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Myth, Poetry, Wit: Niamh McCann at Stable Arts

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At the opening talk and performance for someone decides, hawk or dove at Stable Arts DC I found myself sitting beside a bronze cast of a pygmy hippopotamus and a seagull. Both creatures were solid black with beautiful textured surfaces. The gull had a shiny gold nugget in its mouth. In what was for the most part a fairly serious talk about the history of my home country’s divisions, I found myself laughing as Niamh McCann described the particularities of a Dubliner seagull’s character. They are virulent survivors that would snatch a steak out of your hand, she said. 

Turns out the gold nugget in the seagull’s mouth is a chicken nugget. I laughed because I realized first of all that I had forgotten how cheeky those Dublin seagulls can be. In many ways all of the city’s residents are like this. There is an irreverence to the character of Dublin’s inhabitants that I have never found anywhere in the US. Not even in the toughest east coast cities—not even in Baltimore!

“Ambition,” Bronze, gold leaf, jesmonite.

It’s in humor that we often find resilience, and McCann’s show is nothing if not resilient. The exhibit responds to the existence of a border on the island of Ireland between the North and South and the ongoing consequences and reverberations of this partition. It draws lines, maps territories, and above all focuses on intimate moments of humor and mythology. There is a tenderness in the midst of the fray. Combining sculpture, collage and video, the artist mines deep seams of the colonialist legacies of ‘The Troubles,’ a euphemistic term to describe the decades long sectarian violence dating back to the 1960s.

I first met Niamh last summer while she was in Baltimore and in the initial research phase of preparing for this show which opened September 7 at STABLE Arts in Washington DC. The show is from Solas Nua, DC’s premier Irish arts organization and McCann is their inaugural Norman Houston Multidisciplinary Award recipient. It was a delight to see their arts programming delivering the work of such a significant Irish artist. Politically and poetically speaking McCann’s work is a breath of fresh air flowing right into the heart of the nation’s capital. After a conversation at the opening, we decided to have an email exchange about the work.

Niamh McCann at the artist talk
...the pervasive atmosphere of violence and threat, the news of it unfolding in real time, loomed large in the public consciousness, ever-present in what was overheard, or glimpsed on TV and in the media, or experienced in quiet moments of self-reflection. I see my role, as an artist, to acknowledge the weight of that experience for all of us, to pull that tension close, and to unpick unspoken consequences.
Niamh McCann

Bart O’Reilly: If your work can be said to have a political content, the divide between the north and the south of Ireland seems to be the most evident one. In DC last Saturday you said that as artists we look for points of departure, community, and connection, finding a way forward. As a Dubliner you felt close yet distant from The Troubles growing up. I really connected with that statement, because as a fellow Dubliner, I felt the same. It seemed ever present but distant at the same time. How do you see your role as an artist in relationship to this push and pull of close and distance?

Niamh McCann: Being a Dubliner, The Troubles in Northern Ireland sometimes felt like a continent away. But, the truth is that one might have been anywhere on the small island of Ireland, between 1 mile and 100 miles from the border, and the reverberations of that extreme violence could, to some degree, be felt. While a large majority of the island didn’t go about day to day business during that time directly impacted by instances of brutality, or discussing the intimate details of what was happening, the pervasive atmosphere of violence and  threat, the news of it unfolding in real time, loomed large in the public consciousness, ever-present in what was overheard, or glimpsed on TV and in the media, or experienced in quiet moments of self-reflection. I see my role, as an artist, to acknowledge the weight of that experience for all of us, to pull that tension close, and to unpick unspoken consequences. 

After some years of working with the landscape of Northern Ireland, I became aware of the prism through which people from outside of Ireland viewed the country and that prism is intriguing to me. The work of any artist is I think inherently political; I don’t necessarily mean polemical, but rather the sense that my job as an artist is to think proactively about how the world is constructed visually and socially and with care, examine and question those constructions. 

Niamh McCann at Stable Arts, photo by Greg Staley via the artist's IG
"Trajectory [with Colin]," Laser cut card, pencil, ink, archival tape, archival print, gold leaf.
Myth, folklore, ritual, ceremony, song—all of these traditional and indigenous forms of storytelling contain vital and, often, practical information about who we are as a country, what has happened to us, and what Irish culture is, or might be.
Niamh McCann

Can you talk about your relationship to the Irish language in song and spoken word? 

Gaeilge is a deeply lyrical language rooted in a sensual experience of place. It perceives the world in ways that the English language does not and I’m fascinated by its ability to withstand violence. Although many attempts under colonial rule were made to suppress and wipe out the language, it remains robustly alive. Like a hardy plant, or a stubborn weed, it has held out against repeated and systematic threats, continuing to hold a space within it, within its particularities, for our stories and for our stories beyond words. 

It’s important to remember that the language survives not only in spoken form, but also in how we read, listen, make, see, and intuit. The show seeks to engage with that kind of plurality of communication and, in a fundamental sense, the work overlaps visual, sung, spoken, and written texts. I was keen to explore those slippages and losses that occur in and around language to try and understand how it is to navigate the in-between spaces. The Irish song traditionpassed from one person to another, across the generations—holds particular resonance for me because of how old texts are reinterpreted into the present moment and which, in turn, give expressions to a future. 

You reference old texts and mythology, landscape, physical works, beasts and animals, flags and drums, natural history museums and Kilmashogue in the Dublin Mountains. As an emigrant I can view these things through a lens of nostalgia but work like yours keeps it current for me and puts these things into a contemporary Irish context. We have for example a rich history of mythology to draw on. Can you tell us a little more about Buile Suibhne and how that particular story relates to your work in the show? 

The story of Buile Suibne is a Medieval Irish tale of violence, madness, loss, and displacement. In my searching for a text that I might work with for the show, I came into an understanding of how myth can allow us to inhabit perspectives that history does not. The work I have made seeks to reinstate the possibility of alternate storytelling, recognizing a style of archiving, reporting and expression in Ireland over and beyond that which we call history with a capital ‘H’. Myth, folklore, ritual, ceremony, songall of these traditional and indigenous forms of storytelling contain vital and, often, practical information about who we are as a country, what has happened to us, and what Irish culture is, or might be. It was always my aim to work in a deep-rooted authentic way with these references, avoiding nostalgia—and opposing it!though of course I recognize nostalgia as part of the conversation, it being a colonial lens through which culture is sometimes glimpsed. But, ultimately, the joy for me has been repositioning these traditions back into the centre of my/our world view and engaging with them in fresh, playful, relevant wayshonoring the true currency and possibility of myth as a living, breathing mechanism of contemporary storytelling.

"silent echo," Niamh McCann's take on the Lambeg Drum
Ceara Conway performing Eorann's Song at the opening reception

Context seems very pertinent here. It gives me great joy to see such a strong statement of Irish Culture right in the heart of Washington DC. You spoke last week of the way in which the work was received in two different locations in Ireland, at the Battle of the Boyne Heritage Site and Belfast for example. I believe you said the drum was problematic to the audience at the Boyne site but will cause no issue for people in Belfast when you show it there. Can you walk us through that history a little? 

The Battle of the Boyne heritage site is precisely the location where one might expect the Lambeg drum to belong. It’s the site of the William of Orange victory over the Jacobite armies, a victory which is commemorated annually on 12 July by Unionist Orange Order marches and which features the Lambeg drum as an iconic part of the celebrations. But, naturally, the caretakers of that site today, the Office of Public Works, have a duty of care and a responsibility to manage the sites for all users in a way that is sensitive and responsible. I completely understand the tricky dynamics of that delicate caretaking act. The history of the site is provocative and extreme care has to be taken to decide how symbols and artwork sit in that space. Conversely, in a Belfast visual art venue, the potential for ‘provocation’ is more likely to be allowed, or perhaps deemed to be less provocative overall because of the distance and framing an arts space context provides. It’s been super interesting to see how this work is viewed through different eyes and to see how it translates, and shifts shape (necessarily so) across different cultural spaces in Ireland, France, Germany, and now the U.S. You mentioned nostalgia earlier and I think that this movement through different social and cultural spaces has been pivotal in allowing the complexity, vitality, and contemporary nature of the work to shimmer.

What if anything has changed for you seeing the work in DC? 

