I liked the Timeline Tourist pieces. They are explicit in referencing war, and so you are confronting it head on, as it were. I thought the way you placed the images so concretely in the Baltic landscape, by the dunes, the grass, the trees, was striking and particularly so for western European eyes. And the sailing past, the looking in, the casually observing, the being separate from - seem to me to be part of the development of your work. The viewer has actually to take a position, and the artist does not direct this. So it stays with you, the viewer.
The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man" this notion represents a philosophically complex discourse because it allows us to reflect and to explore the relationship between time and space as well as between human beings. The work of Irish artist Fion Gunn reflects and encompasses this way of thinking and it is evident in the body of work for this exhibition, where the core issue is that of “memory”, that it is the perspective of an artist who is also a woman in the "River of Time", who depicts life, her perceptions of the world and of herself in painted shorelines.
I have known Gunn for several years now and have witnessed how she recognises, both in her artistic and her curatorial practice that to focus on humanity itself is the most fundamental and most ambitious theme: to promote justice, equality and not to compromise when confronted with evil.
This series about "memory" shows Gunn as an artist with a specifically feminine perspective which is sensitive and subtle; this is a very special body of work where Gunn demonstrates that she is not only an artist but also a daughter, a mother, a grandmother and a wife. The work describes half a century of her life, it includes all her different perspectives and identities and reveals a complete, comprehensive three-dimensional image of a contemporary women and a contemporary artist. As a scholar of contemporary art, I think that these works do not only represent the artist’s public persona or artistic ambition but, rather show her inner self and her vulnerability.
She employs a range of different materials and collage as she explores "memory". The colours are bright and vivid; the aim is not to represent reality, but rather to construct internalised landscapes, where many real, historical events from different places and times, are juxtaposed with the artist’s own personal narratives.
In "bridge of memory", composite landscapes from the UK, France, Spain and even China appear on the same canvas, this is not the depiction of a real place, it is a product of the artist’s thoughts about the meaning of the word “bridge”. Gunn has drawn on her own personal experience as the source for its construction, the landscape does not exist in the material world, it only exists in her own memory. In addition, the use of blue is striking in this work, the description of the sky and the ocean - bright blue on one side to conjure the artist's inner world filled with love and the celebration of life. The colours are beguiling, even when the images are sorrowful or difficult, they still give a vision of hope to the viewer.
I think that Memory Lens, another artwork in this series is very significant for Gunn as an artist. She uses collage and multi media to conjure her own childhood, beside an image of herself as a child she juxtaposes an image of her granddaughter, creating an illusion of parallel space and time. For the viewer this arouses a powerful sense of the passage of time, a sense of humanity’s shared experience and common roots. The “journey of life” exposed in these collaged paintings, shows Gunn’s concern to include her the images of grandmother and other family members as part the creative process itself and it is really worth focusing on this aspect, for we are given full access to the artist’s personal perspectives and emotions during the making of her work. The artist uses specific methods of editing her own feelings, perspectives and memories, across the generations and over a long period of time, which enable her work to resonate with people from other cultures and of other ages. Her work also convinces the viewer, even though logically and intellectually we know that time does not flow backwards “water spilled can never be retrieved” however, in this particular artist’s world anything can happen, for in art like this the viewer can feel unchanging nature of humanity and its timelessness.
As a friend of the artist for a number of years, I’ve known Gunn both as a fine artist and as a curator and witnessed her adhere to her ideals. Following the death of her mother and with her father suffering from dementia, Gunn has concluded that " memory", which includes the totality a person's life, the ups and downs and complications, is also one of life's most valuable assets and her current artworks are replete with these treasures. I wish Fion Gunn every success with The Painted Thread exhibition, I hope that many people will have the opportunity to see these paintings, to be inspired by them, to share and value them.
Beside the “River”
The act of remembering has been a way for me to preserve a sense of self from the time I was a small child. I have always felt that it was important to remember the unhappiness as well as the happiness, to avoid being lulled into a false sense of security, to remember that we live on a knife edge......
Remembering has also been an obsessive part of how I make artwork, I don’t like to work from observation, I prefer the plaiting and weaving of remembered ideas, emotions, an exploration of how these are projected on the external world and how that world impacts on them.
When I first embarked on this series of work ‘Bridge of Memory’ in 1998 I did so as a result of reading ‘Lost Letters’ by French historian Olivier Blanc. The book examines the last letters written by a number of individuals who were sent to the guillotine - letters should have been sent to relatives or friends, but ended up in a box in the Conciergerie for two centuries before Blanc found them inadvertently. They provide an extraordinary insight into what people think of in the last hours of life, what is prioritised and what is remembered.
As my own father sinks into dementia, doctors have explained that even though he will not remember narratives or ideas or people, the memory of emotions will stay with him and therefore he can access a level of happiness and contentment. However this ‘stripping back’ of his personality has repercussions for all his family and for me personally. He has no memory of ever having been a harsh father, he remembers me as being a really good girl, of whom he is proud. He retains no memories of what he did to me – what would his last letter be now?
Faced with this elderly vulnerable man who addresses me in the most loving way and who is so delighted when I call him, I can harbor no resentment, I forgive, I let go. In so many ways this is a relief but it still makes me desperately sad…….
Of course, the issue of memory and what we leave behind is a contentious one, where each perspective adds a layer of complication. I can’t disremember what has happened, I can’t disown the unhappy past because then I would lose all sense of self - I would betray everything I felt as child and as a young adult. I hope that I have avoided passing on the negative aspects of my life to my children and now my grandchildren, but who knows?
So this was the personal starting point for Bridge of Memory and it has grown outwards to encompass my lifelong interest in history, the fascinating and often disturbing narratives which bind us together or tear us apart as individuals, families, cultures and nations.
This series of work is full of disjointedness and connectedness - of painted images merging into photographic ones, of personal images joining impersonal ones to create an overarching narrative which belongs to all of us. It is an effort to reconcile a complicated past, to celebrate a personal escape and an acceptance of what my life has become. It is also a cataloging of my own memories of places I have visited and the impact that they have had on me, perhaps to ward off the fear of developing dementia myself.
Recently I took my two grandchildren to the new Tate Switch House - what a brilliantly positive experience it was. The staff are friendly and helpful, the exhibits are accessible for all kinds of audiences and the building is wonderful. I took them into the Louis Bourgeois rooms and they were really gripped! Apart from liking the anatomical bits especially any 'bum' or 'boobie' references they loved drawing under the spider 'Maman' and were very drawn to 'A Woman Without Secrets'.
They were so inspired that they made some drawings of this which I'm posting here. Boèce who is five and a half commented that there weren't any ears or hair, so he added these in.... and also he was troubled by the lack of arms and legs so he added a couple of these in as well. Léone who is three and 9 months was not bothered by these omissions but felt that the heads could do with a bit of green.
The background colour of the drawings is yellow - that's the only colournI brought with us and doesn't necessarily reflect the children's preferred choice.
From the left Bob Lee, Fion Gunn, Helen O'Riain, Jane Clegg
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes. (Marcel Proust)
From 12-14 May our Proust reading group met in Paris to discuss the last section of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu having spent the last 3 years reading it. Unfortunately the 5th member of the group Jane Faulkner was unable to come.......
In those 3 years we had meetings every 6 weeks or so where we shared our responses to the work and researched the historical, social, political and artistic context in which Proust wrote and it has been both enjoyable and rewarding on many levels. I recommend the process highly.
DISCOURSE ON DISAPPOINTMENT
Who gets to be a hero? what happened to the women?
In Beijing 2012 I curated an exhibition entitled ‘Intimate Revolution: Discourse on Disappointment’ where artists explored the experience of women at times of social change and upheaval. I dedicated this exhibition to my grandmother Rita O’Beirne née Mintern, because what happened to her on a personal level was so typical of women’s experience globally.
