Critique | Grace Dyas, ‘A Mary Magdalene Experience’

Rua Red Gallery; 4 November 2022 – 3 February 2023

Grace Dyas, A Mary Magdalene Experience, 2022, film still; image courtesy of the artist and Rua Red. Grace Dyas, A Mary Magdalene Experience, 2022, film still; image courtesy of the artist and Rua Red.

A Mary Magdalene Experience is a sharp and witty film installation by artist and activist Grace Dyas. The work was commissioned as part of the Magdalene Series at Rua Red, curated by director Maolíosa Boyle, that to date has featured solo exhibitions by artists Amanda Coogan, Alice Maher and Rachel Fallon, and Jesse Jones. In this work, Dyas collaborated with a team of women artists and activists including Clare O’Connor, Susan Quirke, Ella Clarke, and Jaro Waldeck. Dyas’s provocative, community-engaged works do not shy away from challenging topics that affect working-class communities. Adopting a feminist liberation theology perspective, A Mary Magdalene Experience draws inspiration from the Gospel of Mary, a gnostic gospel that offers what some understand as evidence of Mary Magdalene’s participation in the intellectual and spiritual Christian tradition and signals her suppression by patriarchal Church authorities. Consequently, the dynamics of power and silencing resonate throughout the work.

Entering the installation, the solemnly lit Gospel of Mary is displayed on large sheets of paper. A small pink rock, like a talisman, is on a nearby wall shelf, while inside a pink cove, a large mysterious rock containing Mary Magdalene’s essence releases an inner glow. In the second gallery, the film, starring Jordanne Jones, James O’Driscoll and Louise Lewis, screens in front of installed seating. Set in a present-day but imaginary Tallaght, where neoliberalism reigns supreme, and taking place against the backdrop of the #MeToo international social movement in response to sexual abuse and harassment, the film considers the deliberately tarnished reputation of Mary Magdalene. Tina Malone (Jones) is a sex worker engaged by John Brophy (O’Driscoll), a community activist turned politician with a ‘Jesus complex’, for A Mary Magdalene Experience. Brophy wants a woman he can save, for his own sexual pleasures, of course. But rather than play the harlot, Tina sees Mary Magdalene as a woman wilfully misaligned. John’s mother Bernie Brophy (Lewis), who pregnant at 13 received a vision that her son would offer salvation, believes John is the working class hero the world needs. She refuses to let anything thwart this, even serious allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse of power.

Attempting to shift public opinion and resurrect his career, Brophy stages a durational tableaux vivant in Rua Red where he stands unmoving tied to a large wooden cross for three days. As a crowd gathers for Brophy’s public mea culpa, a woman stands at the foot of the cross wearing an ‘END MISOGYNY’ t-shirt. The crowd turns against him amidst cries of: “Get off the cross”, recalling the expression “get off the cross, we need the wood”, meaning no more tired spectacles of male martyrdom. But it is Tina’s captivating intervention, in a bid to vindicate Mary Magdalene, that ultimately steals the show. While Tina’s poses frequently cite art historical representations of Mary Magdalene by male artists, she becomes the creator of her own image when she bravely faces the crowd and says: “You can’t take away my demons, I am standing here with them”. The gallery’s cinema-style seating mimics a large jury box, to which viewers sit in judgement of insidious patriarchy and bear witness to the reclamation of Mary Magdalene.

The imagery of luminous Rose Quartz appearing around Tallaght becomes the literal touchstone in the film. When a woman jogger discusses with a local drug dealer its potential meanings, she cites the numerous abuses of the Catholic Church, to which he quips: “They are going to need a lot more rocks”. While Rose Quartz may represent compassion and healing, references to crack cocaine and crystal meth – drugs used as a form self-medication for some – are also evident. At night, the woman, transfixed by the rock, opens her pink bathrobe and gently presses her body against its surface. Later, in a ‘pietá moment’, Brophy’s sorrowing mother cries bitter tears in front of the quartz, while his body lies prostrate across it. Pondering the enigmatic essence of Mary Magdalene, the repeated return to the quartz as a site of contemplation, compassion and remembrance signals the multifaceted dimensions to Mary Magdalene, whom Dyas centres as a radical figure through which the potential for healing can occur. 

Dr Kate Antosik-Parsons is a contemporary art historian and interdisciplinary scholar who writes about performance, gender and the body.