So Through The Singing Land He Passed

Michael-John Cervi // Conor Dowling // Caoimhseach Ní Lamhna // Emma O’Brien // Sophie Prendergast
curated by SABINA MAC MAHON in response to the work of MAIMIE CAMPBELL

The Easter Rising is an event as mythical as it was real. - Róisín Higgins 1

In 2015 Sabina Mac Mahon was invited to develop a new body of work for exhibition at The LAB, Foley Street in association with the ESB Centre for the Study of Irish Art (CSIA) and the National Gallery of Ireland as part of Dublin City Council’s 1916 Rising commemorations programme.

Following time spent studying archival material relating to Cuimhneachán 1916the National Gallery of Ireland’s 1966 commemorative exhibition - at the NGI’s Centre for the Study of Irish Art (CSIA), Mac Mahon decided to use Cuimhneachán 1916 and its archive as a starting point from which to formulate her response to the events of Easter week 1916 and its centenary celebrations.

In April 1966, under the directorship of James White, the National Gallery of Ireland presented Cuimhneachán 1916, an exhibition of “Pictures, Portraits and Pieces of Sculpture relating to Irish History” that formed part of the State’s official golden jubilee programme of public ceremonies and events celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising. Largely comprising portraits of participants in the Rising and described by one art critic as being ‘naturally enough, a historical rather than an artistic affair’2, the exhibition was an ‘unqualified success’ and attracted almost 60,000 visitors to the gallery3.

Among the notes on works borrowed for the exhibition and general administrative paperwork contained within the three files connected with the show, Mac Mahon came across a letter from a little-known Northern Irish artist named Maimie Campbell (1905-1997) offering to loan the National Gallery a small painting of The Death of Cúchulainn that she had made almost forty years before for inclusion in Cuimhneachán 1916. Coincidentally, in late 2013 Mac Mahon had begun researching the work of members of the pioneering South Down Society of Modern Art, active in Ulster in the mid-1920s. Maimie Campbell was a prominent member of the group and her painting of Cúchulainn (which was not accepted by the National Gallery for its Easter Rising golden jubilee exhibition of 1966) had been included in the two-part exhibition of the group’s work curated by Mac Mahon in Belfast in 2015.

Intrigued by this second chance encounter with Campbell’s work, Sabina Mac Mahon decided to invite five emerging artists to make new work in response to Maimie Campbell’s 1929 painting of The Death of Cúchulainn. The resulting exhibition, So Through The Singing Land He Passed, comprises photography, performance, video, painting, drawing and sculpture/installation that interrogates and reinterprets Campbell’s endearingly derivative but highly idiosyncratic take on avant-garde modernism, as well as her preoccupation with Cúchulainn, hero of the Ulster Cycle of mythological tales. Closer in spirit to the ‘truth’ of 19664 than that of 1916, So Through The Singing Land He Passed negotiated a commemorative tradition now synonymous with the cultural nationalism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century: the discrete, and almost exclusively Irish, practice of looking back to an imagined past of allegory and myth in order to memorialise, through symbol and metaphor, real people and events.

A small display of original paintings by Maimie Campbell and archival material relating to her life and work, as well as the Cuimhneachán 1916 exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland, completed the show, which ultimately existed as an ephemeral commemorative gesture that served to highlight the multiple frailties and failings inherent in any attempt to commemorate by drawing legitimacy from the past, whether real or imagined.

In his work The Exact Spot Where Patrick Pearse Surrendered: Parts 1, 2 and 3, photographer Conor Dowling documented the three sites on Parnell Street (then Great Britain Street) posited by various conflicting sources as the place depicted in the well-known “surrender” photograph of Pádraig Pearse and General Lowe, taken at 3.30pm on 29 April 1916, the day the Provisional Government of the Irish Republic effected its unconditional surrender. It contrasted with two smaller photographic works that bore witness to two places in Louth that Cúchulainn is traditionally associated with. These locations were echoed in Sophie Prendergast’s elegant sculptural pieces The Plain of Muirthemne (located in the north-east of present-day Leinster) and Clochafarmore (the stone pillar in Rathiddy, near Ardee, which Cúchulainn is said to have tied himself to during his final battle so he would die upright, facing his enemies). She also included a rare representational work,The Morrígan, phantom-queen harbinger of death, displayed alongside a small concrete sculpture entitled Leath de Dhá Chich na Morrigna.