What is that experience? It is obliteration, being written out of history, being excluded from the new corridors of power, being expected to put up and shut up, being profoundly disrespected on every level. Has this changed? Well no, women in Cairo who were fashionably dressed successful business women and or well educated professionals 25 years ago are now covered up with veils and afraid to walk the streets in case they are aggressed and sexually assaulted for appearing in public. Those women who protested in Tahir Square were cowed into submission when digitally raped by large groups of men, spat on, abused and threatened. These were the groups of men which the women had come out to support – to plead their case, to protest as comrades, ah…. there’s a tale of betrayal, a tale of profound and ongoing disappointment.
Was it any different for the women (and girls) who fought in the War of Independence? Maybe not the gang digital rapes but in other ways, frighteningly similar. Those Irish women lived in a world where rape went unreported because they would be blamed for inciting it, where they were not allowed to control their own fertility (contraception was not legal until 1980) they were not allowed to divorce abusive partners (divorce was legalised in 1996), where Ireland’s abortion requirements were shipped over to the UK to maintain the country’s ‘pure’ reputation (still the case), where they were supposed to give up their jobs when they got married and God help them if they were deserted, because nobody else was going to.
The Irish Examiner published an article recently about James O’Beirne - my grandfather – and his ashes being brought back to Cork for a ‘hero's burial’. My grandmother who was at his side and was a member of the Cumann na mBan, who smuggled guns for him in a specially made corset, who raised money for the IRA with him (not sure if this can be counted as heroics….) was not mentioned. She was the breadwinner throughout their 9 years together in New York (1923-32) working as an Irish dancing teacher, she later bailed him out of financial trouble by selling her business when he had no one else to support him. Their daughter, my mother was not mentioned either, they have been excised from the narrative.
James (Jimmy) and Rita did not have a flash in the pan marriage, they were together from 1923 and married in New York on November 16 1926, I wear my grandmother’s wedding ring engraved with their initials and date of the wedding. They came back to Ireland in 1932/3 because my great grandmother was dying and Rita nursed her. My mother Frances Nuala O’Beirne was born on Christmas day 1935 and Jimmy was officially living with them until 1939 when he returned to live in New York, so that he could continue to raise funds for the IRA, or so the story went for them. The heart of this ‘micro history’ is all about secrets and lies.
Rita set up a restaurant over what used to be the Saxone Shoe shop on Patrick Street, she had a good business head and lived with her father, her sister and her daughter at no 3 Cornmarket St, where I grew up years later. Rita taught me to sing ‘twas down by the glenside’ when I was a small child – I got the words wrong and at the end of one of the verses I sang ‘we may have good men now but our women are better’ and I remember her bursting out laughing and saying ‘you’re right there!’
When my mother was 12 years old Jimmy came back, he was on the run again and needed a lot of money, so my grandmother, obviously being irredeemably naïve, sold up her business and gave him the money. What he had not explained was, that in the intervening years, despite the florid love letters, which I read as a curious child foraging in the attic, he had divorced her in absentia, married Elaine Lambert Lewis and his son John Ranalagh, (as featured in the Irish Times article) my mother’s half-brother, was by then 3 years old. My mother’s last memory of her father was seeing him on the street in Cork, he crossed the road and put his arm on her shoulder saying ‘I’ll see you soon Nuala’. She never saw him again.
There followed many years of financial hardship for Rita’s family, they also ran an ‘antique’ shop which was really more bric a brac and second hand goods, but they had to keep their end up. What was really amazing about all of this was that Jimmy’s family refused to reveal his whereabouts to my grandmother and continued to tell her that he’d gone off somewhere to fight and had probably been killed - but they couldn’t be sure!
I’d heard about Jimmy going to fight in the Spanish Civil War and years later when John Ranalagh, his son by his second marriage, came to dinner at my house he was able to fill in some of the gaps. John is a very interesting and engaging man and told me that his father had also been on the Long March in China with Mao Zedong, this was a gripping piece of information for me because of my ongoing artistic connection with China and having a nephew who lives in Shanghai…..
