Shane Cullen

Shane Cullen’s Fragments sur les Institutions Républicaines IV (Fragments on republican institutions IV, 1993–) consists of a vast wall of meticulously hand-painted text that bears witness to the 1981 Irish Republican hunger strike. Now rapidly approaching completion, this work-in-progress enjoyed its first public, if partial, outing as one-half of Ireland’s contribution to the 1995 Venice Biennale. Several years of painstaking transcription has so far produced well over 20,000 words culled from a series of letters from Republican prisoners to the external leadership of the IRA. Scribbled furtively on cigarette papers, these urgent communications were then crushed into minute pellets, wrapped in cellophane, and smuggled out of Long Kesh prison. They were subsequently gathered together by journalist David Beresford in his book on the hunger strike, Ten Men Dead (1987), from which they were, in turn, gleaned by Cullen. For this first substantial exhibition of Fragments, in the space for which it was initially conceived, sixty-four, eight-foot-high panels of text rose in tiered groups around the high walls of the gallery.

One might have expected the communications re-presented here to be terse and to the point, given the difficulty of acquiring writing materials and the danger and discomfort of written exchange. Yet the texts are surprising in their range and variety: one notes the shift and clash of registers as they move through agonizing analysis to incredulous outrage to abashed intimacy to the stirring rhetoric of the public communiqué. Obviously, the need to maintain group morale was at least as important as the exchange of vital information. One senses fraternity growing as the flesh of the hunger strikers is slowly transformed into words.

The Irish premiere of this unsettling testament to one of the most emotionally charged moments in the country’s recent history came at a time of increasing political tension in the wake of the breakdown of the IRA cease-fire. Little wonder, then, that it attracted critical commentary from beyond the confines of the Irish art world. Adverse criticism in the national press pointed either to an uncritical endorsement of the prisoners’ sentiments or to an insufficiently engaged and trans-formative treatment of this powerful, raw material. These apparently contradictory accusations stem from the troubling sense of disjuncture suggested by Cullen’s intentionally deadpan reinscription of highly personalized missives in a relentlessly uniform typeface. This is a work laboriously executed, with all the pride and precision of a master sign-maker—one whose trade generally precludes intervention or editorializing. The dawning realization that this imposing memorial is made of Styrofoam, not marble, or some such suitably venerable material, contributes further to one’s perception of the work’s ambivalence. So, too, does the knowledge that Cullen has in the past subjected a disparate selection of historical texts to the same unwavering process of retrieval and scrutiny. Yet ambivalence, in the face of events like the Long Kesh hunger strike, remains an uncomfortable fact of Irish life—especially south of the border.

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith