Julie Daunt reviews Alice Maher’s mid-career retrospective Becoming that took place in Dublin’s IMMA.
A ball of tightly and neatly secured snail shells; delicate, fragile but begging to be viewed up close and touched. This was The Four Directions (2003-4) and was the first work I was met with when I visited the Irish Museum of Modern Art in its temporary location on Dublin’s Earlsfort Terrace to see Alice Maher’s mid-career retrospective entitled Becoming.
Over the past few years, Alice Maher has come to the forefront of the contemporary Irish art scene. Born in 1956 in Tipperary, Alice Maher studied at the University of Limerick before going on to study in Cork’s own Crawford College of Art and Design. Her work featured as part of the Motion Capture exhibition in the Lewis Glucksman Gallery last year. Her work has often been on show in the Crawford Art gallery also.
The exhibition took place in the old building of a former UCD medical school. This lent itself to the reoccurring themes of the body and exploration. One such piece that certainly evoked this theme was the film Cassandra’s Necklace (2012). The main advertisement for the exhibition featured a film still from this provocative video piece. The film was specially commissioned for this exhibition by the IMMA. The film was an interpretation of a script written by Maher’s friend, the writer Anne Enright, and was based on the tragic mythical story of Cassandra. Cassandra was the princess of Troy and was granted the gift of prophecy by Apollo due to her beauty. However, Cassandra refuses Apollo’s advances and so he curses her so that no one will believe her predictions, which lead to her insanity and the destruction of Troy. Maher interpreted this story by placing a series of five lamb’s tongues around the neck of a beautiful young woman as a play on her gift of prophecy. The film was shown on two screens simultaneously which meant the viewer had to alternate their gaze between the two showings to follow the narrative of the story.
This dual film screening also occurred with her two animated films, Flora (2009) and The Double (2009). Made from a single sheet of white paper, Maher worked up her narrative by drawing, erasing, redrawing and scanning her mystical and mythical figures. As the animations progress, the page becomes more and more worked up, with traces of the movements and original forms still visible. Flora (2009) was shown in the Glucksman just last year. These animations were accompanied by a soundtrack that was composed by Maher and Trevor Knight. The simultaneously played soundtracks didn’t clash as you’d expect, but actually blended and encouraged you to find similarities between the two animations. Through the constant alternating of your head, you started to see the similarities in forms that Maher had drawn. The two film screenings were a sensational and surreal experience. The drawings featured mythical creatures and forms, with bodies contorting and morphing and weaving into animals and beasts from folklore. As the images shift, the page becomes increasingly worked and traces of previous drawings remain vaguely discernible. The animations were punctuated by references to vernacular stories such as the Children of Lir but also elements from famous paintings from art history such as Velazquez’s Les Meninas. The animations chart the changing, metamorphosis and becoming of forms while also drawing on our bodily responses such as touch.
This idea of touch is seen throughout her sculptural pieces, such as her recreated piece Cell (1991). This was originally a site specific piece created for Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin. This sculpture consists of a ball of thorn branches woven together appearing like a giant ball of wool. This barbed ball is a visual metaphor for the experience of being incarcerated and imprisoned. The ball is iconic and large and was exhibited in a room as to itself, which further highlighted the feelings of isolation and imprisonment. It was a poignant piece and one that drew on our emotional feelings, but also the sensation of touch as you were left to imagine coming in contact with this ball of threatening thorns. Maher is fond of thorns and they often make an appearance in her works. This can be seen in her little sculpture The Staircase of Thorns (1997) which as the title suggests, was a three steps embossed with rose thorns. Hung on the wall, the stairs cast a dramatic and striking shadow, the sculpture’s thorns elongated in the silhouette. One can only imagine the painful experience of walking down these steps bare foot. It would be worse than stepping on a plug or a piece of lego!
Hair is another common motif used in Maher’s works, again drawing on our bodily response. One such piece is the heavily worked up charcoal drawings of Ombre (1997). Here the texture of hair is brilliantly created through the repetitive marks by Maher. The hairy pieces almost appear real and you can imagine the weight and thickness of each of them. Another work Familiar (1994) featured a large red canvas with a tiny figure of a girl, her hair twisted and being pulled upward. This tiny figure is featured beside a large piece of woven flax. This creates a dramatic contrast between the large imposing piece of flax and the small vulnerable girl. This reminded me of Alice in Wonderland when Alice is shrunken down and everything around her becomes overwhelming and threatening. When we are faced with the giant flax, we become Alice, outsized by normally familiar and safe objects. Both these works also create a sense of connection and intertwining of oppositions.
This sense of connection is also seen in Maher’s site specific work. Here the artist uses the space of the exhibition itself when she created her work L’Universite (2012). Maher used an old lecture theatre, and working with lighting expert Aedín Cosgrove, created a space that used the copious amounts of scrawls and scratches left on the college desks. She then hung tiny LED lights over certain sections of the room to highlight passages that are interesting and unique. One such example is the broken-hearted teen that wrote “I MISS HER” and dated it, followed by “I STILL MISS HER” dated a few days later. This works within the exhibition’s theme of becoming as the desk graffiti shows various people’s states of becoming, each expressing themselves through their doodles and lyrics. We become connected to the students that once sat at these desks and we begin to share their same sentiments and feelings. These graffiti marks are a memory of a time past, but brought alive through their illumination.
Another work that deals with the theme of memory and that is worth noting is Mnemosyne (2002). Again, drawing on themes of mythology and folklore as well as memory, Maher names this work Mnemosyne, who was the Goddess of memory. This installation piece is constructed from a refrigeration unit, which condenses the moisture in the air to create a glistening, icy sculptured piece. The piece is in the shape of a lounge chair or a wave, but despite its icy exterior, was not cold to touch. The wave shaped object twinkled under the lights, reminding me of the fictional land of Narnia. Overall, this exhibition featured a vast amount of Maher’s works from the last quarter of a decade. It showed the Alice Maher is no longer just becoming a talented and inspiring artist, but has become one.
A fully-illustrated catalogue, which was published by IMMA, accompanies the exhibition, with texts by our own Dr Ed Krčma, lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Art here at UCC. The catalogue is available to buy from the IMMA Bookshop or online.