PRINT May 1993

Kindness and Wit

IT WOULD MAKE SENSE that John Kindness has been working on a statue of Molly Malone, who, according to popular song, once sold cockles and mussels alive alive-o in the Dublin streets. Malone is something between a historical figure and fiction. The facts about her are few, and of little significance in themselves, for she is central to the construction of a certain Dublin character type—a working-class heroine who survives poverty to become her community’s pillar of strength. Though the real Molly may, in fact, have traded more potent goods than the shellfish recorded in the song, she has been made into a mother figure. A statue of her in Dublin’s city center plays to this sentimentality, cloning a standard Hollywood version of pre-Modern women’s dress: wide skirts, and a plunging neckline revealing breasts that defy resemblance to natural shape or size.

Molly Malone is a likely subject of Kindness’ interest in the character types that recur in popular culture. One of a growing number of Irish artists exploring the social and political conditions in which they live, he worked for several years as a graphic designer, and has retained his interest in a broad-based audience. When Kindness became an artist, in the early ’80s, he was living in Belfast, and it was Belfast in particular and the North of Ireland in general that initially inspired his production. The conflict in the North had by that time created a concern among Northern artists over how their community was represented, both locally and internationally. The revival of interest in figuration gave many of these artists the confidence to deal with colloquial images as subjects both novel in art and familiar on both sides of the cultural gap between Catholics and Protestants, republicans and loyalists.

These artists, then, took on the task of representing the place and the people—to all intents and purposes for the first time. The Protestant as well as the Catholic population had been underrepresented in the public sphere, for while Protestants’ allegiance to Britain is not in doubt, British allegiance to them is less convincing. And Northern Protestant identity is more fragile than it seems—indeed, the shows of strength by extreme political and paramilitary groups help compensate for a lack of articulate political objectives. For its part, the Catholic population has a well-founded distrust of Protestant domination and a determination to maintain its distinctness. Unresponsive to modern sociopolitical issues, the North remains locked in a 17th-century conflict over a territorial claim by Protestants in the name of the British Crown.

It is crucial to both sides to prove their historical legitimacy. Thus history in Ulster assumes the status of myth: Protestants invest quasi-divine significance in the moment at which Britain took over the land, and Catholics invoke descendancy from a vague, mystical Celtic past. These origin myths’ domination of the two cultures and their politics fascinates Northern artists like Kindness. On the whole, their work tactfully refrains from advancing an identifiable political position, yet it does explore the conflicts between imagined histories and projected identities, conflicts with real consequences in regional politics.

In a group of drawings from 1985–86, Kindness uses the symbols and poses respectively adopted by Protestants and Catholics to depict a struggle between monkeys and dogs. The use of allegory to speak of allegory is a recognized device in Protestant, Biblical rhetoric, but Kindness leaves unclear who is criticizing whom, and for what reason. Similarly, his Newsprint Project of 1988 includes an image of the Reverend Ian Paisley, a Protestant leader who represents an extreme position on maintaining the Protestant hegemony. Besides Catholic crucifixes and a pastor’s collar, Kindness gives Paisley an African-style headdress, earrings, beads, and face paint. The Ulster crisis is normally considered far too sensitive for this sort of barb, but the image also implicates those whose derogatory use of the term “tribal”—whether for African populations or, in a locution that has become common, for groups in the North—reveals their sense of their own superiority.

Kindness has become less ready to comment on popular figures like Paisley and more concerned to explore his own identifications with images from popular culture. He has also diversified his sources. In 1989-90, during a year in New York, he produced a group of works focused on that American icon the New York taxicab, onto fragments of which he etched classical-Greek motifs. His sources were entirely modern—commercial designs in local Greek restaurants—but the combination of images supposedly derived from the cradle of European culture with an artifact of modern America was richly associative.

Kindness has also begun applying mosaic and fresco techniques to the creation of “big ornaments.” It is an Irish and British working-class tradition to collect a genre of cheap figurative ceramics as mementos of holidays, births, weddings, and national events, and also as decorations for their own sake. Kindness has an impressive collection of animal ornaments, which he carefully splinters into mosaic-size tesserae with which he then re-creates the animal in larger scale. Evoking working-class tradition, the resulting works merge low and high culture, and suggest a certain attachment to older family and craft values.

Even before he moved to Dublin three years ago, Kindness had extended his concerns from the strife in Ulster to broader questions of Irish identity. For the “Art on the DART” project in 1988, in which artists made temporary works for the Dublin Area Rapid Transport system, Kindness created a train-carriage advertising panel based on the label of a British brand of sauces and ketchups widely sold in Ireland. The original label features a picture of London’s Houses of Parliament, for which Kindness substituted an image of the Dail Eireann, the Irish parliament in Dublin. This was delicate ground, given the sensitive question of Ireland’s level of independence from Britain—especially since Kindness is, to use an Irish term, a “blow-in” from other parts.

More typical of Kindness’ recent work is a 1991 installation in Kilmainham Gaol, where many Irishmen, now national heroes, were imprisoned by the British during the country’s fight for independence. In one of the cells, Kindness set a version of an Irish national symbol, the harp. Though studded with teenage mutant ninja turtles, the work was too well endowed with the beauty of its making to cause offense. More than to challenge or subvert, Kindness seems to want to convey pleasure and tease out idiosyncrasies. From evoking the chaos of the conflict in Belfast, he has turned to suggesting the continuity between tradition and modernity, though his keen humor can still turn suddenly into satire.

Joan Fowler