My understanding of the show is newly deepened each time I observe it in a new space and watch how audiences engage with it. Curator Tomora Wright raised the point that, from her perspective, there’s a certain poetic tenderness to this work despite the fact that it deals with thorny political issues. That Tomora has recognised that intended tenderness means a great deal to me. 

There is, I think, a precarious optimism at play and a culture of care enshrined into the work that lifts the overall show out of what might otherwise be a relentlessly cruel and dark place. It’s especially clear to me here, in a non-European context, that the act of bearing witness can be an inherently hopeful and unifying act.

Niamh McCann at Stable Arts, photo by Greg Staley via the artist's IG
"Trajectory"
The artworks take their visual note from artefacts, architecture, flags, musical instruments that point to a collective ongoing reckoning with the global colonial project. In repurposing and remaking these objects to seduce and to hold more complex and shared stories (vs the tribal) I want us all to find moments of recognition and empathy across and within difference and division. 
Niamh McCann

I was particularly struck by the prominent role of animals in the show, the dog, the seagull, and the Pygmy hippopotamus. What do they represent to you? 

As a starting point, I’ve always enjoyed the fact and company of animals; always made room for animal narratives and structures in my making. But, for this show, I was particularly drawn to the folklore, mythology, narratives, and colonial histories attached to these creatures. Each animal functions as the carrier of a story, and as a marker of a border (across many borders including that between reality and unreality, history and present, the Otherworld and this world etc.) Colin, the blind but all-seeing dog, is a supernatural guide through a world in which human intervention dominates the landscape; the seagull is messenger of the dead surviving and thriving through time and space; and the Pygmy hippo is an emblem of the empire, which is traded across cultures, to sadlyfar from its natural habitatcome to an absurdly pointless early end. Each animal represents a kind of alternative reality, or possible way of being in the world, one that humanity continues to deny as it cedes power to colonial, patriarchal, and capital hierarchies and structures.

Can you talk about your research and suggested reading that was displayed in the gallery? I am particularly interested in hearing more about poet Ciaran Carson. You say Ciaran Carson has been something of a touchstone for me over the last couple of years. In his poetry I find a dexterous, beautiful balance between personal edge and political context. He weaves together prose pieces, long poems, lyrics, and haiku. His subjects include the permeable boundaries of Belfast neighborhoods, of memory, of public and private fear, of the forms of language and art.

My first entry point into Carson’s work was through Belfast Confetti and I was immediately gripped by his insider’s perspective of Belfast city, as a writer, as a maker, and as a civilian. Through these poems I was able to pick up the scent of the landscape and to understand the role of oral storytelling, of eavesdropping, and of humoring a bad atmosphere with playful language or narrative. There is a wonderful sense of play in his poetry, which sits, side by side, with this underlying and occasionally outwardly explosive tension. That kind of duality appealed to me greatly. His weaving and overlapping between images, lines, narratives, and formsas if ducking and diving between laneways and through archesfeels to me natural and like a perfectly human non-linear response in language to trauma and acts of violence. Carson became a talismanic voice for me as I created this show. But I was also very inspired by the work of Jan Carson, Gail McConnell, Anna Burns, Garret Carr, Colm Toibín, Dervla Murphy, W.G. Sebald, Audre Lorde and, more recently, Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg, as well as scholar, writer and artist Leanne Beta Samosake Simpson.

“Confetti,” Silver plated bricks

What would you like a viewer who might be learning of “The Troubles” for the first time to take away from an encounter with your work?

This body of work draws attention to the existence of a border on the small island of Ireland and some of the ongoing reverberations of that ‘edge’. ‘The Troubles’ i.e. a 30 year period of violence was one consequence of the contested border.   The artworks in sdhd take their visual note from artefacts, architecture, flags, musical instruments that point to a collective ongoing reckoning with the global colonial project. In repurposing and remaking these objects to seduce and to hold more complex and shared stories (vs the tribal) I want us all to find moments of recognition and empathy across and within difference and division. 

 

Niamh McCann: someone decides, hawk or dove is on view through September 30, 2023

Thursday-Sunday 12 pm – 6 pm

STABLE Arts | 336 Randolph Place NE Washington, DC 20002

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