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The Proximity of History


We work exceptionally hard in the arts. Whether working day in, day out in studios, travelling the length and breadth of the country, grant-chasing, freelancing or maintaining real jobs at the fringes of day jobs, we move mountains every day. While critical reflection is an inbuilt methodology of what we do, how often do we actually pause to reflect on our progress or marvel at our achievements? As the final Visual Artists’ News Sheet of the year, this issue is positioned to consider recent developments across our sector, while assessing some of the challenges that remain.

2016 has been a momentous year. What might the Reeling in the Years montage of 2016 look like? Which prevailing narratives will be retrieved from archives in years to come? In a year defined by global terror and the migrant crisis, Europe’s borders – once softened under free trade agreements – suddenly seemed to stand to attention. Amidst the uncertainties of Brexit, we watched imperial nationalism shrivel in front of our eyes, fold inwards and splinter. Meanwhile, at the periphery of Fortress Europe, Ireland marked the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising, a pivotal moment in the founding of a fully independent Irish Republic.

Despite reservations that remembering histories shared with Northern Ireland might prove contentious, or that audiences nationwide might become jaded by seemingly endless renditions of pageantry and memorials, the commemorations so far have largely been well received. As outlined by Helen Carey in her column, the visual arts have taken centre-stage in marking the ongoing decade of centenaries (2012 – 2022). With one eye on future archival trajectories, this issue considers a number of artists’ projects that mediated important ground on modern day notions of equality, resistance and citizenship.

The 1916 centenary saw additional funding being allocated towards a range of international projects, some of which are profiled in this issue by Andrew Duggan, James, L. Hayes and Caoimhghin Ó Fráithile. In addition, a number of major state-funded commissions, such as ‘In the Shadow of the State’ and ‘Stormy Petrel/ Guairdeal’, have comprised performance-driven or event-based spectacles, suitably emphasising physical and temporal experiences over permanent structures. Importantly, projects of this nature have served to reaffirm the vital role of narrative and ‘witness-writing’ in documenting and preserving these ephemeral live encounters.

A burgeoning awareness of the importance of archives has also emerged as a defining feature of these commemorative landscapes, heavily informed by oral histories, material objects and other primary sources. It therefore seems incongruous, in this year of national reflection, that ‘heritage’ should have to fight for representation in cabinet portfolios, that museums should be so chronically underfunded or that libraries around the country should be closing – a situation akin to the state eating itself, one word at a time.

A number of key developments this year have been punctuated and infused with an awareness of the past, as if some time-shrinking device had been unleashed, heightening our relationship with the historic and drawing it ever closer. Just as commemorations of the 1913 Dublin Lockout brought the disenfranchised workers of last century into conversations about modern labour practices, so the martyred rebels of the Rising seemed to cast a watchful eye over proceedings.

‘Beware of the Risen People’ – taken from Patrick Pearse’s poem The Rebel – offered a galvanising slogan for last year’s countrywide anti-water charge protests. ‘Was it for this?’ has also frequently been used, both as a rallying cry and a benchmark to assess contentious developments, from Olympic tickets and Apple taxes, to NAMA dealings and vulture funds, as though Yeats’s critique of the self-serving politics of 1913 could not be more relevant for modern Ireland.

The proximity of history was nowhere more poignantly felt than in national synchronised readings of the 1916 Proclamation – an iconic and visionary manifesto for sovereignty and equality. Addressing the suffrage and allegiance of “every Irish man and Irish woman”, it is easy to overlook how radical the Proclamation actually was. Against a backdrop of the Republic’s abysmal history regarding the treatment of women, a wave of women’s campaigns and feminist projects have galvanised this year, building on the momentum generated by 2015’s Waking the Feminists, as discussed by Aislinn O’Donnell in her column. Under the unifying theme ‘Rise and Repeal’, tens of thousands took part in the fifth annual march for choice in September, providing commentary on the “failure of the Republic to fulfil the promise of equality made in 1916”.

For the complacent, developments this year felt like a full-blown feminist ambush; however for those who have campaigned invisibly for decades, they felt like hard-won validations of their efforts. The contribution of artists’ activism in augmenting wider mainstream resistance by generating dialogue and visual awareness (from murals and posters, to banners and badges) is a subject that warrants further scrutiny.

This issue also features a column by Jo Mangan, chair of the National Campaign for the Arts (NCFA), which outlines the NCFA’s activities this year, as they continue their important lobbying work, articulating the vital role of the arts in contemporary Irish society. In response to Budget 2016, the NCFA stated that in a year when the arts sector was being congratulated for its pivotal contributions to the national commemorations programme, there was “insufficient conviction within government” to maintain levels of investment that would reflect Ireland’s “world-class creative sector” and value it as the country’s “most obvious natural resource”.

Joanne Laws is a writer and researcher based in Roscommon.

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