Derry, Northern Ireland

Patrick Ireland

Orchard Gallery

An Irish artist who has been based in the US since the mid-’50s, Patrick Ireland has frequently revisited his native shores in recent years, exhibiting his 1996 installation One Here Now: The Ogham Cycle, at the Old Yacht Club in Cobh, and a related piece in the nearby Crawford Gallery in Cork—at the far end of the island of Ireland from Derry. This mini-retrospective, a tightly marshaled presentation of selected works spanning over three decades of his output and titled “Language Performed/Matters of Identity,” consolidated his ongoing involvement with the country.

Since the late ’60s, Ireland has produced a proliferating series of works using ogham, the ancient sign system that preceded the manuscript literature of the early Irish. These works provide a particular Gaelic inflection of the linguistic turn in the visual arts at the time. (The artist has also drawn parallels with serial music.) Two of his short “structural plays,” composed between 1967 and 1970, were performed in the gallery, and the scenarios for these and eight others were exhibited there. A larger-scale piece, Vowel Grid, 1970, was also performed on the opening day in the exposed amphitheater of the Grianán of Aileach, in the nearby countryside.

By choosing to ground his language games in the particularity of the ogham system, Ireland problematizes the implied universalism of much systems-based art while retaining the notion that something fundamental in the nature of human communication is at stake. This shuttling between notions of the individual, the local or national, and the universal also informs Ireland’s ongoing interrogation of the politics and performance of identity. In November 1972, nine months after “Bloody Sunday,” when British troops killed more than a dozen innocent civilians on the streets of Derry, Ireland performed Name Change. This political gesture of protest whereby Brian O’Doherty (the artist’s given name, which he still uses as a novelist and critic) became “Patrick Ireland” took its place among a whole series of strategic dissimulations by which the artist adopted a variety of pseudonyms over the years.

Most of these names, a number of which were here openly declared for the first time, are of a more mischievous or ludic nature. Ireland’s antic attitude toward identity owes as much to the spirit of Duchamp, his friend and early artistic mentor, as it does to the predilection in Irish folklore for beings that change shape. (This selection, however, did not include any of the works relating to his Portrait of Marcel Duchamp, Lead I, 1966–67, a portrait derived from an electrocardiograph reading of Duchamp’s heartbeat taken by Ireland, whose early training was as a medical doctor.) Compact and well-balanced, the show provided a fascinating glimpse into what might be revealed by the full retrospective in a larger venue that Ireland—both the artist and the country—surely deserves.

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith