Greenville, N.C.

David Ireland

East Carolina University

Art, and culture as a whole, has long enjoyed an uncertain obsession with history. But history is something more than a body of facts or even the understanding that should accompany it. History is itself an enigma that is by nature a process, a mythology, an aura. For all the uses art may make of history, few if any employ its personal effects, rather than its information, in the way that David Ireland does.

Ireland is something of a pseudoarchaeologist and mythmaker of the historically insignificant. It is fitting, then, that the site of his installation The Cafeteria, 1986, at East Carolina University, was a disused room adjoining the school’s archaeology laboratory. This room, with its leaky ceiling and its past history as a cafeteria, was in a state of benevolent neglect and obscurity ideally suited to Ireland’s sensibility, to his random recovery and reinvention of the decaying architecture and common refuse—the meaningless artifacts—of the recent past. (He is, after all, the same artist who made an epic artwork out of the historic restoration of his house in San Francisco.) In the pragmatic terms of history and archaeology, however, there was little or nothing in Ireland’s Cafeteria that bore resemblance to an accurate reconstruction of the room’s original appearance.

The Cafeteria was an open room of staged settings that interconnected to create an overall environment. Scattered throughout the room for inspection, these bizarre, almost surrealistic assemblages were formalized by some discrete order of arrangement, something like the spotty areas of activity in an archaeological dig, or the dioramas in a natural history museum. The artifacts of this fabricated cultural panorama were a random yet personalized conglomeration of objets trouvés ranging from outmoded school furniture to mounds of plaster, newspaper, tar, and assorted mementos. Yet the effect of the room had less to do with its contents than with their distribution, like theatrical props, within the space. The slightly disorienting placement of Ireland’s odd curios was contrived and intentionally dramatic, as if to say that what memory (history) had restaged as a passion play was in actuality no more than an accumulation of insignificant facts.

There was much humor in the subtle private jokes scattered throughout the installation, but there was also something quite morbid here. In the guise of archivist, Ireland made overtures to the past without actually indulging in nostalgia. The Cafeteria was a time capsule of a specific place and time that was yet vague and fantastic. It was an open text, no matter how personalized and clearly site-specific it may have been. It merely outlined the methodology, the variable x and y of the formula, behind our contemporary regressive instincts.

Carlo McCormick