Some of the saddest things you’ll see in China are the monuments to those who participated in the Long March, so many names have been obliterated because those individuals had disagreed with the leaders or fallen out of grace for political heresy. Surely the ultimate disrespect is to remove someone from history, to deny their existence.
All of my grandfather’s adventures or none of them may be true, but what is sure and certain is that his brother my Uncle Paddy came to see my grandmother regularly and never told her the truth. As I played in the room where they sat together saying private adult things, I would hear him murmuring ‘we’ll never know Rita, we’ll never know’ to her, passing her the odd fiver because he knew how his brother had broken the family financially and of course, a couple of pots of honey from his beehives. I always hated the taste of his honey.
My grandmother, or as Jimmy called her in his love letters ‘my lotus bud’ finally learned the truth the hard way when she went to claim the widow’s pension and was told that she wasn’t a widow! I remember her coming home distraught and tearing up the photos in her wedding album. A very few survived thanks to some American relatives.
She had never been able to marry again – or even have a relationship with a man, because the climate in the new holy Catholic Ireland allowed women no quarter. My mother Frances, grew up embittered, rejected and always felt that people were sniggering behind her back, which they probably were, because Jimmy brought his new family back to live in Ballincollig for a number of years and Cork is a small place! The O'Beirne family never revealed the situation to Rita or Jimmy's daughter and the money from the sale of her restaurant which she gave to Jimmy was never repaid.
Frances confronted her uncle and cousin about this once and was told that she should ‘put all that in the past’ easily said…she was never able to enjoy motherhood or being at peace or simple affection, she always felt she couldn’t trust those things and led a diminished life as a result.
So when I saw this article ‘Independence Hero’s Ashes Come Home’ on 30 March, I felt a terrible need to write about the unsung hero that was my grandmother, flawed for sure, but she was loving, she was bright and she was brave. She had an unfulfilled life largely because of the lies and hypocrisy of Irish Patriarchal Catholic society wedded to the myths that surround armed conflict and the men who engage in it.
Our mother died on the 19th March this year just eleven days before the article in the Irish Examiner was published so I felt that I could write this now without causing additional grief. My sisters and I discussed it and agreed that it was just as well that Frances died before reading about her father’s ashes being brought back to Cork, without a mention of her, or her mother’s name, because that certainly would have killed her!
In memory of Rita O’Beirne née (Margaret Mary Mintern) 1902-1991
By Fion Gunn, Independent Artist Curator
Currently curating INTIMATE TRANSGRESSIONS, an international touring exhibition highlighting the plight of the Comfort Women and sexual violence in times of war. The exhibition has been shown in New York, Beijing and most recently in Hangzhou, China, next stop Taipei, Taiwan in October 2016. www.intimatetransgressionsproject.com
I've just spent an exhilarating 2 days with composer Liz Johnson http://www.lizjohnson.co.uk/ and choreographic installation artist Sarah Rubidge http://www.sensedigital.co.uk/ discussing our creative collaboration and making plans for a big multi disciplinary project in 2017/18. We'd started the dialogue before Christmas and have now drafted an outline plan for the project - we'll post updates as we reach our milestones in the coming year. It is a truly inspiring experience to have detailed and wide ranging discussions with practitioners from other creative backgrounds; this has made me realise that scheduling open ended meetings like this can be a significant support to any artist's practice.
Liz recorded most of the conversation - I'm now hoping that she will edit out all the swearing and laughing!
Well since my last blog entry where I was so optimistic about Certitude supporting the Sewing Group I had a salutary lesson in how minutes should always be taken and sent out to all attendees at decision making meetings as soon as possible.
In the event Certitude's offer to support our Group was not about providing core funding.... true, the 3 board members and 2 women from the group who attended the meeting all came away with that idea but we didn't send minutes out immediately and therefore couldn't counter Certitude's denial that this had indeed been their offer.
