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"The Seven Sacraments. Abigail O‚Brien and Ritualized Daily Life"
2004-01-21 until 2004-04-12
Haus der Kunst
Munich, , DE Germany

The exhibition, The Seven Sacraments. Abigail O'Brien and Ritualized Daily Life, presents the Irish artist's in 2004 completed series dealing with the Seven Sacraments, and makes an analogy to Dutch genre painting of the 17th Century. The artist Abigail O'Brien, born in Dublin in 1957, examines the function of rituals and rites of passage in her work. From 1995 to 2004 she created a series about the Seven Sacraments, which is being shown for the first time in its entirety in the Haus der Kunst. The cycle includes six large installations: The Last Supper (1995), a work dealing with the sacrament of Marriage, Baptism (1996), Kitchen Pieces - Confession + Communion (1998), in which the sacraments of Confession and Communion are treated together, Extreme Unction - From the Ophelia Room (2000) as well as the artist's two newest works, Garden Heaven - Holy Orders (2001-2003) and Martha's Cloth - Confirmation (2001-2004).

The Seven Sacraments are an important motif in art history and for centuries artists have struggled with their representation. Rogier van der Weyden's, Sacrament's Altar (1453-56), and Nicolas Poussin's two well-known series, Seven Sacraments (1635 and 1644-48), are fine examples, the latter of which served as an inspiration for Abigail O'Brien. O'Brien continues in this tradition of Seven Sacrament representation, albeit in a contemporary manner - with photographs, sculptures, everyday objects, embroidery and acoustical works. The individual Sacraments function as departure points for the artist's works, a piece of cloth becomes a uniting fabric for her embroidery work but then fades into the background once it is "decorated." The underlying connection, however, is recognizable and creates a relation between the individual works in the series. O'Brien uses the reference to religious ritual above all as a vehicle for the analysis of daily life, its customs, rites and dogmas, for, in the end, these affect every area of our lives.

The exhibition's concept takes into account the tension between religious and daily rituals by juxtaposing the works of Abigail O'Brien with those of Dutch genre painting. Genre paintings, in particular those of interior scenes, focus on domestic life and separate what society regarded as 'typical' activities from the many daily tasks. These, however, are not mere documentations of life in the home, but rather the representation of moral archetypes and the socially determined role of women, who are portrayed sewing, embroidering, peeling fruit, combing children' hair, plucking chickens or cleaning fish. Abigail O'Brien separates daily tasks, which she, too, connects with the female, from the domestic environment in a different manner than Dutch genre painting does. The portrayed scenes of family, which are associated, in the broadest sense, with care and security, have, on the one hand, a warm and at times bourgeois character and, thorough their aesthetic quality, a cool, sterile and detached character on the other.

The scenes of daily life appear isolated, as though brought to a standstill by the cool look of the artist, like a cliché that is exposed and rigid. Through these moments of concentrated pauses, frozen moments, the traditional daily life of women, with its activities such as washing, cooking, letter writing and handiwork, loses its hurried, banal character and is transformed into a ritual.

At the intersection of these two subjects - representation of daily life and sacraments, the artist critically poses the question of woman's role in society. It is the conflict between vita activa, the daily, this-worldly orientated life, and the vita contemplativa, the spiritual and otherworldly, Sacrament certified life that O'Brien displays using the female example. This is especially true of her last work, Martha's Cloth - Confirmation, devoted to the sacrament of Confirmation and the unusual strength of the Holy Ghost, in which she most explicitly addresses this conflict, ever present in all the works of the series. Here she refers directly to the story of Jesus' visit to Martha and Mary and presents Martha, not Mary, as the protagonist, which is surprising in view of traditional treatment of the Sacrament, but which is consistent with the series as a whole. O'Brien thus abolishes the imaginary hierarchy between the vita activa and the vita contemplativa -Martha is not freed of her spirit-less image of daily life nor is Mary, representative for the spiritual, dethroned. Martha's Cloth is an attempt to overcome the discrepancy between the transient and the permanent and to create a balance between earthly things, daily life on the one hand and the spiritual and religious life on the other.

This play with ambiguity, irony and ambivalence is characteristic for O'Brien's entire series. Her work, The Last Supper, establishes a connection between the sacrament of Marriage and the Last Supper. The frame is the common meal that the wedding couple celebrates with their guests or Christ with his Disciples. The objects in the installation (a table, a chair, a place setting) suggest the last solitary meal before the wedding but leave the question open as to whether it is the last meal before the promised happiness as a couple or if it is the last supper in freedom before the imprisonment of marriage begins. Does the single place setting refer to the loneliness in or before marriage? The artist does not offer any clear message or judgment but rather persists in her ambiguity. It is precisely this frankness and parallelism of feelings, the different aspects of parting when passing from one stage of life to the next that is manifest here. The Sacraments represent, therefore, important passages and decisive transitions in a person's life. It is these so-called rites of passage that assume a dominant roll in this series by O'Brien.

Abigail O'Brien's works have been shown in numerous international solo and group exhibitions since 1993 (among other places in Dublin Venice, Warsaw, New York, Berlin and Dusseldorf). In 2002 O'Brien presented her work, Extreme Unction - From the Ophelia Room (2000) in the exhibition, Stories. Erzählstrukturen in der zeitgenössischen Kunst (Stories: Narrative Structures in Contemporary Art), in the Haus der Kunst in Munich. Having been awarded prizes from several Irish art institutions, her work is part of many public collections (including the Volpinum, Vienna, the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, and the Caldic Collection, Rotterdam).

IMAGE
Werkgruppe / Cycle Letzte Ölung -
Aus dem Ophelia Raum / Extreme Unction -
From the Ophelia Room,
2000 Detail "Evanesce" Eisskulptur /
Unikat / one-off work Installation der Ausstellung /
installation view
© Abigail O’Brien


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