Shane Cullen

114 Sheriff Street

“We the participants in the multi-party negotiations, believe that the agreement we have negotiated offers a truly historic opportunity for a new beginning.” The optimism of this opening sentence to the 11,500-word Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, reached in 1998 after protracted negotiations between the various parties in the Northern Irish conflict, has been belied by the pact’s fraught subsequent history. For the latest in an ongoing series of monumental sculptures carrying historically resonant texts, Shane Cullen had the entirety of this text industrially etched onto fifty-five panels of ten-foot-high, four-foot-wide heavy-duty polyurethane board. While the mechanical nature of this working process contrasts with his previous works, which were painstakingly executed by hand over a long period, The Agreement, 2002, formally recalls his Fragments sur les institututions républicaines IV, 1993–97, a ninety-six-panel memorialization of some thirty-five thousand words of “comms,” the handwritten notes by Republican prisoners that were smuggled out from the Maze prison during the course of the Republican hunger strike of the early ’80s. Both works in turn formally echo one of the twentieth century’s few undeniably successful public monuments, Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC.

By choosing consistently to work with the “re-presented” word, Cullen displays that fundamental distrust of the image which has been voiced in recent years in debates on the representation of momentous or traumatic historical events, most notably in Claude Lanzmann’s critique of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993). As it happens, Cullen’s response to a trip to Auschwitz in the early ’90s, where he was struck by the inadequacy of Holocaust imagery made increasingly ineffectual by overfamiliarity, prompted a key early work, Auschwitz 1940–1945—a guide book through the Museum, 1993, which involved the transcription of a text describing a typical day in the camp. Cullen abjures the iconography of the heroic or tragic individual in favor of the language of community. The precise but not especially elegant language of the Belfast Agreement bears all the marks of communal effort, as Cullen himself has noted, rather than of a single authorial voice. It is precisely in this lack of individuality that its greatest strength resides. By registering the contributions of divergent opinions it offers a more flexible and accommodating alternative to the hardened political rhetoric of Northern Ireland’s various conflicting interests. This strategic undermining of authority is also reflected in the deceptively nonmonumental materials Cullen prefers to use rather than traditional, prestigious supports like stone or bronze.

The Agreement was produced by Beaconsfield in London, in collaboration with the Orchard Gallery in Derry, Project, Dublin, and several other interested parties in the city. For its Dublin run it was housed in a large warehouse at the nonresidential end of Sheriff Street, which has been for many decades a notoriously lawless inner-city street. Yet much of the surrounding dockland area has, during the course of the economic boom years of the ’90s, been utterly transformed by the building of the Irish Financial Services Centre and its encompassing sprawl. This choice of venue incidentally highlighted the massive inequalities that have been exacerbated rather than alleviated by these years of unprecedented prosperity in the Irish Republic, adding a local resonance to the questions of community and consensus raised by the work.

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith