absolutely relevant again, for example the use of new windmill technology for the production of eco-friendly electricity or using wood and straw again to offset the greenhouse gas producing cement and concrete industry.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Plato and total war on art


But you will know that the only poetry that should be allowed in a state is hymns to the gods and paeans in praise of good men; once you go beyond that and admit the sweet lyric or epic muse, pleasure and pain become your rulers instead of law and the rational principles commonly accepted as best. [...] Our defence, then, when we are reminded that we banished poetry from our state, must be that its character was such as to give us good grounds for so doing and that our argument required it.
Plato The Republic

With Plato Nature is turned upside down: the things of nature are themselves no more than copies of the Ideas rather than the other way around i.e. that Ideas are actually copies of things.
Thus the artist through imagination (1) works from the real and makes it into an idea and (2) challenges the right of the Father to form and shape the world. He only 'imitates' what God and the craftsman have 'made' and is therefore a liar.

God is as good as possible and remains in his own form without variation forever ... So we cannot have any poet saying that the gods disguise themselves in every kind of shape ... We must stop all stories of this kind and stop mothers being misled by them and scaring children by perversion of the myths ...
Plato The Republic

Thus the artists must be banned from the Republic as they would refuse to conform to the dominant ideology of absolute being and pursue what was possibly a counter-culture or remnants of polytheism and survivals of an earlier knowledge and ideas. This is Plato's all-out war against difference by denial and censorship, yet, at the same time, carried out in the name of rational knowledge and truth.

Refiguring lost narratives

It has been shown that cultural artefacts found in southeastern Europe date from 6500 to 3500 B.C.E. and in western Europe from 4500 to 2500 B.C.E. and that ancient beliefs, myths and rituals recorded in historical times are essential to the understanding of prehistoric symbols.

The aim of this collection of notes, quotes, and illustrations is to refigure lost narratives and reinterpret our cultural memory as a way to creating a progressive culture today. One way of doing this is to extend the examined cultural history back much further than the foundational myths of Prometheus and Adam.

The purpose of extending this inquiry to earlier belief systems is to show that the changes which took place then give us a different perspective on the usual interpretations of even the foundational myths.

The implications of these changes have radical implications for culture through time and its philosophical and ideological bases today.

Prehistoric art
The earliest known European art is from the Upper Palaeolithic period and includes both cave painting, such as the famous paintings at Chauvet, Altamira, Pech Merle, and Lascaux, and portable art, such as animal carvings and so-called Venus figurines like the Venus of Willendorf.

Fertility goddess
The fertility goddesses are the female deities to watch over and promote fertility, pregnancy, and birth in many polytheistic cultures. In some cases these deities were directly associated with sex, and in others they simply embodied related attributes. Some examples include Aphrodite in ancient Greece, Hathor in ancient Egypt, the Teutonic goddess Freyja, and Brigit in Ireland. Fertility gods are also present in many other cultures. Some archeological finds that have become associated with ancient fertility goddesses in the popular imagination are Venus figurines such as the Venus of Willendorf.

Venus of Willendorf - estimated to have been carved
between 24,000 - 22,000 BCE (

Matrilocality (also known as Uxorilocal marriage) is a term used in social anthropology. It describes a societal system in which the offspring of a mother remain living in the mother's house, thereby forming large "clan-families", typically consisting of three or four generations living under the same roof. Frequently, visiting marriage is being practiced, meaning that husband and wife are living apart in their separate families, seeing each other in their spare time. The children of such marriages are raised by the mother's extended matrilineal clan. The father does not have a significant role in the upbringing of his own children; he does, however, in that of his sisters' children. In direct consequence, property is inherited from generation to generation, and over all, remains largely undivided.

