I started work on Age of Exploration: Spice about 6 years ago when I found this wooden case dumped on a nearby street. Initially I laid out a trail of cloves on the floor of the case and then ground to a creative halt. Last November I opened the case again with a clear idea of what I wanted to do with it, complicated.... It kept me awake nights but the complexity helped me to get through a hard time and it has been one of the most enjoyable pieces I have ever made. My son filmed it for me - it's always difficult to capture a 3D piece in a 2D photo, what the film doesn't capture is the fragrance of the spice landscape, it is in fact an olfactory experience as well as a narrative of exploration. What started me thinking about making this piece in the first place was a visit to the Musée Nationale de la Marine in Paris about 12 years ago; I saw a wonderful model ship made entirely out of cloves and of course, this was made by a sailor who had nothing else to occupy him during the many months at sea. He made the work about what was close to hand, a hold full of cloves and the ship he was sailing in and he created something magical.
For the last couple of months, apart from from the 3D work I have been working on the paintings/collages also. These 2 artworks 'The Dreams of City Dwellers' #2 (above) and 'A Child's View of Babel' (below) both reflect my ongoing fascination with cities, their complex histories and the movement of peoples to and from them. These works will be featured in 'On Paper' curated by Chang Feng in Shanghai this April.
In common with many people I have experienced 2017 as a year of cancellations, frustrations, disappointments but it's also been one of my most creatively productive years ever. I took heart when reading Waldemar Januszczak's article "In praise of older women". In it he describes the plight hitherto of most artists who are over 50 and who crucially, are women and writes "If the lifestyle sections are genuinely interested in predicting our artistic future, hey need to be trawling the nation's old people's homes and shouting "Is anyone here a forgotten artist?" Because that's where the money is."
All I can say is yes, but do we have to wait until we're in the old people's homes? do we have to wait until we are too old and frail to achieve the ambitious and large scale projects which we want to achieve but can't because we haven't got the money! I'm always so thrilled to hear about artists like Phyllida Barlow and Lubaina Himid finally getting some recognition and keep hoping that I may someday get a break - after 37 years of making art through all kinds of challenging circumstances, maybe 2018 will be the year that my work gets seen and gets recognised.
I meant to write this post on New Year's Day to keep to my schedule as conscientously as possible - didn't manage of course because the decision about my use of time came down to making art work or writing about making artwork..... I finally have got the time to write because I'm bedbound with a nasty bug and can't stay upright for too long, so a break from the studio is in order.
In the run up to this year's big exhibition in Beijing with Niamh Cunningham, Gulistan and Jin Mei (our working title is 'Like an Iceberg') I've started work on a series called 'Age of Exploration'. The first finished work is on my homepage and the slideshow above shows progress on a larger work in the series which is in 4 parts. In fact I can't work on more than 2 parts at any given time because the studio is too small.....
Of course, I started work on it without measuring the ceiling height in my dining room (the only wall in the house that can take it) and then discovered that it's 10cm too low. This meant setting up a system of leaning supports so that I could actually assemble the work and check that everything would link up. I'm going to ask a kindly neighbour with a higher ceiling to lend me a wall once I've finished the painting
These photos show the ongoing progress, the stretching is temporary because it will have to be destretchered for transport to China and I need things to be floppy so I can do the sticking and burnishing.
As there's a lot of cutting out to do I time the process and try to watch videos/films related to the theme while scissoring away which is quite fun in a nerdy way. So far I've watched all 4 series of Vikings (it's not great so I on't feel bad about keeping one eye on the cutting out all the time) as well as In the Heart of the sea. That comes out at 4 series x 10 episodes - each 45 mins = 1,800 mins + the film which is 122 so a total of over 32 hours of cutting out excluding the cutting out where I've been listening to music or having a conversation on the phone. Nothing like multi tasking.
I'm also rereading old favourites like Huckleberry Finn, Treasure Island and Lord Jim which were such memorable experiences from my childhood and adolesence. So that's all the 'light side' to the project, there is of course a darker one which relates to crossing water as a refugee or a migrant and this is the aspect that keeps me awake nights. I watched The Crossing recently, an extraordinary documentary film about the Irish Navy resue mission in the mediterranean
I wish that all those people who use refugee almost as a term of insult would watch this and begin to understand the difficulty of what being a displaced person means.
As we sail into 2017 I want to make art about important ideas, histories and ethics, to seek meaningful collaborations and reach out to many people - to dive into my own age of exploration.
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
Fion Gunn is a London based visual artist with an international multi-media practice.