Critique | Alice Maher and Rachel Fallon, ‘The Map’

Rua Red, Gallery One, 18 October 2021 – 29 January 2022

Alice Maher and Rachel Fallon, The Map, 2021, [Detail] installation view, Rua Red Gallery; photograph by Ros Kavanagh, courtesy the artists and Rua Red. Alice Maher and Rachel Fallon, The Map, 2021, [Detail] installation view, Rua Red Gallery; photograph by Ros Kavanagh, courtesy the artists and Rua Red.

The Map is a collaborative work by Alice Maher and Rachel Fallon, commissioned by Rua Red and curated by its director, Maolíosa Boyle. It is one of five artist commissions to “produce new work in response to Mary Magdalene” and “her association with the incarceration and institutionalisation of women”. Fallon and Maher created The Map, a sublime monumental textile work that is sewn, embroidered, appliqued, inscribed, felted, crocheted, printed, and painted. The piece measures a staggering six and a half by four and a half metres. The Map imagines Ireland as its own world in the universe, filled with an annotated topography that challenges the official narrative of the detention of Irish women since the formation of the state in 1922. Contemporary views that cite the ‘nuances’ of history, ‘improvements in society’, or aspects of ‘great change’, are hollowed out by the spectacle of the artists’ penetrating visual narrative and captioned by a literary nomenclature of Irish social geography. The Map captures a schism in Irish society equivalent to a nationalised gaslighting, primarily but not exclusively directed at women. 

The design of The Map follows cartographic convention where the ‘world’ is flattened into an upside-down fan-shape, suspended in a midnight blue cosmos and illuminated by star constellations with their female allegories. Land masses and archipelagos are spread over a crystal sea of painted silk. To the north a woman, perhaps Brigid, with her back turned, sheds the map from her shoulders. Her auburn hair rises supernaturally and uncoils itself east and westward. At the most southern point a post-partum viscera in crimson yarn trails onto the floor. This astonishing vista draws in the viewer to investigate the artist’s encyclopaedic odyssey of horror, journeyed by Irish Magdalenes in the twentieth century. 

The compelling graphic oeuvre of both artists is recognisable through the map’s iconography and is enriched by its execution via meticulous and vivid needlework. Land masses and islands are dotted with ruins, villages, housing estates, fields, rivers, walls, monuments, and towers. In the mackerel painted sea, sharp-toothed monsters of Poverty, Prejudice and Injustice prowl and leap through the water. On land, from place to place, a woman cries a river of tears, is incarcerated in a tower, is being operated on by a Bishop, pulls a wheely case, operates a mangle, scrubs a chequered floor, or meets her lover on a cliff top. Every scene and location is named and proclaimed on tiny embroidered ribbon scrolls or inscribed on blanket-stitched labels. The artists have catalogued the vast lexicon of ‘untouchability’ that underpinned Irish people’s unquestioning acceptance of the detention of women in state and religious run institutions.

The central archipelago of islands that include Myopia, Gordonia, Hysteria, Melancholia, and The Isle of Shits amongst others are a reminder of Catholicism’s ideology of the co-morbidity of weak morals, feebleness and being a woman. To the west, Oileán Olc or Slag Island, is sewn in soft pink/cream textiles and contains a pleasant looking town map. The jauntily embroidered street names tell a different story – Jezebel Heights, Slut Walk, Skalds Terrace, Scapegoat Estate, Fleurs du Mal, Poll na Strumpa and Slag Heap. Below a rural landscape is filled with the ‘occasions of sin’ located in a Ballroom of Romance or beaches such as the Country Girls Cove and Sinners Cove and, unexpectedly, the male domain of a field of Wild Oats. Further south a map of Irlanda Muta (Ireland muted/silenced) sees the nation trapped and gagged underneath a web of yarn, nailed tautly into the seabed on all sides. 

The Napery is home to the depraved practice of female detention in the Magdalene Laundries. Filled with grubby, soiled, and crumpled damask linens, it accommodates three cogwheels rotating on blackened tripod plinths. Scattered around the cogs the artists have stitched an untidy collage of patches that have no discernible purpose. Embroidered on each tripod plinth are inscriptions that are not immediately visible; you have to bend down to read the tiny writing: Ryan, Murphy and McAleese. It prompts a momentary wrench of grief.

A text written and narrated by Sinéad Gleeson, with music by Stephen Shannon, was commissioned in response to The Map. We are the Map plays in darkness in Gallery 2, just off the main exhibition. Gleeson’s text and narration parallels The Map’s navigation of history, ideology and myth in a semi-abstract stream of words and phrases using a rhythm that unfolds, climbs, unravels and splurges with raw and poetic viscerality. 

The Map is an epic work and monument to history and is not conducive to any kind of summary. No doubt it will find its way into a suitable National Collection for future generations.

Carissa Farrell is a writer and curator based in Dublin.