Exhibition Profile | Consequences of Language

Rod Stoneman reflects on ‘Mountain Language’ at Galway Arts Centre.

Ailbhe Ní Bhriain, Inscriptions IV, 2020, photographs and sculptural works, installation view; photograph by Tom Flanagan, courtesy the artist and Galway Arts Centre. Ailbhe Ní Bhriain, Inscriptions IV, 2020, photographs and sculptural works, installation view; photograph by Tom Flanagan, courtesy the artist and Galway Arts Centre.

Dèyè mòn gen mòn / Beyond the mountains, there are more mountains…

– Haitian Creole proverb

The group exhibition, ‘Mountain Language’ at Galway Arts Centre (4 February –  16 April), takes its title from a short play that Harold Pinter wrote in 1988 after a trip to Turkey with Arthur Miller. Its starting point, the unrelenting oppression of the Kurdish minority by the Turkish state, a series of heart-rending scenes follows a group of prisoners in an unnamed country and explores the control of language as a mechanism of domination.¹

Historically this focus on the consequence of language reminds us of the critical debates surrounding the ‘politics of representation’ in the 1960s and 70s, arguments and theories about the ways that systems of language and image hold us, place us, and partly generate our identities. The new director of GAC, Megs Morley, has made an exhibition that takes a journey through the gallery to understand how languages, visual and verbal, make meaning socially. ‘Mountain Language’ suggests versions of the relationship of a contested past to the possibilities of the present, and the construction of different futures. 

Sarah Pierce’s contribution is key to the exhibition as a whole; an assemblage around issues of history and power, built from the discarded materials of the refurbishment of GAC and the assembly of the exhibits. It continues the artist’s exploration of staged tableaux connecting to the work of Alice Milligan and Maud Gonne; the themes of Milligan’s writing in Glimpses of Erin (1888) reinvented in tableaux vivants (living pictures) – politicised hybrids of theatre and pictorial art, devised by the indomitable Milligan during the Irish Cultural Revival. 

At the exhibition opening, appropriately enough, Hildegarde Naughton (Fine Gael TD for Galway West) stepped lightly through the assemblage just before the staged performance took place of three women striking dramatic poses and making ambiguous gestures. Pierce’s work questions the delineations between order and disorder and re-imagines a role for the artist in history. As in the 2015 IMMA exhibition, ‘The Artist and the State’, she invokes El Lissitzky and a tradition of radical Modernism, conjoined with the debris of smashed frames of wood and paper. There is a project for the present, involving memory with body and gesture, and envisaging women’s articulate presence in the history of the future. Meanwhile, a crumpled and discarded Union Jack lies amongst the detritus. 

Ailbhe Ní Bhriain’s startling image of a face, Untitled (Adversary) (2020), is made up of overlaid AI generated portraits which echo the process of machine learning as it evolves new identities – an unnerving indication of digital means to reconfigure ourselves. Her work circles the question of  “slipperiness in representation and how we construct meaning – within this the ways in which, culturally, meaning is constructed for us”.² Her recent exhibitions use the title of the 1565 text, Inscriptions or Titles of the Immense Theatre – the earliest instruction manual for creating private collections and museums – setting out a basis to collect objects which reinforces Western Imperial assumptions, here disrupted by Ní Bhriain’s display of delicate and exquisitely placed objects, combining the natural, geological and archaeological. There is a visual rhyme with Alice Rekab’s votive objects, displayed as part of a complex installation, including a short film, showing the tactile surfaces of the earth and the extraction and exploitation of materials from it. 

Research and theory are not too far away; the books and pamphlets laid out on an adjacent table by the gallery window point openly to the constellation of thinking and discourse that surrounds the exhibition. They could remind one of the bibliography of theoretical texts that Pier Paolo Pasolini concealed in the closing credits of his notorious last film, Salò, or 120 Days of Sodom (1975). It is an indication of the connections of the individual artworks and the exhibition as a whole with other worlds of ideas and words – which can be called their ‘intertextuality’.

There is a significant presence of film in the exhibition. Perhaps this relates to Morley’s vibrant practice as a filmmaker, or a signalling of an important loosening of the demarcated roles of curator and artist in the institutions of the art industry. Duncan Campbell’s The Welfare of Tomás Ó Hallissy (2016) is a mockumentary which utilises re-enactment to offer a critique of the misrepresentation of the disappearing culture of the west of Ireland, described as “a world which is slowly dying”. A sequence with a basking shark invokes Robert Flaherty’s 1934 fictional documentary film, Man of Aran, and undermines the usual deployment of archive as an ‘avowal of truth’. As the film makes clear, “the way people present themselves is not reality”. 

Soot Breath / Corpus Infinitum (2020), by Denise Ferreira da Silva and Arjuna Neuman, is a film “dedicated to tenderness”. It undertakes an ambitious reproach to the ‘black soot’ of a culpable world, where a radical sensibility struggles to emerge from listening, thinking, touching skin and earth. The violence of an economic system building borders against migration, while creating irreversible ecological devastation through mining and extraction, is questioned by forms of connection, intimacy and empathy. Instead of dismay and depression, the film offers routes to new subjectivity. As Annie Fletcher suggested, when launching the exhibition, there may be a generational movement in which the role of the artist as critic, disruptor and attacker of actuality changes in an adoption of transdisciplinary practices, to go far beyond negation and resistance, replacing denunciation with a search for languages involving new forms of love, kinship, connection and tenderness.

‘Mountain Language’ is an ambitious exhibition that asks the spectator to compare and associate the connections and divergences of artistic modes of thought which, in different ways, contest dominant discourses. As the French novelist Michel Butor once described: “This is the system of significations in which we are held in everyday life and in which we are lost.” 

Rod Stoneman was a Deputy Commissioning Editor at Channel 4 in the 1980s, CEO of the Irish Film Board in the 1990s and an Emeritus Professor at NUIG after setting up the Huston School of Film & Digital Media. He has made several documentaries and written a number of books, including ‘Seeing is Believing: The Politics of the Visual’.


¹ In 1996, Mountain Language was to be performed by Kurdish actors of the Yeni Yasam company in Haringey in North London. The actors obtained plastic guns and military uniforms for the rehearsal, but a worried observer alerted the police, which led to an intervention with about 50 police officers and a helicopter. The Kurdish actors were detained and forbidden to speak in the Kurdish language. After a short time, the police realised they had been informed of a theatrical performance and allowed the play to go ahead.

² Mine Kaplangı, ‘Interview: Ailbhe Ní Bhriain’, Artfridge, 14 April 2020, artfridge.de