Some time ago, while having a conversation with a friend on Dublin’s O’Connell Street the topic turned to how our Georgian buildings were torn down in the 1960s, and how this was due, in part, to aspirations of modernism (now itself being demolished). My friend remarked that Ireland’s process of decolonisation literally involved us tearing down the architectural heritage that was left to us by the British. This was so obvious when he said it to me, and yet I had never thought of it this way. This realisation made me, if not accept, at least in some way empathise with the destruction of our Georgian heritage.
Two years on, walking down another O’Connell Street, this time in Limerick, I noticed a basement window alive with green leaves. Limerick is a crumbling city, still struggling to regain its integrity from the bailouts and bad Celtic tiger design; a resulting urban fabric struggling with the twin problems of the doughnut effect and rotten apartments blocks. Its Georgian core smells of damp. Rows and rows of houses are emptied, waiting for the money to come.
That’s not to say the city is without its charms. One of the ways Limerick fills its many empty buildings is with the arts. Two protected, but largely unused, buildings are currently being occupied for the 2016 edition of EVA International – Ireland’s Biennial of contemporary art in Limerick city. The Sailor’s Home on O’Curry Street and Cleeve’s Condensed Milk Factory on O’Callaghan Strand make up two of the six venues being used for the exhibitions.
Curated Koyo Kouoh’s, the Cameroonian-born exhibition maker’s edition of the biennial – in the centenary year – is titled Still (the) Barbarians. The exhibition looks at how colonialism’s legacy endures, through the human psyche, landscape, language, and imagination; while at the same time considering the mental, physical, and institutional decolonisation processes across the world. There are works from 57 artists dealing with migratory patterns, material processes, mapping territories, the loss of a voice, and political history. Architecture is cited by Kouoh as one of the enduring influences of occupation, originally used to impose power and awe and now, in Limerick at least, crumbling after years of poverty and Frank McCourt-esque rain.
In Ireland, Kouoh sees our denial of our colonial past as a symptom of our closeness to Britain, geographically and culturally. This denial is perhaps manifest in the many buildings forgotten about in Limerick. The Sailor’s Home on Limerick’s O’Curry Street was originally built, as the name suggests, as a home for sailors in the 1850s. Never apparently used for its original purpose, the building became a depot for the city militia and later used as a Garda barracks. It is now a protected structure, partly restored and its future remains uncertain.
The ambiguity of its past, and its current state situates artist Michael Joo’s installation – This Beautiful Striped Wreckage (which we interrogate) … (2016) – in a place between fact and fiction. The Korean/American artist thinks of the building as its own being in a state of becoming, or somewhere in between this and that. Like that becoming state of decolonisation and the trauma of that severing of the past. The building has suffered its own traumas, years of lying vacant have left it with scars: holes in the walls, missing floorboards replaced with sheets of plywood, and unnecessary breeze block walls mimicking the rooms that once were. Yet it still retains a quiet beauty in its decay, or perhaps even because of it.
The installation has three parts: salvaged materials from the harbour, rope with moss growing on it, rocks and chains which act as reminders of its intended use; salvaged architraves from the building are reinstated but at a remove, hanging from the ceiling and appear to be floating, in that in between state; and finally viewable from the first floor landing is a double screen projection of an emaciated Buddha statue filmed in the British Museum, once plundered from third-century Pakistan. With the projection Joo positions the Sailor’s Home as a site of transmission between Britain and Ireland, via Pakistan situating it in the broader global narrative.
Our statues and monuments act as reminders of our recent history, with the likes of Daniel O’Connell, Michael Collins, Padraic Pearse, giving us a nod from the past. Cleeve’s Condensed Milk Factory – a protected structure that once acted as a milk processing plant – is home to a work that looks at how these structures go largely unnoticed and shat on by pigeons. Tom Flanagan and Megs Morley’s A History of Stone, Origin and Myth (2016) attempts a history of stone and its journey from molecule to statue and the determining its latter form has on collective memory. While it is, as the narrator in the film suggests, a received tradition, in that we dismembered the stone embodiments of the British heroes left behind after the Rising and mirrored it by building monuments to Irish revolutionaries, this cemented their role in the building of the state.
The twenty minutes spans over many recognisable monuments and streets in Ireland. One shot of Nelson’s beheaded pillar in a corner of a library reminds us of the 50 year anniversary of the Rising in 1966, when Irish republicans blew up the statue celebrating Heratio Nelson’s victory in the Battle of Trafalgar. The site where it once stood is now occupied by the Spire – a 398ft high, stainless steel, pin-like monument – which resembles the imposing height of Nelson’s pillar. The spire however acts as a focal point for the whole city rather than just the street it sits on; constructed by a confident nation in Ireland’s boom times.
In Joo’s This Beautiful Striped Wreckage, colonialism’s legacy endures, instilling a state that is always informed by its past; while the physical manifestations of decolonisation processes are evident in Flanagan and Morley’s work. Kouoh writes in the final lines of her curatorial essay that she sees this exhibition as an opportunity to heal. In Ireland we’re at a point in our process of decolonisation that rather than tear down our walls, or let them crumble we reappropriate them, let their history remain intact while looking towards our future.
EVA International – Ireland’s Biennial
Still (the) Barbarians, curated by Koyo Kouoh
16 April – 17 July 2016
Still (the) Barbarians: A Symposium will take place in Limerick city on 12 and 13 July and will look at, among other things, architecture and memory.