Mother right
According to mother right - so long, therefore, as descent was reckoned only in the female line - and according to the original custom of inheritance within the gens, the gentile relatives inherited from a deceased fellow member of their gens. The property had to remain within the gens*. […] Thus, in proportion as wealth increased, it on the one hand made the man’s position in the family more important than the woman’s, and on the other hand created an impulse to use this strengthened position in order to overthrow, in favour of his children, the traditional order of inheritance. […] A simple decision sufficed that in the future the offspring of the male members should remain within the gens, but that of the female should be excluded by being transferred to the gens of their father. The reckoning of descent in the female line and the law of maternal inheritance where thereby overthrown, and the male line of descent and the law of paternal inheritance were substituted for them. As to how and when this revolution took place among civilized peoples, we have no knowledge. It falls entirely within prehistoric times.
Frederick Engels The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State

* In ancient Rome, a gens (pl. gentes) was a clan, caste, or group of families, that shared a common name (the nomen) and a belief in a common ancestor. In the Roman naming convention, the second name was the name of the gens to which the person belonged. The term has also been used to refer to families within a clan system in other contexts, including tribal clans.

Mythology and ideology
Dumezil (1898-1986) devoted his life work to establishing mythology as an independent branch of the social sciences. His studies have shown that mythic beings are the means for explaining the order of mankind and the origins of the universe, and that mythic thinking is not accidental but occurs within an organized system of divine activities and functions. Thus mythology reflects an ideological structure.
Marija Gimbutas The Language of the Goddess (p xviii)

Hera was the Mother of the Gods, even of the Olympian gods, to whom she gave the ambrosia of eternal life. Hellenic writers tried to make her subordinate to Zeus, though she was much older than he, and had married him against her will. Their constant mythological quarrels reflected conflicts between early patriarchal and matriarchal cults. As the primordial feminine trinity, Hera appeared as Hebe, Hera, and Hecate - new moon, full moon, old moon - otherwise personified as the Virgin of spring, the Mother of summer, and the destroying Crone of winter.

Barbara Walker The Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (p392)

The magic apple garden
Greeks said Mother Hera kept the magic apple garden in the west, where the Tree of Life was guarded by her sacred serpent. Graves points out that the whole story of Eve, Adam, and the serpent in the tree was deliberately misinterpreted from icons showing the Great Goddess offering life to her worshipper, in the form of an apple [the symbol of immortality], with the tree and its serpent in the background.
Barbara Walker The Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (p49)

Adam und Eva von Lucas Cranach um 1513/15
Öl auf Holz 73 x 62 in Würzburg,
Mainfränkisches Museum (

The Serpent as Goddess
The symbol of the Serpent was the one most widely used to represent or adorn the Goddess of the ancient Near East or to depict, or mediate, the relationship between goddesses and human culture. [...] In its association with life, the Serpent represented much more than mere sexual fertility, although fertility was an important theme of the cultic occasions when serpentine imagery was used. Serpents hibernate in the winter and re-emerge in the spring. For this reason they were ideal symbols of the rebirth of nature every year and and represented a guarantee that even though all of life might seem to die off in the winter months, there was yet hope for the earth.
Mary Condren The Serpent and the Goddess (p8)

Promise and History
Allegiance would have to be to one god, Yahweh, and the central symbolism of the new religion would be based on Promise and History rather than on the Life and Cyclical Regeneration represented by the Serpent.
Mary Condren The Serpent and the Goddess (p11)

Sheela na Gigs

Photograph by Michael Sider - Sheela-na-gig on town wall
in Fethard, Co. Tipperary, Ireland (

It is possible that there is a goddess origin to Sheela na Gigs as the matriarchal aspect of our cultural heritage is covered over or integrated into modern religion. It could be argued that the sheela contains the three aspects of the goddess: vulva [maiden], breasts [mother], old face, ribs [crone]. It seems that the phrase sheela-na-gig has Gaelic origins. This phrase was repeated and written down from oral origins. The sounds tended towards similarity with the name Sheila - so was hyphenated accordingly. One Gaelic interpretation is 'Síle na gCíoch' - Sheila of the Breasts. However, the sounds may have been distorted more than we think. For example, sheela-na-gig could have been written down with a different hyphenation as 'shee-la-na-gig'. Considering a 'sidhe' was a supernatural being (as in 'banshee') it could have been originally 'sidhe na gealaí', the moon goddess which could easily simplify as sheela-na-gig, especially if the Gaelic version of the word was repeated over many years and then taken up by Anglophones who knew little Irish and were not sure of its Gaelic pronunciation or origins. The Irish for moon, 'gealach', comes 'from Gala or Galata the original moon-mother of the Gaelic and Gaulish tribes' [see Barbara Walker, The Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, p.670].

