Irish Museum of Modern Art
24 March – 3 September 2023
I know Sarah Pierce. I know her as a friend, artist, performer, collaborator, participant, teacher, curator, writer, and dinner guest. But I also know her as ‘The Metropolitan Complex’. This pseudonym, or proxy organisation, is how she grew into the artist Sarah Pierce, after initially working here in art jobs and being the fated last curator at Arthouse in Temple Bar. For me, this backstory serves as part-origin myth for the 12 installations that form ‘Scene of the Myth’, which wrestles with ideas of the artist and artmaking in the museum setting across a dozen expansive trajectories. There is a lot going on.
At the pre-opening talk, the show was described as a retrospective, a project, a constellation of works, making the “community of the exhibition”. There is no muddle here, and while the show is a broad survey, it is not a linear unfolding of objects but a tangle of thoughts and processes. The free exhibition guide mirrors this multiplicity. It is titled Zine but is referred to as a fanzine – a cheeky misnomer, of course, as it is far from being a non-official, non-professional publication made by enthusiasts. The stan here is the museum, collating an incredible resource. Each artwork is briefly described, given full people/crew credits, provenance/exhibit history. Works are illustrated with previous installation shots from elsewhere and accompanied by reviews, catalogue essays, or texts written by Sarah. This generous and meaty support is invaluable. It is also very easy to dip in and out of, while saving longer reads for home. Instead of a lofty museum tome with gilded affirmative essays, this free guide gives access, not kudos, to the exhibition. The collected texts also show Sarah’s participation in international discourse, which is worth seeing in an abridged form in this context.
Zine is also indicative of how Sarah grafts structures and histories into her process while gently undermining hierarchies of thinking and making. She never gets stuck in the act of appropriation, institutional critique, or other fleeting moments from the art world, like postmodernism or relational aesthetics. However, these, and many other art histories and tendencies, contribute to a practice that defies art and loves art in equal measure.
If the show is to be considered a retrospective, it is useful to look at what is in, but also what is out – what did not make the cut. There is a lot to choose from, over 20 years, and it is great to see works that have not been shown in Ireland before. I was involved with various projects during Sarah’s first few years in Ireland, including some early issues of The Metropolitan Complex Papers. These publications, most of which are now available on the artist’s website, were large, A3, printed transcriptions of conversations. Small groups were brought together to discuss various topics, often in private spaces. The Papers were the backbone of Sarah’s emerging practice, offering her a discursive space to get to know the art scene in Ireland and then to branch off into other places, topics, and contexts. There were 27 issues printed over two decades.
The Papers are absent from the exhibition, but in different ways they’ve become video works, live performances, and other kinds of interactions with people, archives and histories that are on show. There is wonderful progression that develops more inventive, physical ways to have discussions about art. Apart from one very poignant piece – in which Sarah worked with her parents – students and young people feature strongly as performer-participants. If artists reflect their life experiences in their work, then Sarah’s work in education has contributed to this pedagogical impulse in her art. It’s not so much revenge of the intellect on art, but an unscripted and sustained reflection, working with others to negotiate complex ideas.
There is an openness and fluidity that also denies image commodity culture – that retinal experience we expect from art. The materiality or manifestation of the works is never overly designed; it always seems rented, borrowed, on loan, roughly hewn or partially assembled. In an era of expensive, immersive experiences, ideas instead are privileged over aesthetic spectacle, fancy furniture, or bespoke window dressings.
This is of course a nod to the historical root of many conceptual histories that Sarah uses. The grubby chairs and tables, leaning screens, scattered props, all strive for authenticity of discussion that believes in art but not art objects or objecthood. I have been teased by her for years about actually bothering to make things. There are a lot of male artists she teases by re-investigating or revising their works through partially and incompletely re-enacting. This is a deliberate feminist critique of late modernism, undermining the patriarchal canon, re-making it in fabric, softening concrete and steel into floating, discursive spaces.
There is also the artist’s long-term engagement with the archive. Working through archives, not with archives, is a different kind of research that sidesteps the institutional. The semi-professional archivist in me was always tickled by the rule-breaking archives she created. But it was never about collecting, boxing, and shelving; it has also been about revealing social infrastructures. Archives are where primary research material is found, its pure source, organised but mostly unfiltered. To paraphrase from Zine, this offers an occasion where knowledges, both inherited and invented, come into play, especially for this prolific pedagogue and artist.
Alan Phelan is an artist based in Dublin.