VAN May/June 2011: Everyday Friction

Detail showing the reproduction of Harry Clarke's 'The Last Hour of the Night' 1922
Detail showing the reproduction of Harry Clarke's 'The Last Hour of the Night' 1922


I lived in Dublin in 2008, while I was participating in part IMMA’s artist residency programme. I had never really had the opportunity to be involved with the art scene there, and I had a great time working in the city over seven months. During the course of my residency I decided it would be interesting to explore some histories about the city and make an artwork that would reflect this process.

The resulting project, entitled Views of Dublin, was exhibited at the Gallery of Photography later that year and was based upon a series of inter-related events in the city in 1965. John Le Carre’s cold war thriller The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was produced as a film in that year, and a replica of the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie was constructed in Smithfield Market as part of the film’s set. Actor Richard Burton and his wife Elizabeth Taylor stayed at the Gresham Hotel for ten weeks, attracting much attention. Recollections of these events are today still heard around the city, and the Wall replica is often recalled as an unusual oddity of Dublin architecture.

My research focused on the aftermath of the Wall’s removal. After the production of the film, Bart Cummins, a local scrap dealer, purchased the set in its entirety. He re-erected a watchtower in front of his yard in Inchicore and appeared on national television as the man with the best-known replica of the Wall. He gradually sold it off in sections. Some of the material was recycled to rebuild Saint Christopher’s School, the first Travellers’ school in Ireland. Situated in Cherry Orchard at the western edge of Dublin, the school was organised and run independently of the Department of Education by civil rights activist Grattan Puxon.

The artwork I produced considered the prevailing politics and economics of Dublin of the time – via this transformation from film set to makeshift school; along with the day-to-day realities of the Traveller community agitating for civil rights in 1960s Ireland. A sixteen page publication was produced and freely distributed, a public talk with Puxon occurred, and a gallery presentation featured a collection of images cut out of newspapers of that time and enlarged as digital prints, framed as documentary residue of these events.

The process of unearthing, assembling and distributing all this information became an important journey for my practice – specifically in how to understand the complexities of urbanity and Dublin in particular.  The artwork’s reception led to an invitation from Dublin City Council to make a public artwork for the city in late 2008.

Following this invitation, I worked closely with Ruairi O Cuiv, the city’s public art officer, to see what might be possible within what was a completely open brief. Potential ideas were developed, assessed and shelved over a two-year period. There was no deadline for the production of the piece, and every time I visited the city, I’d do another bit of research and fieldwork, and add my findings to what I had already found. I attempted to set a broad remit for myself to produce a piece that continued my interests into the materiality of the city, which, by its very nature, is a very extensive and multi-layered topic.

One of my favourite haunts in Dublin is the Irish Architectural Archive on Merrion Square. One day, when looking through a publication from 1922 called Dublin of the Future – a proposal for the redevelopment of the city – I came across a reproduction of a drawing by Harry Clarke. Entitled The Last Hour of the Night, Clarke’s biographer Nicola Gordon Bowe best describes it:

The Last Hour of the Night is one of the stranger expressions of his imagination. A bald, emaciated creature swathed in translucent strands of hair-like drapery stoops commandingly in the centre of the picture, cloven toes emerging from stubbly shins, and spindly hands extended on either side. On the left is a montage of Dublin’s finest buildings, all casualties of the Troubles – the Four Courts, above it the Custom House and, on, top, the General Post Office, all encased in flames. On the right of the figure a row of Dublin Georgian town houses stands, fallen into the decay typical of the twentieth-century state of so many of these once proud dwellings. Beneath the houses two policeman watch as children play on the street and weary-looking figures pass by. Above, in the top right hand corner a blazing star in the jet-black sky perhaps heralds some new hope for the city.

Impressed, I made a photocopy of the page and it stayed on my desk in Banff, Canada for several months during a residency there in 2009. It began to act as a visual apparition of the flux and disorder of the past and potential futures of Dublin, an allegory for an urban form that is disorganised but recognisable, shifting and uncertain.

A plan was gradually formulated: a display case located in the centre of O’Connell Street, that could exist as a place for documents such as Clarke’s drawing to be presented. Such a device would make reference to the many monuments that are present on the street, but instead of commemorating a famous person, time or deed, it would consider more incidental moments and objects through an exhibition programme onsite. It would soak up these minor histories and, very subjectively, breathe them back out again.

The title for the project, Me Jewel & Darlin,’ a kind of affectionate slang used in the city, was adopted from Eamonn McThomais’ book of the same name. I enjoyed thinking about the dichotomy of documents as monuments, and monuments as documents, a notion that Foucault talks about in The Archaeology of Knowledge (1), and began plans in summer 2010 to enact a realisation of these ideas.

The case was fabricated by metalworker Neil McKenzie, who I’ve worked very closely with on a previous project about the DeLorean car company in Belfast. Together, we decided to make the case from the same grade of stainless steel used in the Spire nearby. Neil worked with assistance from Bushy Park Ironworks in Tallaght. Ruairi O Cuiv sought permissions, permits, insurances and electricity for the case. Structural engineers were consulted. A website was planned, that would disseminate some of the research material relevant to the exhibition programme. Following a conversation with Isobel Harbison, a curator living in London, I co-ordinated the appearance of The Last Hour of the Night on O’Connell Street to coincide with the opening on January 27 of ‘The Geneva Window,’ the exhibition she had curated for The Lab based on Clarke’s work of the same name.

Since the original pen and ink drawing of The Last Hour of the Night is today lost, a version was reproduced to the same size as the original, framed and placed within the display case. A lighting system illuminates the print each evening from dusk. In its siting, the print is intended to make direct reference to its immediate locale. For example, in the bottom left corner of Clarke’s work, he rendered the GPO in flames. In its position on O’Connell Street, one can see this image, while in the shadow of the GPO itself. There is no label or explanatory text inside the case; instead I wanted Clarke’s work to exist as part of the city, without having to justify its presence in the form of an authoritarian museological approach.

As many people will remember, the location of Me Jewel and Darlin’ on O’Connell Street is where Eamon O’Doherty’s Anna Livia sculpture was placed. Very soon after its appearance there in 1988, it was christened with the nickname ‘The Floozie in the Jacuzzi.’ The sculpture was removed in 2000 after Dublin City Council decided that its upkeep was too labour-intensive: removing cigarette butts and bus tickets from its fountain, while having to watch soap powder being added to its waters to see it bubble.  In placing another artwork there 11 years later, I became aware of the day-to-day usage of my work, and how people might interact with it in what would be perceived as a negative manner. As ever with public commissions, concerns of vandalism are present.

Yet, public space is not about consensus, but contestation: complete resolution of an artwork is always challenged by everyday friction and usage. With these considerations in mind, I composed an essay that appears on the project’s website that details public reaction to a series of monuments and artworks in Dublin from 1862 onwards. Much of this research was completed by looking through the newspaper archives at the National Library and at the National Irish Visual Arts Library at NCAD, and features information on the Crampton Memorial, Marta Minujin’s James Joyce Tower, and Richard Serra’s Sean’s Spiral, amongst others.

In early April, documentation of a performance by Danny McCarthy on O’Connell Bridge in 1982 involving a hundred whiskey bottles floating in the River Liffey appeared inside the case, and more displays are planned over the case’s lifetime, with further contextual information, interviews and essays to be posted on the website

Sean Lynch

(1) Michel Foucault. The Archaeology of Knowledge. First published in 1969, English edition 1972 Routledge. Now available as a ‘Routledge Classic.’

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