What are Sheela na Gigs ?
Sheela na Gigs (or Sheela-na-Gigs) are figurative carvings of naked women displaying an exaggerated vulva. They are found on churches, castles and other buildings, particularly in Ireland and Britain, sometimes together with male figures. [...] The name was first published in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 1840-44, as a local name for a carving once present on a church gable wall in Rochestown, County Tipperary, Ireland; the name was also recorded in 1840 by John O'Donovan, an official of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland, referring to a figure on a church in Kiltinane, County Tipperary. There is controversy regarding the origin and meaning of the name, as the name is not directly translatable into Irish. Alternative spellings of "Sheela" may sometimes be encountered; they include Sheila, Síle and Síla.

Sheelas and folk religion
The overwhelming impression one gets from the enquiry into medieval motherhood is that women all over Europe sought the assistance of magical means in their hour of need, and that they continued to do so well into modern times. [...] The cavernous oval-shaped vulva, pointed to or held open by her hands, often shownas swollen or sagging, mostly pointing downwards, and in some cases so big as to reach the ground, finds a perfect explanation: it express the physical state pregnant women craved and worked for. It shows the desirable degree of dilation of the cervix immediately before, during or after childbirth. [...] A further morphological Sheela feature which makes a lot of sense in the light of the present argument is the posture. Whether standing, squatting, kneeling or seated, Sheelas are portrayed in the 'vertical' birth-giving pose.
Barbara Freitag Sheela-na-Gigs: Unravelling an Enigma (p87-8)

Sheela na gigs and the Church
In Ireland most Sheelas remained undetected by the Ordnance Survey teams, which would indicate that the country people preferred to keep them secret. [...] A more determined effort was required from the people of Dunmanway in Co. Cork. Windele observes that when the Sheela there was 'brought out occasionally for charms: the priest twice attacked it, but the people concealed it'. Finally, the fact that many Sheelas were buried in graveyards or concealed in walls or gate pillars stresses the esteem in which the people held them and how unwilling they were to obey the Church's order to destroy the figures. That these orders came from the higher echelons of the Church's hierarchy is documented by Patrick Corish, a retired professor of History from Maynooth College. 'In 1631 provincial statutes for Tuam order parish priests to hide away, and to note where they are hidden away, what are described in the veiled obscurity of Latin as imagines obesae et aspectui ingratae - in the vernacular, sheelanagigs.' As pointed out by Corish, Sheela-na-gigs were not the only reason for Episcopal concern. Pilgrimages to holy wells and trees, traditional wakes and funerals and other time-honoured practices redolent of 'the old religion' were further occurrences the bishops wished to eradicate.
Barbara Freitag Sheela-na-Gigs: Unravelling an Enigma (p68-9)

The med-wyf (wisewoman)
Nevertheless, for many centuries the rural areas remained largely free of the officious, interfering, commercial doctors with their leeches and lancets, which usually did more harm than good. Defying the disapproval of parish priests, people continued to take their illnesses and injuries to the village wisewomen, many of whom possessed time-tested knowledge of soothing herbs, anti-inflammatory and antipyretic drugs, practical dentistry and surgery, bonesetting, purging, hypnosis, massage, and other techniques for easing human pains, handed down from prehistoric times by the sacred sisterhoods of the med-wyf (wisewoman).
Barbara Walker The Crone (p128)

Monday, October 29, 2007

Art and Identity

Talk given at Dublin City University's Centre for Consumption Studies Workshops - 'Finding an Irish Voice: Reflections upon Celtic Consumer Society and Social Change' on 17 October 2007

It is very difficult, if not impossible, to analyse one’s own work. Yet, at the very least it can help one define what one is doing or trying to do and thus help in the creative process itself. In my case the art takes the form of oil painting on stretched canvas. It is a strange way to spend the day – the work is physical yet determined by an intellectual and emotional driving force.
Painting is like cooking in that one spends a long time preparing something which is then consumed in a short period of time. A meal is planned, prepared and cooked over a period of time and then eaten in minutes. A painting is planned, drawn, and then painted over a long period of time and then in an exhibition is observed for some minutes until the spectator moves on to the next painting. So is it true to say that art is consumed in a matter of minutes? The effects of food on our body lasts many hours after consumption, the affect of art on our conscience and sub-conscience can also be long lasting. Images can burn themselves on our minds in ways that we can never forget.

