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"Views from an Island: Works from Irish Contemporary Art from the Collection of the Irish Museum of Modern Art"
2004-04-30 until 2004-05-22
Millennium Monument Museum
Beijing, , CN China

Putting together a group exhibition to represent your country is a daunting task. You ask yourself what are the qualities and issues that should be highlighted and how should this be married to aesthetic quality. The works in this exhibition are drawn almost entirely from the Collection of the Irish Museum of Modern Art which was founded in 1991, as the first ever national institution for the display and collection of modern and contemporary art in Ireland. The founding of the Museum coming as it did in the final decade of the 20th century marked, rather belatedly, the first real, national commitment to contemporary visual art in this country.

Since the collection is a young one, and not confined to Irish art alone, it is of course important to say that the Collection cannot and would not claim to be representative of all of the best developments in recent Irish art. Instead the Collection aims to be challenging rather than comprehensive, to buy interesting artwork rather than to try to build a complete collection of the most well-known artists. It is from this developing context, this Collection in the Making, that this exhibition is drawn,

What are the first things that spring to mind when Ireland is mentioned? A small island on the edge of Europe that is home to Guinness’s stout and a strong music tradition? The training ground for soccer heroes, Roy Keane and Damien Duff and stars of the entertainement business such as Colin Farrell and U2 or the source of inspiration for Nobel Prizewinning writers Yeats, Beckett and Seamus Heaney? A country that has emerged, less than a century ago, from a history of political and economic exploitation and where the resulting political struggle, generally known as ‘The Troubles’, continues in Northern Ireland to this day? A country in which the Catholic Church has had enormous power and in which religion has been a deeply divisive factor or a country that ships its sons and daughters abroad to work? A country with a literary and musical tradition but not widely known for its visual signifiers…?

The most obvious facts about Ireland are that it is a small island, on the westernmost edge of the European landmass, with a population of approximately 4 million people, most of whom live along the East coast while the remainder of the country is sparsely populated, and still predominantly rural. The economic situation has changed radically in the last decade, so that a sudden period of prosperity, largely resulting from European Union support, has brought industrial development to a point where, for the first time ever census figures suggest that fewer people are now employed on the land than off it. That brief period of prosperity did much to slow down mass- emigration from the country and to lure people from different cultural backgrounds to settle here. Cultural diversity and growing urban populations are challenging the old, conservative, rural order and forcing a re-appraisal of the role of the church and the politics of nationalism which have dominated Irish history up to now.

The history of colonisation and the difficulties that it brought with it influenced the history of art (and the lack of it) in this country, as it did everything else. This meant little support for visual art and the subversive growth of less economically dependent artforms such as folk music and literature. There was little or no infra-structural support for visual art in terms of education, opportunities for exhibition or critical engagement. For much of the 20th century the newly independent Irish government promoted the development of marketable, visual images of the country that were conservative and academic. Without a strong tradition of structural, critical or financial support there was little experimental art. Change began to emerge in the 1940s and developed momentum in the 1960s when the first of a series of major, international art-exhibitions, entitled Rosc (ancient Irish word meaning love, and also battle cry) was held and Louis le Brocquy, one of the better known of the Irish modernists, was invited to develop a series of illustrations to accompany a new, translation into English of the ancient Irish legend, The Táin. The new publication of The Táin legend, one of the great heroic tales of Ancient Ireland, gave the people of Ireland something native of which they could be truly proud. The gritty realism, the humour and the energy of Thomas Kinsella’s translation found a perfect counterpart in LeBrocquy’s semi-abstract, ink-blot illustrations, later turned into a set of 20 tapestries, which accompany this exhibition. The book brought History/Literature and Modernism together and sowed the seeds for the revolution in Irish culture that was to grow, especially in relation to the visual arts over the next four decades and to lead to the foundation of the Irish Museum of Modern Art and the context against which an Irish artist could win the Premio Duemile at the Venice Biennale in 1995.


Kathy Prendergast
Body Maps
watercolour and pencil on paper
Various Dimensions

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