PRINT May 1993

Remember, Re-member

IN IRELAND, THE PLACE always comes with a name, and with the name a story. One such place is Teampall Dumhach Mhór, or “Church of the great sandbank,” a sandy mound held together by an admixture of rocks and human bones. The rocks were first stacked there around 650 A.D., by Saint Colman, as a small church out on County Mayo’s west coast. The bones were added later, during the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s. Today, the mound sits on a strand, the land having been eroded by countless tides. Though its mass and shape change constantly, with rocks sliding, sand shifting, and new bones revealing themselves, it managed to resist serious erosion until this winter, when Atlantic storms washed much of its story out to sea.

Teampall Dumhach Mhór is a mass famine grave. Its prominence, however, distinguishes it from most graves left by the “great hunger”—anonymous plots among the fields and roadsides, sometimes felt as unsettled rocks beneath your feet. In this, the graves resemble known but unspoken secrets. They underlie stories, places, names with a sense of denial that the Irish know from having been conquered, evicted, worked, and starved, and from leaving their homeland en masse back when “not a piece of seaweed existed west of Skibbereen,” having all been scavenged for food.

Dublin-based artist Alanna O’Kelly sees starvation and emigration as the two ongoing themes that gnaw at Ireland’s national psyche and body politic. Like the graves, these themes are known but avoided, lying unsettled beneath the topsoil of Irish cultural identity, where they can be felt as the psychological subplots of “immense sadness, anger, humiliation, confusion, dignity, and healing.” These qualities O’Kelly regards as parts of a second-order collective memory of the famine that plays itself out in such realities as the strife in the North, ongoing emigration, pervasive drinking, and violence within the family. As an artist, O’Kelly excavates the strata of that memory.

One of her metaphors for such excavation is the peat bogs from which some rural Irish still cut bricks of flammable turf as fuel. The rows in which the turf is harvested have sheer faces that slice through the countryside like surgical explorations. Across each face are scores of chop marks from the digging, the cumulative effect of which is somewhat like ogham script, a runic Gaelic writing from the first few centuries A.D. O’Kelly sees meaning in this resemblance apart from her employment of it as metaphor. For her, the bogs themselves encode a hieroglyphic message from Ireland’s past, and pose the question: How was it that the Irish, their monasteries once the guardians of Europe’s knowledge, became the beggars of its bread?

The Great Famine is a case study of the death grip of laissez-faire economics and colonial paternalism. Irish peasants of the time relied totally on potatoes for their diet, and had to sell any other crops and livestock to pay rent to their Anglo, mostly absentee landlords. When blight struck the potato fields they were utterly vulnerable. The British government’s response was to hire starving men and boys to build often unnecessary roads, earning money that, it was reasoned, would attract the interest of private food marketers. Meanwhile, tons of Irish foodstuffs—meats, grains, dairy products—were shipped to England, often under guard. The image emerges of a skeletal economic system maintained from abroad while all other forms of national sustenance—not only food, but also the institutions and practices of family, community, and law—were allowed to wither away.

Nearly a century and a half later it is this sense of dissolution that drives O’Kelly, in whose art the scales of space and time flow into each other—the micro into the macro, the ancient into the modern. To this end O’Kelly employs a slow-moving vocabulary of photo and video close-ups and an undercurrent of somber sounds, including whale calls and the long mourning cries of Irish keening. She also uses her body as a source for images, gestures, and sounds that reduce the famine’s emotional extremes—hope and despair, loss and recovery—to an elemental, elegiac language of signs and vocal expressions.

In “The Country Blooms a Garden and a Grave”, 1992, a mixed-media installation at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, O’Kelly used dissolution both as a metaphor and as an artistic technique. Playing simultaneously across multiple screens, an array of video images and sounds dissolved into each other until dissolution became their meaning: the fiery orange scales of a beached whale’s skin became a reddish-brown wall of mud-caked fingers, and the fingers became human bones on the beach, and the bones, shells beneath the water; or the cries of whales and the whispers of Irish place names became a woman’s love song.

For O’Kelly, this passage of one thing into another is profoundly memorial. It represents an act of remembering in the sense that missing parts are added to the body—or, more precisely, that the body is remembered in and as the images, sounds, times, places, names, and stories with which the artist recovers it. A composite of recovered parts, the national corpus is redeemed, though never fully restored, for in exhuming it the artist reveals the incompleteness of history—society’s official memory—and opens up a social space for mourning, which is the final act of dissolution.

There is a story from the famine times of a teenage boy, the only fit member of his starving family, who worked daily on the government’s roads. To give him strength, his mother would suckle him each morning before he went. No one knows the story’s end; perhaps it happened a thousand times, perhaps never. It doesn’t matter—it’s true as metaphor. O’Kelly tells a story of sitting in the bath and thinking of her toddler son; as she did so, milk streamed from her breasts into the water. O’Kelly videotaped this miracle in slow motion, underwater against a dark ground. Only her breast and its flow were visible on the museum monitor. Nearby hung a photograph of Teampall Dumhach Mhór, the mound sagging like a sandy, bony breast. Suddenly I thought of Somalia, from which another Irishwoman, Mary Robinson, the country’s president, had just returned. A disapproving museumgoer, who misunderstood the image, remarked that “smoke” coming out of a woman’s nipple was a violent depiction of womanhood; fair enough. Though milk underwater only looks like smoke, it is true as metaphor: a volcano of remembering.

Jeff Kelley