My interests and therefore my subject matter have for the main been centred on Ireland and Irish history and politics. In Ireland group identity has been focused on individuals with Nationalist or Republican ideals for social and political change in Ireland. As an artist I have always been interested in how art can contribute to change. Our past history of colonialism has given us the ability to identify with the poor and oppressed around the world. But how does art work help in this process? Can the art of the local have a universal appeal? If so, why? Do the pictures I make consciously or unconsciously represent Ireland and the Irish people? If I analyse the form and content of my paintings can I see the Ireland of today? Or do they just represent what I perceive only? Am I creating art or documenting what is going on around me, or both? Is this basically what artists have done over the centuries anyway?

It is easy to identify with visual images. We recognise portraits of the 1916 leaders and identify with our radical past, the people who made our country what it is today. I started becoming interested in political art after a couple of years studying for a BA in Fine Art in the National College of Art and Design in Dublin. In identity terms I identified with people who were trying to change the social and political regime in Ireland. Initially, I made art about unemployment, repressive legislation, neo-colonialism etc. However it is a very negative life when you are always against something. I decided to deal with the social and political by offering positive images of what could be done by portraying people 'producing' rather than 'consuming' [e.g. playing music, doing traditional dance, demonstrating etc] empathizing with the positive aspect of Irish identity, strengthening it by re-affirming it through art. After a hiatus of some years reading for a MA and a PhD, I returned to art and worked on historical images of Irish life and radical political leaders going back 400 years. But I felt that this was becoming very limited as I was using secondary sources, that is, images from historical and travel books. I wanted to work in such a way that I could use primary sources, to take control of the source of the images. At the same time it struck me that politics was all around me and I just had to go and find it.

I went into Dublin city with my camera and looked around. I noticed contrasts between the historical statues and their surroundings. I noticed Brinks vans coming out of shopping streets as shoppers went in. I saw the new Asian, African, and Russian shops on Moore Street which had been the domain of Irish working class street sellers. I took many photos and worked on a new series of paintings which I called 'Dublin: A City of Contrasts'.

The aim of this series is threefold:
1 To depict Dublin as it is in this moment in time, recording current states, trends and aspects that we take for granted but can change tomorrow.
2 To examine particular contrasts that have emerged due to current levels of wealth and immigration.
3 To represent aspects that symbolize positive developments for the future of Dublin and all of its inhabitants.

I noticed that the statues of historical figures such as Jim Larkin, Daniel O’Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell, and James Connolly look down on a new city that sits uncomfortably with their varieties of nationalism and socialism. These symbols of the past, standing in silent judgment of the follies of the present, act as control rods in the current economic fission reminding its old and new, wealthy and poor citizens alike of past struggles and hardships. I realized I could combine these historical symbols with modern symbols to create interesting contrasts. Soon after, I looked for any other symbolic contrasts that I could find while walking around the city. I also sought out events or aspects that could be symbolic of a future, more people and eco friendly Dublin.

These paintings in the Dublin cityscapes series have formal qualities. They are figurative. In terms of tone, there is high contrast. In terms of colour, they are very bright, often primary colours in the main. In terms of composition they are snapshots of a particular moment and place in time. In a way they offer a window onto Dublin today. Every element of the composition contains parts of Irish identity today – old buildings [symbols of the historic city/nation], new expensive cars [symbolic of the economic system], people of different ethnic backgrounds [symbols of modern multicultural Ireland], buses and trains [symbols of our state transport system]. Stylistically the paintings are expressionist in movement and feeling yet impressionist in terms of the fall of light on people and objects. As they are based on snapshots they show the constant movement of the city.

