Out of her shell

Amid-career retrospective of the work of Alice Maher, Becoming is hosted by the Irish Museum of Modern Art, in Dublin.

Out of her shell

Maher is one of Ireland’s most respected artists, and the exhibition includes work from the past three decades.

Becoming is at Earlsfort Terrace, in the ground-floor exhibition spaces of the National Concert Hall, which IMMA is using as renovations continue at its premises in Kilmainham. Curated by Seán Kissane, Becoming showcases a large amount or work in a labyrinth of interconnected rooms. The works are lit theatrically by Pan Pan theatre company’s Aedín Cosgrove, giving the exhibition a heightened visual impact.

Maher has created an installation in the lecture theatre, using small lights dropped close to the table’s surface to pick out details in the woodwork. These tiered, miniature lights look incredible as the rest of the room remains in darkness. One has to weave between the seating to read the text that has been illuminated.

“The installation is called L’Université,” says Maher. “It refers to this building’s history as a university — it once housed University College Dublin. I love looking at different spaces — that’s very interesting to me — as well as the history of the space. There’s a fantastic lecture theatre in there. All the desks were scraped with graffiti and people’s names. I’ve made this piece and just picked out certain ‘wanderings of the mind’, as I call them, rather than graffiti, because you know, when somebody’s at a lecture, they’re supposed to be listening to the sound of the central things going on. But what do they do? They draw or write the name of somebody they fancy, or some old puerile stuff.

“I didn’t really put any spotlight on the puerile, toilet stuff. There was a really beautiful one, really moving, and someone had written it on a certain date: ‘I love her’. And ten days later: ‘I still love her’. That’s really nice, so I put a little light on that, so you can go into the lecture theatre and go around the little desks and look at what’s lit up. Just to see what people were doing while their minds were wandering. That’s a really interesting topic.”

Maher is known for moving into new mediums as her career progresses. Sculpture in the 1990s saw her use nettles, snail shells, berries, bees, rose thorns and human hair. The work is refined and beautiful. Drawing features heavily in the show, and Maher has time and again returned to the medium. In the late 2000s, Maher animated the drawn image, collaborating with composer Trevor Knight to produce short films.

Becoming features work from different stages of Maher’s career. This creates new relationships between the bodies of work, but also reveals patterns in her career. The show knits well together, emphasising how specific themes have led Maher from one phase to the next.

“I try and follow what the work is looking for, rather than just keep painting,” says Maher. “The drawings wanted to move, it seemed to me. You can see the rubbed-out parts there. But what would happen if you could see all the different stages in the drawing? That’s exactly what animation is. It’s just another, really simple move to animate them.

“So, I’d go off and find out how to do that. I like finding out new stuff, new mediums. I work a lot, and I don’t sit around if things aren’t working out. I don’t wait around waiting for something to happen, I usually work through it, then on to the next stage. Just allow things to happen, allow the drawing to have its own life. Leave it off and try not to censor yourself too much about where it’s going, or what it’s turning into, or that it’s weird-looking. Just try and follow the thread of the drawing, where it wants to go.”

Maher has used film in her most recent work, Cassandra’s Necklace, which premieres in Becoming. Shot in her studio in Mayo, the two-screen film features a woman and a young girl, and its subject references elements from her previous work, such as berries and a necklace of tongues. It has a soundtrack by Trevor Knight, camera-work by Vivienne Dick, and is edited by Connie Farrell.

“Cassandra’s Necklace is being shown in a big space, an indoor tennis court. There’s a book accompanying the show. Seán [Kissane] had asked me who I’d like to write the essays for it. So, ‘Who’s your favourite writer?’ he said. My favourite writer from the 1980s is Angela Carter, she’s great. But Seán said, ‘well, she’s dead’.

“But I happened to be reading, in the London Review of Books, an article by Anne Enright. She was writing about Angela Carter, she had been in a class of hers. I said, ‘Anne Enright is the woman for me’. Anne found a fragment of a script that she’d written in 1985 that was never published. The script was called Cassandra, and that very name went straight into me, into my brain: ‘Cassandra, who’s that’? So, then, I started learning all about the figure from Greek mythology and made this film called Cassandra’s Necklace. I didn’t use the actual script, but it was inspired by the script and by the very name.”

Familiar objects are often made strange in Maher’s art work. Simplicity can be her strongest tool. Cell, which has been recreated for this show, was Maher’s first installation. It is a giant ball of brambles made inside Kilmainham Jail in response to the function of the building.

“Some of the stories people have brought to my work are as interesting as anything else,” says Maher. “I love it, actually, hearing what an audience has to say. People come to me afterwards and tell me what they did with nettles. I did these portraits, self-portraits with different things on me, like the moss and stuff.

“This very old woman came to me in Brighton and said that when she was young, during the war, they were all sent out of London to the country and they had to collect moss for the army, because they used it as camouflage. So that’s what it meant to her. It was nothing to do with the portrait, but her meaning was just as important. So, if you use a material that’s rich in materiality, people will bring their own meaning to it.”

* Becoming runs until Sunday, Feb 3, 2013.

More in this section

#ChoosetoChallenge

Did you miss our Virtual Event with Alison O’Connor, Aoife Moore, Clodagh Finn, Derval O’Rourke and Vicky Phelan