OROTHY CROSS is sitting in the vaults of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, explaining why the extinct, stuffed bird should be placed in front of Roy Keane. Clearly, and rightly enough, she thinks Roy is a rara avis, and one of a dying species at that. She does not, let us be clear, think he is a dodo. “It’s a solitaire,” she says, “which is a relative of the dodo, but I thought it was a more poetic name – better for Roy!”
Those familiar with Cross’s work will know her habit of suggestion through juxtaposition of combination. She’s made a basking shark currach, and complemented the Crawford’s collection of marble casts with a massive whale bone. She’s courted controversy in the past by draping a cowhide and udders over a statue of the Blessed Virgin, or by putting a female figure on the crucifix, or boring a hole through a bible with a drill.
This time, however, it’s a little different. The show, Trove, is the result of Cross being let play the magpie among the collections of several national cultural institutions: the National Museum, the Natural History Museum, the National Gallery, the Crawford Gallery in Cork and IMMA itself.
Getting back to Roy Keane and the Rodriguez solitaire, she elaborates: “It’s a show of a group of very diverse things. There will be a different sensibility in each room. You’ll have a room full of ogham stones, a room where there’s a projection of a painting of the Assumption. And when you know that bird is an extinct solitaire, straight away that piece of information makes it richer.
“The photo taken of Roy, he’s holding a bird’s skull – that’s the only one in the national collections – so that relates. It’s not that the rooms are themed, but I’m very interested in the dialogue that goes on between works and objects. It’s about the energy and dynamics between things.” So, in that sense, some elements of it do and some elements of it don’t [feel like a Dorothy Cross show].”
Murdo Macleod’s 2002 portrait of Keane became instantly iconic at a time when Keane was dividing the nation. A beguiling image, it is one of three photographic portraits in the show. One of Samuel Beckett, of the artist Louise Bourgeois and Roy Keane, three personal heroes for Cross.
“I come from Cork and I’ve always adored Roy Keane, not because I come from Cork, he’s iconic. It’s not so much about the photograph of Roy Keane, but the essence of him, his life,” she says.
The invitation to delve into the national collections arose as a byproduct of one of the Government’s notions for the arts. In this case, the idea of amalgamating the national cultural institutions. The consultations between the institutions as they worked out a strategy to defend against this motion, now thankfully sidelined, led to the opening of some new lines of communication. Those ties will now bear fruit in Trove, Cross’s personal selection of 100 objects.
“I said yes immediately,” Cross says. “To have access to those stores was a fantastic opportunity. In some sense it relates to the way I work: I gather things. the initial visits to the museums were fabulous. You get down underground into the basement of the National Museum, you see cupboard after cupboard of bog butter, this ancient stuff that was buried in the bogs for thousands of years... there is so much like that there.”
Cross’s work has often considered something the museums exist to prevent: the fragility of cultural heritage. Her Endarken was inspired by the crumbling of Famine cottages in the Connemara landscape where she lives, while her Ghost Ship, from 1999, itself became a victim of Irish cultural negligence.
Ghost Ship was presented as an homage to the light ships that once marked the coast of Ireland for ships, replaced now by electric buoys. The project involved a ship moored off Scotsman’s Bay, Dun Laoghaire. Covered in luminous paint, it glowed through the night. In the end, it was sold for scrap. “That should have been bought for heritage,” she says.
“That idea of vulnerability is one thing I am very interested in and which has come through in this,” she continues. “The fact that these museums maintain things that otherwise would have been lost or maybe found in your attic, that is very important. But what we usually see is perfection, in a museum, something conserved to perfection. We don’t normally see any cracks. But I was very keen to show that.”
She tells of seeing Charles Poerson’s Assumption in the National Gallery with conservators’ plasters on it, like bandages for wounds, and how she is incorporating that image into the show.
Cross’s vision seems a timely one, and an apt reminder, of the parlous state of the nation’s museums and galleries. That has made the vulnerability Cross is visualising a topic of welcome public debate. Cross doesn’t see Trove as a direct response to that, but isn’t happy with the way museums are being treated. “It is outrageous that the museums are having their money cut back. They are so underfunded as they are. The amount of money they need is minuscule compared to what is being paid in a lot of other territories.
“And the staff at these institutions are brilliant, there is a sense of massive love for these objects. It’s terribly important that more money is put into it.”
Born in Cork in 1956, Cross has been a leading figure in contemporary Irish art since she returned from a decade spent in the US and the UK in the 1980s.
Through her multi-media practice, she has drawn on her own life experiences to explore themes of gender, religion, identity and sexuality, often questioning prevailing dogmas around such themes in ways that has been deemed provocative.
“I never intended to outrage,” she says, “though everyone says I did. I’m not a troublemaker at heart.”
No agitprop artist, Cross’s inspiration is purely aesthetic, rather than political.
“When I saw that sieve made out of a cow’s udder in Norway, that set the ball rolling there,” she says in reference to a period of work the produced Virgin Shroud.
“It was a frisson of excitement that came from an art-informed mind but also a physical response. It was surreal, there was a brutality involved in it, but also a functionality. I felt, oh wow, I’ve never seen anything like that before, and that’s how I feel about art. It’s something you’ve never seen before, and that, in itself, is enough.”
Cross has enjoyed long-standing relationship with IMMA. A piece of hers was bought by the museum soon after she returned to Ireland in the 1980s.
“For a young artist that is terribly important,” she says, “but now IMMA has no budget to buy. It’s a struggle enough as a young artist, but that endorsement was important. To me, as an artist working on my own, I work very much on my own; that endorsement said to me, it’s OK.
“It feels to me like there is a very healthy young population of artists coming out now, and they needs support. It is shocking that the Government does not respect art enough to fund it properly and yet they ride on the back of culture every chance they get. It is an abomination.
“The things that are in these museums are not rotting, I should say, they are not under threat, but they are not seen, because they don’t have enough money to show them.”
Harry Jones Thaddeus was among many Irish artists who went to France during the 1880s for further artistic training. The Wounded Poacher was designed to show off the young artist’s talent.
“It’s a kind of a sentimental painting and very narrative, which I normally don’t go for,” says Cross, “It’s very sexual, and it’s nostalgic too. As a young woman I made a print; when I was invited into the National Gallery to make a print I chose that one. You see it next to a Durer hare, this beautiful hare next to a man who kills nature. I love that relationship.”
Cross sees this pairing of John Comermerford’s portrait and a shark’s tooth as close to how she works in her own practice. “You see this in your head and you think, ‘Yes, that might work.’ But then you see it, and even the colours work together. The tooth has black and amber in it and those are the dominant colours of the Emmet sketch, made at his trial before he was beheaded.
“What you have is this big contrast between something that was once in the mouth of a massive shark and this diminutive portraiture.”
Lievensz was a close associate of Rembrandt, so much so that some of their works are difficult to attribute to one or other. Head of an Old Man is one of his finest works, betraying in its light and dark tones the influence of Caravaggio. “This is a a beautiful realistic portrait of an old man,” says Cross. “Next to it we’ll have this exquisite elephant bird egg in the Natural History Museum. The egg had the same scale as that, it’s enormous. It’s about time, mineral-culture-human. That thing of putting the egg next to the Lievenz that’s really what I’m about – nature meeting the human.”
Seamus Heaney once spoke about the radiance and Patrick Scott’s use of gold – “that most ancient magical sacred element”. Those very associations spark speculation about what ritual or ceremonial use may have attached to the unique Bronze Age gold beads found at Tumna in Roscommon. “The precious and ancient nature of the spheres ties in with Pat’s own sources,” says Cross.
“I didn’t want the Caravaggio from the National Gallery,” says Cross, “but I did want a beautiful selection of items which to me were about vulnerability. There were paintings that were waiting for conservation that had little pieces of bandage on them. They looked like wounded paintings. I adored them, but the museum is afraid of allowing that out.” The solution was to project an image of Poërson’s painting, bandages and all, onto a ceiling. “In it being projected through light, it puts this fabulous image of the Virgin Mary in some heavenly manifestation.”