LILY CAHILL, WINNER OF THE VAI/DCC ART WRITING AWARD 2019, REVIEWS MICHELLE DOYLE’S SOLO EXHIBITION, ‘OBEDIENT CITY’, AT A4 SOUNDS GALLERY, DUBLIN.
I recently hosted a visiting American friend. Spending the majority of their stay in suburban south Dublin prompted the query as to why the fashion is for graveled driveways as opposed to grass. This was one of the only notable differences between the modern metropoles of Dublin and Boston, apparently. Having never paid any particular attention to such ubiquitous assemblies in the past, I couldn’t speculate as to my fellow citizens’ preference for large gatherings of pounded stones surrounding one’s abode. The zealous tourist prompted pause for thought: What can stone stand for?
Grass can grow anywhere, and concrete is a mutt. Gravel, however, consists of stones that are mechanically, uniformly, crushed and filtered. The multitudes of our suburban stones were standing for our citizenly civility: “The Obedience of the Citizens Produces a Happy City”.1 No undergrowth here.
Michelle Doyle’s ‘Obedient City’ at A4 Sounds Gallery (13 – 23 September 2018) announced itself, per its press release, as “a visitor centre of the minerals, obstructions and energy of public works”, showing “how the true essence of Dublin … can be packaged” via the supposed ‘museumification’ of OPW sites and the general privatisation of Dublin city’s infrastructure.2 With over half of Dublin’s rental units reportedly short-term occupied by site-seeing tourists during a national housing crisis, this is hard, core, matter Doyle’s digging up.
From a DIY punk background, Doyle has predominantly, and often collaboratively, worked via less materially driven formats – such as pirate radio, social media and through the distribution of zine publications, badges and online sound and video works. Having completed a three-month residency at A4 Sounds in Dublin’s north inner city, the artist has taken a departure with the culminating solo exhibition. She presents mainly sculptural works and one large video projection, with the exhibition scheduled to coincide with Culture Night 2018 – an event (amusingly described by Doyle during her artist’s talk as “a purge”) of note to an artist invested in the facilitation and distribution of heritage – heritage being the variable packaging or parentage of culture(s). Or vice versa, depending on the target audience.
In the exhibition, Doyle mimics ‘visitor experience’ methods and tropes utilised by heritage sites and museums with theatrical flourish. There’s a neon lit Vitrine and even a Gift Shop – which fittingly sells things that don’t appear to have much to do with the show. Works such as Death Masks, The Monument (towering, comical, columned), and various objects inside Vitrine (plaster casts of indents in the city’s streets, like Telecom Éireann logos and other reminders of bygone publicly owned resources) are made of materials ranging marble, plaster, clay, sand, stone and granite. The three Death Masks are splayed on the wall, their foreboding faces anguished, drooped, stretched, sagged and delicate in their distortion. The video, Distance From Stone, features the ever-popular dulcet tones of a ‘deep-voiced wise man’ guiding our visual journey, comprising Dublinia scenes to our freshly churning incinerator (described by Doyle as the “best monument of all time”) and later populated by the wobbling visage of another exhibited mask, superimposed and floating mythically, though troublingly, and pointedly, somewhat meaninglessly, over an internet-sourced mystical sky.
The stars of the show – two glamorous, glittering, Pebbledash Masks – hit the high note from their wall mounts, though one had no mouth, thusly rendered unable to proclaim or protest. This particular po-faced player, silently fretting its hour on stage, prompted the exhumation of that most famous corpse – one so concerned with heritage and distinction, the specificities of location, that it killed him. Indeed, Macbeth’s moving forest would not shock today in this global village: “We just can’t see the wood for the trees because, in actuality, Birnam Wood has moved – Welcome to Dunsinane! With a new accessible location, better facilities, a bigger car park and easier access to freshly built Neolithic houses!” 3
With an ‘outsider’ element always present, this ‘trickster’ persona is a vital part of Doyle’s work. The artist effectively sprinkled ‘Obedient City’ with stardust, knowing that a glint in one’s eye can be the best magnifying glass. Nearly a century ago, a roving pack of women – “a kind of 1930s Pussy Riot” – rallied to the “new cause” of protecting rural England from the “tentacles of development”.4 Whilst raising money for the National Trust, ‘Ferguson’s Gang’ employed props, masks and aliases (such as ‘Bill Stickers’ or ‘Granny the Throttler’) and then proceeded to stage-dive official ceremonies, bestowing their endowments. Like those before her, Doyle knows that, for better or worse, the medium is the message. She spoke of an “Obedience, not only to the city, but to history itself”. What, or who, lies under graveled foot as we, with our civic civility, represent and animate a repackaged past at surface level? Shakespearian fool? Doyle delights in the role of tragic town crier in an era’s national farce.
Lily Cahill is a writer and co-editor of Critical Bastards Magazine based in Dublin. She is a graduate of IADT and NCAD and is currently studying radio production.
The DCC/VAI Art Writing Award was devised to encourage and support emerging and experimental art writing in Ireland. The previous winners are: James Merrigan ‘The New Collectivism’ (2011); Joanne Laws ‘Commemoration – A Forward-Looking Act’ (2013); Rebecca O’Dwyer ‘Attentive Festivalisation’ (2015); Sue Rainsford ‘Serpents and Clay’ (2017).
1 According to the exhibition press release, this is the motto of Dublin City appearing on its Coat of Arms.
2 ‘Museumification’ can be defined as “transition from a living city to that of an idealised re-presentation of itself, wherein everything is considered not for its use, but for its value as a potential museum artifact”. See: Michael A. Di Giovine, The Heritage-scape: U.N.E.S.C.O., World Heritage, and Tourism, (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2009).
3 For more on new-build Neolithic houses, see Will Self’s Guardian article ‘Has English Heritage ruined Stonehenge?’, 21 June 2014, in which he states: “each era cannot help but seek out a past that it finds inspiring – or at least congenial.” theguardian.com.
4 Charlotte Higgins, ‘The battle for the future of Stonehenge’, 8 February 2019, theguardian.com.
Michelle Doyle, Distance from Stone, 2018, HD Video, 10 minutes; film still courtesy the artist.