Kate Antosik-Parsons: I was hoping we might be able to talk about IMMA’s mission to connect with audiences, and to provide a space in Ireland for contemporary life and contemporary art to come together. Could you tell me about that, and how it feeds into IMMA’s 30-year anniversary?
Annie Fletcher: For me it has been extremely interesting to come back to Ireland and take on the mission of being the director of this museum, understanding that actually, IMMA always did that. There was something urgent and resonant about the radical mission of IMMA from its inception in 1991, in relation to placing artists at the centre of the museum. Right from its beginnings, IMMA did this in relation to the artists’ work programme and how it privileged engagement and learning as equally valid and well-budgeted as any exhibition programme. All of that led me to have a sense that IMMA was truly one of those very contemporary sorts of museums, one that understood that it should be not only civic, but also a catalyst for thought. There was fantastic progression in the 1990s around art being this space to reflect, what it means, and how to connect both globally and locally. IMMA has always pioneered that sense of resonance and presence. That is unusual for a museum, because museums collect, of course, and privilege the archive. I think we are now understanding more and more, especially when archives are cut off from us, just how urgent and deeply political that notion of enunciating our own history is. I suppose all those things lead me to think that museums are full of potential to be connected to everyday life.
KAP: In this moment that we’re living in, amidst the pandemic, being able to connect, and sometimes maybe not connect, is so present right now in our everyday lives. This strikes me as important from an institutional perspective, in being able to connect with audiences. How can we reimagine those kinds of spaces where people are having these conversations around art?
AF: We’ve understood the importance of culture and the intimacy of culture, as an imaginative space, as a space of communication, and as an imagined force of society to think ourselves differently, or even just to cohere or give ourselves some respite. It has been a real learning about what culture is and does for us in these spaces. I was never in doubt about that potential, but it was really profound to understand that massive pivot we were all doing with the pandemic. At IMMA, it was even more exacerbated because we were suddenly repurposed to be this temporary mortuary. On many levels as a nation that was a profoundly shocking moment, and a very serious and a very civic one. Suddenly we were being prompted to think how best to lead, culturally. What does it mean in this moment to deeply and structurally enact the politics of the civic? We made several real shifts, including to share the grounds, to collaborate with the Abbey, Poetry Ireland and others, including The People’s Pavilion (June-Sept 2020) and IMMA Outdoors (Spring-Autumn 2021). There was something important about the idea that the grounds were for everybody, and that people felt safe outside. I reallocated budgets, putting about a third of our exhibition budgets into outside programming on every level and created different cross-functional teams across all departments. It allowed us to do a deep dive into what it all means and how we can best serve the public.
KAP: When it came to planning the 30-year anniversary exhibition programme, how did that unfold?
AF: When I came to IMMA, I had a strong sense that I wanted to recalibrate the importance of the collection. That is not to say it hasn’t always been treated rather wonderfully, but I thought it would be interesting for the 30-year anniversary to use every part of the exhibition space for the collection. At IMMA, we have very precise and innovative departments like Temporary Exhibitions, Collection, Engagement and Learning. I thought about bringing them together on this because there are so many wonderful colleagues within IMMA that have such a deep knowledge of the collection. There was an importance there, in terms of breaking silos down around certain expertise that allows particular programming to happen. I thought that it would be exciting to create these cross-functional teams that might consider the collection anew.
KAP: Where does the title of IMMA’s 30th anniversary exhibition, ‘The Narrow Gate of the Here- and-Now’, come from?
AF: It was me grappling with this idea of the 30-year anniversary, and what that means. I was trying to think about using the collection to talk through those 30 years – in particular this idea of resonance and currency with the public. It taps into this endless presentism of capitalism, neoliberalism, and the art worlds that can reside in this endless ‘newness’, which is very ahistorical. There is a certain fetishisation of that newness that I find quite problematic. One of the fundamental problems, of course, is the fact that we named this thing ‘contemporary’ art. There is a kind of a madness to the idea that this art is always expected to be resonant, but there is also the fear that it may become outdated or less relevant. In his accessible 2009 essay, ‘Comrades of Time’, Boris Groys was thinking about what it means that we have named everything in the last 30 years ‘contemporary’(e-flux.com). How can 30 years be endlessly contemporary, and what are the inadequacies of our language to think about that? I was reading that essay and talking to the curators about these ideas. I asked them if they could make an exhibition across their departments that would look at the last 30 years to tell a story of Ireland in that global contemporary, whatever that whirlwind of the ‘contemporary’ is. The aim was to slightly blow up that endless idea of living in the present, and to say that the ‘here-and-now’ is actually a very narrow gate, straddled by expansive pasts and futures.
KAP: ‘The Narrow Gate of Here-and-Now’ is divided into four chapters: Queer Embodiment; The Anthropocene; Social Fabric; and Protest and Conflict. How did this episodic format come about?
AF: As with most of my work, I ask questions and try to begin a discussion. I knew I wanted to work with the collection for the 30-year anniversary and wondered if people had thematic suggestions around how to do that. I had given them the title of ‘The Narrow Gate of the Here-and-Now’ and I wanted them to think about this idea. Our colleague, Karen Sweeney, came up with a beautiful parsing of subject matters. She created an interesting narrative that created a kind of elasticity of thought or framework for us to think our way through the last 30 years; that was our starting point. Then these cross-functional teams tried to look at the collection and think how to make different displays. It was about trying to get the curators – Johanne Mullan, Seán Kissane, Claire Walsh and Georgie Thompson, who I think did a brilliant job – to dare to narrate and make stories happen. That is not to say that these are the ‘official stories’, and I would hope that is clear, that we can engage, we can suggest, we can create ‘what-if’ scenarios, which is what artists do too. It is trying to imagine another possibility, and these are ‘chapters’ or narration of the last 30 years that try to reflect on what we have all been through. I hope that this gives the public a sense of the potential of the collection.
KAP: Last year IMMA received €600,000 to acquire works by artists living in Ireland. This included performance works like Alastair MacLennan’s Bled Edge (1988) and Amanda Coogan’s Yellow (2008). I was just so intrigued by this idea of collecting performance art – what can you tell me about this?
AF: I think it is sometimes best to ask the simplest questions, like what is important to the national collection? And what is the essence of the artwork? Sometimes within performance, a destruction of the work itself is implicit in its own method of making, but does its erasure mean that it’s not an important part of the national archive? We have seen this happen with feminist work of the 1980s and 1990s, and indeed within many marginalised communities, there is a struggle to piece together archives of neglected works. Certainly, that is the job of the national museum. We can get into dialogue with the explosion of the market and the idea that objects are extremely expensive or fetishised in some way – all of which is fine. But materiality is not the only criteria, surely, if we are truly understanding how artists have worked. It is part of the bigger dialogue that other institutions and networks like the Van Abbemuseum, L’Internationale, the Tate and others are also engaged with. For me, those are very exciting conversations, like how do we think about Intellectual Property? How do we understand collecting Jesse Jones and Sarah Browne’s The Touching Contract (2016), a collaborative performance that the artists have never seen themselves? It means thinking quite carefully about how it is collected. While there are a lot of things that many people can collect, perhaps it is up to a national institution like IMMA to deeply invest in these very important and complex works. That seems like a good use of our time and resources.
Annie Fletcher is Director of the Irish Museum of Modern Art.
Dr Kate Antosik-Parsons is a contemporary art historian and a Research Fellow in Social Studies at Trinity College Dublin who writes about embodiment, gender and sexuality.