PRINT May 1993

New History From Beyond The Pale

IRELAND AND ITS ARTISTS are in the process of assembling a new cultural matrix that is of particular significance at the end of the 20th century, when it is suddenly growing possible to pass through the network of classifications that normally locate and hold positions in cultural space. New navigations of identity are emerging internationally; perhaps unexpectedly, Ireland is in their forefront. The deep cultural and therefore political fault lines that invisibly underpin the Modernist imaginative space of the West are exposed at the surface in Ireland, which still inhabits that moment of shift from the pre-Modern to the Modern. We have sought to overcome this condition called “progress”; actually, it’s what we have to offer the world. The negotiation of identity is a familiar process in Ireland, for the articulation of modernity has never been resolved here. The territory has remained contested. The condition that made Ireland and especially Northern Ireland marginal in the recent past now makes them and others like them central.

IN 1986, as part of a ten-city project in Northern Ireland and Britain, a work by the American artist Barbara Kruger was installed as a billboard in the city of Derry—a Norman Rockwell–esque image with the slogan “We don’t need another hero.” Virtually as soon as the billboard was up, community reaction demonstrated that there had been a failure, not of the artist, but of the process of mediation: radio vox-pop interviews suggested that the image mostly didn’t register with the public, and when it did, it read as a subtle part of a regional AIDS-awareness campaign with which it coincided. It is both ethically and esthetically impossible to introduce artworks to this or any other public domain without inviting the artist to address the locality, and to research and take account of local conditions. Derry already had a complete understanding of public language, sign, and symbol; in this charged environment, image and text had long been combined on a popular level.

Take the phrase “God Made the Catholics and the Armalite Made Us Equal,” painted on Derry’s 17th-century city walls, which are crucial, triumphant symbols of the survival of Protestantism in Ireland. (The Armalite is a U.S.–made rifle used mostly by the IRA.) The slogan reconditions meaning as surely as Kruger’s billboards do: the historical “losers,” the Catholics, are retrieving ownership of the walls’ history, combining them with text to make a new image that reconstructs their meaning. Likewise, the person who painted an Armalite on a Belfast wall regularly used as cover for a British armored car knew the presence of that vehicle would transform the image into a functioning sign—would make it legible. We may or may not agree with the statement, but a fundamental cultural process is at work here (though it operates less dramatically in places where the ideological contest isn’t amplified by a physical one).

Such devices are commonplace in Northern Ireland, and are clear and readable to people who nevertheless are regularly considered incapable of dealing with contemporary art practice. Clearly, these devices simply do not register in the dominant classifications of value.

Also in Derry stand two gable walls painted with the markers not only of territorial boundaries but of states of mind: on the one hand, in a Protestant neighborhood, the language of “No Surrender,” articulating the implicitly colonialist ideals of possession and power maintained by human action, ideals that characterize the Protestant-loyalist foundation myth; on the other, in a Catholic area, that of “Free Derry,” typifying the aspirational vocabulary of the Catholic nationalist foundation myth. Images like these have usually been understood in terms of the Catholic and Protestant communities, as has the whole issue of Northern Ireland. Their actual meaning, however, transcends the local, or, rather, sets the local at the center of a wider discourse: they mark a boundary that reflects the schism of the Reformation and its contradiction of pre-Modern belief systems, in which events were explained as expressions of nature rather than of human action.

Ireland and its artists inhabit this boundary, which is the key to our pivotal historical moment—socially, economically, politically, culturally. By its very nature this context problematizes modernity’s text, providing a new reading of it. I can quite understand why, from within Modernism’s closed system, the same moment looks like the “end of history” debated in the West in recent years. But the field has no neutral parts from which such an observation can be made.

Museums, galleries, and their alternatives, for example, still sometimes thought of as protected spaces within modernity, are actually deeply embedded in it. Indeed, the Modernist model of separation and disconnection, in which the supposedly intrinsic qualities of an artwork are more valued than its extrinsic links with a context and web of meaning, has led directly to the conceptual, organizational, and financial cul-de-sac in which many such institutions find themselves, especially in metropolitan centers. Like the matrix that spawned them, they are trapped in a state of being rather than becoming.

By focusing on corporate rather than social models, some current attempts to escape this cul-de-sac actually extend the problem. In this moment we are either moving around in the Modern matrix, stopping in this or that relatively uninhabited spot, or we are part of a process of assembling the matrix differently, with the understanding that any new arrangement is always provisional.

Modernism’s claim to a superior state of being, a claim perpetuated in post-Modernism, is continuous with the cultural, political, and social centralization that has marginalized regions like Ireland at least since the Renaissance. For centuries, an inability to meet the social entry-requirements of class, gender, and race has meant that you were outside history, powerless—“beyond the pale.” This telling expression was actually coined in Ireland, where, in the 15th century, British colonizers built a palisade or “pale” in a wide arc around Dublin. Within the fence was civilization, authority, order; outside it were chaos and the barbarians.

“Beyond the pale”—the phrase describes the foundation of a state of mind so accurately that it has slipped into the vernacular. It exactly articulates the Modern pattern of isolating, displacing, and invalidating anything “other.” The crises in institutions like the museum flow from an inability or refusal to imagine the “other” as already within those institutions’ reality, the pre-Modern coexisting with and conditioning the Modern. Several major international exhibitions recently have sought the “other” in distant, “exotic” locations. This only reinforces the hierarchy: to celebrate the exotic or the “multicultural” as ends in themselves maintains the existing network of classification. The task now is not to describe such boundaries but to go beyond them—to go beyond the pale.

Colonization is most successful when the colonized colonize themselves, legislating themselves on behalf of the colonizers and invalidating their own cultures. The colonizer must occupy the mind as well as the territory. The British achieved this in Ireland in part through a literal renaming, from the Irish language to the English, of the cultural apparatus. Thus Derry from the Gaelic doire, an oak grove—became Londonderry in the 17th century after London merchants’ guilds funded the construction of the city walls. The 19th century saw a more systematic attempt to dismantle the land’s pre-Modern matrix; indeed, geographic reclassification was imposed by the British army, in a series of “ordnance surveys.” (In one, emblematic example, the town of Dun Laoghaire became “Kingstown.”)

The consequence today, however, is that it is already understood in Ireland that language is never innocent or neutral. This is one of the conditions that sets this society on the path to reassemble the matrix. Almost uniquely, the Irish context combines power (as part of the Western hegemony) and powerlessness (having been thoroughly colonized). But other areas have their own foundations to build on: the fault lines under the whole land mass of modernist space are becoming increasingly visible globally, in Los Angeles as in Sarajevo.

A NEW ART MUSEUM in this place, at this time, must take these concerns on board, particularly when that museum—the Irish Museum of Modern Art, of which I am the director—is located in an architectural and conceptual product of the Enlightenment. The Royal Hospital was built by the English in the late 17th century in Kilmainham, Dublin, to house retired soldiers. Ireland’s first neoclassical building, it was a partial copy of Les Invalides, in Paris—this at a time when Dublin was architecturally a medieval city. Like Derry’s geometric street grid, the Royal Hospital’s classicism represented an imposition of order on native “chaos.” Later, that imposition became entirely literal, when the British used the hospital as an army barracks during the Irish rebellion of 1916.

Impossible to pretend innocence or neutrality in this building. The context must be admitted as part of the museum’s subject in the production and mediation of artworks. When its own site is contested in terms of its colonial history, the museum is forced to be, an inclusive, porous institution rather than an art terminus. It is a function, not just a building, and we will find out what that function needs to be.

The Royal Hospital embodies a set of relationships within Ireland, and between England, Ireland, and Europe, dating from the period when the problematic territory we inhabit today was mapped. There is no such thing as “past” here, only a continuous radiating present within which artists have functions and responsibilities. Taking this building as a cue, the Irish Museum of Modern Art can attempt to inhabit those radiating circles of meaning by defining people as participants in culture rather than as producers (artists) or consumers (nonartists) of cultural products (art). The ultimate potential is not just to make excellent programs, or even an excellent museum, but to contribute to this new history.

Declan McGonagle