Of course, we were never going to continue without core funding so we have now begun the formal dissolution of our Community Interest Company.
It's been an amazing journey for Ifrah and myself and I'm sure that we will also work together in the future in different circumstances. In the meantime, Streatham Women's Sewing Group CIC which has trained over 170 women, has maximum attendance, exceptional participation from Somali & other excluded communities and great outputs/outcomes will cease to be formally as of 1 Dec 2015, 6 years after we began our activities.
Since 2009 when Ifrah Odawa and I set up Streatham Women's Sewing Group CIC it's been a constant struggle to raise even the tiniest amount of funding. Back in 2013 things were so difficult that we decided to give up - as soon as we did this, there was a flurry of local activity and funds were found so that we could continue.
An arts project grant from Arts Council England allowed us to continue last year but once again, with no money in our bank account and not having been paid for our weekly sessions since Sept 2014, Ifrah and I decided to wind up the Group - with a heavy heart.
As a last ditch attempt to raise some support I started an online petition - this was not working wonderfully because many of our participants have no computers, no email addresses, so yet another uphill struggle.
However, one person saw the petition and got in touch - Patrick Nyikavaranda, whom I'd met back in 2009/10 when we'd first started the Group and asked if we would meet the director of Certitude where he now worked because they might be able to help. http://www.certitude.org.uk/
So I set off for the meeting with Selamawit, one of the women who attends our sessions regularly and while we were prepared to beg and plead, we were not optimistic and expected to be fobbed off with vague offers of help and suggestions for strategies which we've already been through a number of times.
We were flabbergasted when the director Nicholas Campbell-Watts immediately offered us some basic funding, made extraordinarly positive comments about our work, reassured us that we would be supported, that our work was valuable and that we must continue.
Selamawit and I walked home feeling light headed, grateful and hugely optimistic for the future.
This year when I flew to China for IRISH WAVE 2015 it was with the intention of giving up, doing some great shows and then letting go of this project which has caused me such stress and financial difficulty over the last few years. I came back to London feeling very differently because of the great support we had from the Irish Embassy in Beijing this year - we felt genuinely supported and appreciated.
I realise while writing this that, of course, the appreciation will have to translate into significantly better funding for next year's IRISH WAVE.
However, I can't help feeling that it's only when I stop struggling and am ready to give up, that my projects gain support - this feels deeply counter-intuitive and weird!
I have a campaign going to challenge the hegemony of academic/museum curation which I believe is unhealthy and un-conducive to the democratisation of culture and the creation of new audiences for art.
If we were to turn the current 'curatorial' situation on its head - where most curators are academics/ gallerists or museum emplyees and look at say, the literary or academic world through the lens of visual artists – how would that pan out?
Visual artists would run all the publishing companies, they would people the boards of literary prizes and academic awards. Visual artists would review all new publications in newspapers and online and ‘curate’ all essay & short story collections. Their visual interpretations of literary conceits would dominate publishing decisions and critical responses. Unlucky for any writer whose book may not be ‘visual’ enough and very unlucky indeed for the academic whose recourse to visuals may not relate to their field of expertise.
Still, altered books, books sculptures and artists’ books would do well. Artists would have a lot of funding available to run conferences where all powerpoints presentations have minimal text but would include mixed media workshops and performances. Book covers would be strikingly avant-garde and multi-dimensional – all text would be judged on font aesthetic rather than boring old literary meaning. Damian Hirst would edit the next Oxford dictionary and Slinkachoo would ‘write’ a trilogy covering the life and times of Will Self using as few words as possible and in miniature format. There would be a movement for the dismissal of phonetic language and a return to pictograms….
This may appear facetious and strange, but for many artists and artist curators having an academic, a museum expert or an art critic, make decisions about which visual artists get seen by the public and in what contexts, is equally bizarre, invasive and inappropriate.
Fion Gunn is a London based visual artist with an international multi-media practice.