Kathy Prendergast

IMMA - Irish Museum of Modern Art

Although it was billed as a midcareer retrospective, only two of the works included in “The End and the Beginning” dated from before the past three years, but one of these was the result of many years of Herculean labor. Kathy Prendergast has been a notable presence in Irish art since the early ’80s, when, as a student, she produced her first map works—a time when the trope of the map was by no means as ubiquitous in contemporary art as it was subsequently to become. The inevitable centerpiece of this show was the most extensive presentation to date of Prendergast’s series of pencil drawings of all of the world’s capital cities, begun in 1992 and now part of the collection of the Irish Museum of Modern Art. Faint filigrees bereft of annotation, these delicately drawn maps resemble impossibly detailed anatomical drawings, suggesting a view of the contemporary city as an often fragile, constantly mutating organism.

The “City Drawings” series has remained Prendergast’s signature work since its first, modest outing at the 1995 Venice Biennale, where it won her the Premio 2000, the jury prize honoring the best young artist. It constitutes an attempt to reduce the global to the domestic and to encompass civic space within a privatized realm, rendering vast, world-famous metropolises and remote capitals alike both intimate and anonymous. This charting of a personalized geography has since given way to oblique invocations of personal and family history. In Venice, the “City Drawings” were accompanied by an untitled 1994 wall sculpture in which a knitted baby sweater concealed a small motor, creating the simultaneously endearing and unsettling impression of the beating of a tiny heart. This work anticipated the concerns of many of Prendergast’s subsequent sculptures.

“The End and the Beginning,” as it turned out, referred more properly to a recent group of works in which Prendergast explores the ties, at once powerful and vulnerable, that bind generations together, particularly along the maternal line. It provided the title of the two most successful of the five works on view that used human hair as a material. The End and the Beginning I, 1997, was a baby’s bonnet through which countless wisps of human hair had been patiently threaded. Protective headgear for a newborn infant was transformed into something resembling the thinning scalp of an aged woman. The End and the Beginning II, 1997, was a small, old-fashioned wooden cotton reel around which three generations of human hair, that of the artist’s mother and young son as well as her own, had been laboriously wound.

The most poignant evocation, however, of the sometimes unnervingly brief shuttle between cradle and crypt was provided by Grave Blanket (Version I), 1997, an off-white baby-sized woolen blanket encrusted with a dense matting of marble-chip garden gravel. The intense, protracted labor involved in combining and transforming these banal materials into a cherishable object served to highlight the at once commonplace and extraordinary nature of our entrance into and departure from this world.

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith