‘Labour and Lockout …’
Limerick City Gallery of Art
9 August – 1 October 2013
‘Labour and Lockout …’ formed part of a nationwide, labour-themed visual arts programme, devised in response to the centenary of the 1913 Lockout. The exhibition, augmented by the seminar ‘Land / Labour/ Capital’, reflected on contemporary labour conditions against the backdrop of the ‘precarity’ prevalent under late capitalism.
Deirdre O’Mahony’s installation T.U.R.F (Transitional Understanding of Rural Features) addressed the ban on turf cutting in certain Irish bogs designated under the EU Habitats Directive. A turf stack installed in the middle of LCGA’s large permanent collection room provided a sculptural focal point and reminder of the material subject in hand. Newspaper clippings, photographic documentation and reading material attested to a bitter standoff. O’Mahony’s documentary film portrayed turf cutting as a self-sufficient, irreplaceable way of life, and alluded to the wider social implications of its loss, beyond the immediate impact on rural communities. Further illustrating the relationship between ‘Irishness’ and the land – as a site of exile, famine and political conflict – O’Mahony included a selection of nineteenth and twentieth century Irish landscape paintings drawn from LCGA’s collection.
Within this frame of reference, Vivienne Dick’s 16mm colour film Rothach (1985) presented a slow horizontal-pan across a vast rural landscape. Amongst the occasional activity depicted in this space, a child’s fiddle playing gradually morphs into screechy b-movie drones, suggestive of impending doom. An acknowledgement of the underlying tensions of mid 1980s Ireland – Irish nationalism versus a desire to embrace European economic modernity – proved pivotal in understanding the wider context of this exhibition, with Rothach providing a psycho-geographic map from which all of the other artworks could plot their co-ordinates.
Anthony Haughey’s DISPUTE (1913 / 2013) documented the 272-day strike by workers of Lagan Brick Factory in Cavan, which closed in 2011 due to the collapse of the construction sector. Although redundancy payments were eventually awarded, the workers’ names and years of service, displayed in horizontal uniformity across the gallery wall, attested to a greater communal loss concealed beneath their modest victory. Haughey displayed some of the last red bricks produced at the factory, inscribed with optimistic words such as ‘justice’, ‘equality’, ‘trust’.
Post-industrial social landscapes were further explored in Sean Lynch’s DeLorean Progress Report, comprising archival material and photographs, as well as cables and car parts strewn across the gallery floor, with a small portable TV perched on an upturned log. This was the latest incarnation of Lynch’s ongoing inquiry, which records the aftermath of the former DeLorean car factory in Belfast, unearthing the financial paper trail, and the whereabouts of original fabrication tools and surviving DeLorean automobiles.
Seamus Farrell’s Agri-culture (2013) also utilised auto-parts, presenting the windscreen of a tractor, which had pulled a caravan to Ireland from the Netherlands over 20 years ago. Farrell engraved the windscreen glass with a harp and an Irish passport, memorialising a seemingly borderless Europe. Darek Fortas’s Coal Story (2011) traced the development of the Workers’ Solidarity movement in Poland. Portraits of miners and photo-documentation of incidental objects found at the mine sites, express the realities of heavy industry in human terms.
Deirdre Power explored the ways in which people co-exist in Seduction of Place (2013), considering visibility in public spaces; while The Struggle Against Ourselves (2011) by Jesse Jones focused on representations of the body in film, identifying parallels between Hollywood dance spectacles and the constructivist choreography of Vsevolod Meyerhold. Mark Curran’s dimly lit installation The Normalisation of Deviance comprised a stack of printed A4 sheets, accompanied by an unexpectedly soothing sound composition, algorithmically derived from the number of times Michael Noonan has used the words ‘market’ or ‘markets’ in his public speeches since taking office. As a monument to capitalist abstraction, Curran’s artwork reveals economic forces in every facet of life.
Megs Morley and Tom Flanagan’s film work The Question of Ireland (2013) considered the relevance of Marxist ideas in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland. Scripts were devised by prominent Irish figures and enacted across three sections. The first depicts an educated, middle-aged woman delivering a rant about the demise of the Irish Free State and modern-day negative associations of ‘solidarity’ with conspiracy and terrorism. An account of inner-city life under the current austerity regime is offered by a young Dublin woman, who speaks of ‘neglected places’ and the ‘dismantling of a generation’, calling on the viewer to actively envisage a fairer future. A red-faced gentleman, whose breathless, mocking, comedic delivery recalls a closing-time encounter at a bar, delivers the third act. Following his descriptions of a ‘class-war’ and the ‘gospel of permanent austerity’, the camera pans to an empty theatre auditorium. Then the lights go out and we are left to wonder: Who is listening? Where are the citizens?
Cumulatively, the works in ‘Labour and Lockout…’ looked beyond current economic tunnel vision and long-standing hierarchical formations. Instead, there was a strong emphasis on horizontal collectivity, and meaningful artistic engagement in social and political realities, bearing witness to existing, evolving and alternatives forms and conditions of labour. In the context of the backward- glancing nature of centenary commemorations, this task is as urgent as it is compelling.
Joanne Laws is an arts writer based in Leitrim, who has written for Art Monthly (UK), Art Papers (US), Cabinet (US) and Variant (UK).