The snapshot structure of the compositions is not a stable structure – people and cars move quickly in and out of the frame. The ephemeral is made permanent. The movement reflects a fast-paced, complex life. A Spanish friend looking at the paintings thought people seem to be running in Dublin compared to slower life in Spanish cities. In my case this is partly as a result of the changeover from camera film to digital photography. When you know you have only 24 or 36 shots in a roll of film you are careful about what you shoot. The scenes one photographs become carefully structured and thus one tends to project future paintings. With digital photography now I can take around 750 shots in the space of a few hours. I can take pictures without even bothering to look at what I am photographing. I can carry the camera very low and push the button with my thumb instead of my index finger. This allows for photographs with a totally different structure. If the camera is angled up from below then people loom large in the structure of the composition.
Photography allows for instantaneous coincidences of objects and people to be captured which may never happen again. Short term events can be seen from different angles. A quick glance at a nice car, a suddenly emptied table, a flash of sunlight, a particular car or person of ethnic background changing a traditional context, an organized event or demonstration or a temporary shadow on a street can all be captured consciously or, in blind-snapping mode, can be captured unconsciously with a digital camera when one doesn’t have to think twice about the limited shots left such as when one is using a roll of film. I also find that, every time I go into the city to take photographs, my ideas of what I am looking for in the photograph have changed. Initially I was looking for quite obvious contrasts and I find now this has evolved to more subtle differences in composition, content and colour.

In a way this represents the nature and complexity of society today. Historically compositions in art were highly organized, for example, showing the aristocratic paterfamilias surrounded by his land, family and dog. It was a stable life and everyone knew their place. Today’s society however can be represented in its rapidly ever-changing forms through photographic snapshots that capture its essence in one thousand of a second. However, it is important to stress that photography for the artist is a kind of note-taking, giving the artist a basic structure to work with in terms of colour, tone and shapes. After that, the artistic process takes over as one decides on the qualities of line, tone, colour and texture to use to make an interesting painting that will stand up in its own right as a painting because of its density or intensity of brushstrokes and colours, pencil lines or thick palette-knife painting or because of its conflicting or merging tones and colours. In that way the painting comes to exist at a far remove from a flat naturalistic photograph. Whether I change the structure and content of a snapshot image has become a bigger question for me now. In the past I have altered or added in elements if I felt it would clarify the meaning of the symbolism and content of the painting. I find myself less and less willing to intervene now. Maybe that is where the subtleties come in.

In a way though photos are like watching a film with the sound turned off. It can be very difficult to follow the narrative of a film purely by watching the movements of the actors in and out of different scenes. This is why titles on a painting can be like the sound being suddenly turned up. The titles given to paintings may appear to be superfluous to the visual, emotional aspect of art. Yet it is always interesting to look at the relationship between text and image. They operate like the Hegelian idea of thesis and antithesis producing a synthesis, a new meaning. It is an effect used very commonly in advertising to give a certain mood to a product rather than showing the product directly. Yet titles can have a profound affect on how we understand a particular painting. Titles can make the real seem abstract [in the sense of adding a mythological symbolism to a real scene] or they can make the abstract seem real [by explaining in words the relationship between two objects inhabiting the same frame]. They can add a new dimension to the meaning of a painting.

Titles may clarify art especially in this case where one could argue that there seems to be many contradictions: evening light nostalgia yet in cold colours, very bright light for an often cloudy city, a snapshot as a permanent painting, arbitrary framing yet chosen for its arbitrariness. All this shows the subjective nature of art, even with art that has pretensions to objectivity.
I felt that the bright light that I was using was a kind of Greek light, as I regularly go to Greece on holiday. I like the strong light of the Mediterranean. Yet it was pointed out to me that the light was very Irish. The sharp light and pale blue sky was more reminiscent of the Irish light than the warmer Greek light. Does this show that we cannot escape our identity? As a child of mixed identity myself, and Irish father and an Austro-Hungarian mother, I often wondered if this has this made me more interested than most in exploring Irishness than many Irish people [I am very interested in Irish music, dance and language].

Despite my family background I empathise more with Mediterranean culture than Germanic culture. Yet my Irish side seems to come out when I least expect it. Maybe there are aspects of my personality which are Germanic which have yet to be pointed out to me of which I am not aware. I was brought up as an Irish child [despite living in the USA till I was six] yet was not aware of difference until recently. I discovered that it was relatively unusual for a person of my generation to have been fed Austrian foods, such as salami, dumplings, Austrian cakes and biscuits; world cuisine dishes such as moussaka, curry, Chinese spare ribs, as well as the Irish meat and 2 veg. There was the cosmopolitan element too. My father worked for Aer Lingus which meant ease of travel as a child for visiting my relatives in America, Austria and England during a time when it was not taken for granted like it is today. I suppose that’s how we often discover difference - when it is pointed out to us.

So the cosmopolitan element – is that important? The awareness of the relationship between the local and the global comes from travel to different continents. To appreciate the local, what we have, after seeing what others have, or have not, as the case may be. To say this is what we have - some of which is very good, some of which is very bad. Some things which others will aspire to, others things they will hope to avoid. Is what I show in a painting a document of what is or just my interpretation of what is?

While I am taking photos am I documenting or interpreting? I feel that I am doing both at the same time. I am documenting in the sense that the image is a representation of a real event yet I am also interpreting in that what I choose to photograph [particular objects and places in time; particular conjunctions of objects] is highly selective. How do I separate out the two? Can I ever have control of the content? If a painting includes the latest Mercedes car as a symbol of Ireland’s burgeoning wealth, how do I know that a potential buyer is interested in buying the painting because it represents his/her world outlook? How does the viewer know if I, the artist, might have included it as a type of criticism? Maybe I am not being critical but delighted with this New Ireland. Does that mean that ultimately I can only reflect what is out there and with the passing of time the image can be seen in its true context? That is, viewed completely differently from a presumably much different Irish society of the future. More and more I feel that I can only represent what is out there.

Everything I represent is a symbol of the now which will resonate differently with different people. Yet maybe the fact of its representation makes its existence inescapable - which is itself a form of political statement. That expensive car did exist, and it could only exist because of a particular socio/political situation pertaining in that society at that particular time.
Yet a striving for authenticity is also an important goal. To represent moments in Irish time, in Irish life as they were in that split-second. While Joyce was writing Ulysses, he said to a friend, “I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the Earth, it could be reconstructed out of my book.” Joyce wanted Ulysses to serve as a kind of blueprint of life in Dublin in 1904. I like the idea of showing multifaceted aspects of Irish life today frozen in time for the future. To make art based on something I know and have easy access to. They are collectively a document and an interpretation at the same time. Not the usual nicely framed and structured buildings of art directed at tourists but a look at ourselves when we are least aware of it. Maybe for others that is a revelation. Seeing how the Irish live, the cosmopolitan nature of their society, the historic buildings, the new cars and cafes.

For the Irish, an examination of what is there now but may be gone tomorrow when the painting itself becomes a piece of history, like all art of the past showing us the way we were, for good and for bad. Authenticity was important to Vincent Van Gogh who once wrote in a letter to his brother regarding criticisms of his peasant paintings that ‘anyone who prefers to have his peasants looking namby-pamby had best suit himself. Personally I am convinced that in the long run one gets better results from painting them in all their coarseness than from introducing a conventional sweetness.’

Many artists objectify internal feelings [e.g. the Clown and Maggie Man (Gleas magaidh) paintings of J.B. Yeats as metaphors exploring feelings of isolation and alienation which in turn influenced Samuel Beckett]. One can also work the other way round, subjectifying external reality through one’s use of colour, tone, brushwork and impasto.

However, art is not about pre-existing styles that simply need to be applied to new situations. Paul Gauguin wrote to a friend: “A word of advice: don't paint too much direct from nature. Art is an abstraction, derive this abstraction from nature while dreaming before it, and think more of the creation that will result.” This is an important statement, I feel, as a work of art is above all still a work of art and not a slice of reality. All art is abstract and has its rules about what we feel works aesthetically or not. Pure naturalism may be impressive but may also be boring as a work of art. Understanding how paint works in terms of shape, colour, and tone is a long slow procedure that is an essential aspect of the developing creative process itself. The form and style arise out of an examination of content and are constantly changing over time, sometimes so imperceptibly that even the artist does not notice that all has changed.

In another interesting quote about the nature of art, Stephen Westfall has noted: “Painting and art have never had the same agenda. Art is a much newer argument than painting. Painting has been around for 25,000 years. Painting is commemorative. Art, on the other hand, is a kind of discourse that in a funny way seeks to do away with itself.” The truth of this statement can be seen in the change of attitude towards painting with the invention of photography. It was considered unnecessary for art to record anymore and therefore photography was elevated to an art at the expense of painting. The documentary aspect of art was over-emphasized to the detriment of the creative aspect of the craft of painting. This was a strange sleight of hand like saying that we didn’t need to learn how to write anymore as a typewriter could do it for us. It led the way for art that could be purely abstract and about form instead of content. Art was given an almost mystical status produced by the genius artistic mind and separated from any association with mere craft. Yet oddly enough, the separation of art from representing life and instead representing itself actually returned art back to a pure craft. Intricate modern formalist and abstract design is as highly skilled and time-consuming as any craft but like any pure craft does not make any social or political interventions into the nature of human society.

It is in these two senses - photography for documentation and abstraction in painting craft - that we can see how art seems to be ‘doing away with itself’. I believe that figurative art is very fundamentally social and political in what it chooses to represent and also in what it chooses to ignore. Artists can choose to intervene in the world around them as they have done many times in the past. Art can comment upon or simply bear witness to events and forces but it also has the power to touch the emotions and intellect at the same time and the directness and power of such work can be transformative.

Michael Cronin has stated elsewhere, ‘it is easy to become despondent in the context of the brutal authoritarianism of the market and the criminalization of dissent’, and that ‘solidarity still matters’. In that sense identity matters, who we identify with within our own group and who in turn identifies with us. If there is any such thing as a distinctly Irish voice let it be that Irish artists would be easily recognised by their readiness to debate with the world through their art. Moreover, by developing a global awareness of others we also constantly re-evaluate our view of ourselves.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

‘Dublin: A City of Contrasts’ (2007)New Series of Oil Paintings

The Dublin of today is a far cry from the Dublin of the 1980s when it was said to resemble London directly after the Second World War, so numerous were its run-down buildings and empty sites. In the last 10-15 years much of the city has been renovated or rebuilt. The success of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ has given the Irish people historically unprecedented wealth and attracted many immigrants from all over the world. This can all be seen in a brief walk around the city centre. The new (and expensive) cars glide past African and Polish shops while people from many different ethnic and cultural backgrounds mingle around the Spire and the GPO on O’Connell St.

The Dublin we see today is a snapshot in time, hiding its past while only leaking hints of where its future will lie. For example, the new O’Connell St with its squared-off designer trees and generous paving hides the felling only the year before of a row of 100-year-old trees that witnessed the 1916 Easter Rising. Looking to the future it seems likely that Liberty Hall, Dublin’s only modernist ‘skyscraper’ and prominent if unloved symbol of Dublin, will be demolished soon in favour of a more modern or even postmodern replacement.

The Dublin of today has many contrasts, symbolic of shambolic planning yet with many hopeful idealists struggling against the odds. Witness the Liffey Boardwalk in contrast with the traffic-jammed quays; the huge reduction of plastic signs (the scourge of the 1970s and 1980s) in contrast with the monotony of quick-rise apartment block and shopping centre developments.

Yet older areas of the city like Moore St and Parnell St, which were going into decline as the more affluent Irish moved to greener pastures, are seeing extraordinary multicultural changes as immigrants set up shops and restaurants with a never-before-seen range of food, goods and menus. Indeed the culinary tastes of the new visitors and inhabitants have created a demand for exotic vegetables, fruit and seafood never even contemplated by their Irish neighbours.

The relatively recent wealth of Dublin and many of its citizens (symbolized by the number of Brinks vans leaving the cosmopolitan Grafton St as shoppers enter it) may also be a snapshot in time as the uncertain economic future of rising interest rates, peak oil, and global warming threatens to bring the whole economic façade tumbling down like the crumbling slum dwellings of the 1960s.

The statues of historical figures such as Jim Larkin, Daniel O’Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell, and James Connolly look down on a new city that sits uncomfortably with their varieties of nationalism and socialism.

These symbols of the past, standing in silent judgment of the follies of the present, act as control rods in the current economic fission reminding its old and new, wealthy and poor citizens alike of past struggles and hardships.