Themes of life and death recurred throughout the exhibition and were highlighted in video and performance artist Michael-John Cervi’s The Living Death of Cúchulainn. Filmed in Dublin, the looped video showed a ‘living sculpture’ street performer repeatedly enacting Cúchulainn’s death in the guise of Oliver Sheppard’s iconic sculpture, The Death of Cúchulainn (1911-12), which was unveiled by Éamon de Valera as the official memorial to the 1916 Rising at the General Post Office in 1935. Emma O’Brien chose to depict the legendary hero in happier times, posing with his hereditary sword, crimson throwing shield and gáe bolga in a meticulously rendered larger than life-size drawing of the frontispiece illustration in L.M. McCraith’s 1924 text The Romance of Irish Heroes (an original edition of which was owned by Maimie Campbell) from which the exhibition took its name. His exuberant energy was also captured in Wonder-Hero, Hero-Light, a series of resolutely abstract paintings by Caoimhseach Ní Lamhna that attempted to capture the essence of fleeting impressions of events in Cúchulainn’s life that found parallels with real-life historical events associated with the Easter Rising, while simultaneously adhering to their own pictorial logic.

1  Higgins, Róisín (2013) Transforming 1916: Meaning, Memory and the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Easter Rising. Cork: Cork University Press, p.5.
2 Fallon, Brian (1966) ‘1916 History in National Gallery’, The Irish Times, 8 April, p.7.
3 White, James (1966) Form letter sent to individuals and organisations that loaned work to the National Gallery for inclusion in the exhibition. 
Cuimhneachán 1916 archive papers at the CSIA.
4 Higgins, Róisín (2013) Transforming 1916: Meaning, Memory and the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Easter Rising. Cork: Cork University Press, p.27.
Maimie Campbell
The Death of Cúchulainn
tempera on board
67 x 55 cm

Michael-John Cervi (b. 1984, London, England) received a BA (Joint-Honours) in History of Art and Fine Art (Sculpture) from the National College of Art & Design, Dublin in 2007 and from 2009 to 2011 studied Sculpture at HfBK Städelschule, Frankfurt am Main, Germany. He has also completed numerous training courses in performance and contemporary dance at the Gaiety School of Acting and DanceHouse, Dublin. Cervi’s work explores how the human body is performed in the public realm. He is particularly interested in civic statuary, monuments and memorialserected to permanently commemorate historical figures and events and combines his practice, which generally takes the form of street performance and ‘living’ sculpture, with an interest in lens-based media – photography and film – used to document his work. Recent exhibitions include Sand Sculpture Exhibition, Dublin Castle; and Sculpture in Context, Botanic Gardens, Dublin (2015). He has completed residencies at Leitrim Sculpture Centre (2014), National Sculpture Factory (2013) and IMOCA, Dublin (2012) and was runner-up for the Szpilman Award 2015. He is currently completing a public art commission for Scoil Mhuire na Dea Chomhairle in Moyglass, Co. Tipperary. He lives and works between Dublin and London.

Conor Dowling (b. 1979, Wicklow, Ireland) completed a BA in Documentary Photography at the University of Wales, Newport from 1997 to 2001 and received an MFA in Photography from the University of Ulster in 2012. He is currently undertaking a practice-based PhD at the University of Ulster and his research focuses on the connection between work by contemporary documentary photographers thatattempts to bear witness to past events and the early Celts’ belief in ‘thin places’, geographical locations in which there exists only a thin divide between past, present and future times. Recent exhibitions include Past-Present-Future-Perfect, The Library Project, Dublin (2015); Elsewhere, Ffotogallery, Cardiff and Impressions Gallery, Bradford (2014); Truths, Facts, Fictions, Lies, PhotoIreland Festival, Dublin (2014); Golden Mountain, TULCA Festival of Visual Arts, Galway (2013, curated by Valerie Connor); and New Irish Landscapes, Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, Beijing (2013, curated by Tanya Kiang). Dowling is the recipient of numerous funding awards from Wicklow County Council (2015, 2014), Arts Council of Northern Ireland (2014) and Culture Ireland (2014), and he was shortlisted for the Grand Prix at Łódź Photofestiwal 2013. He lives and works in Belfast.

Caoimhseach Ní Lamhna (b. 1992, Dublin, Ireland) received a BA (Joint-Honours) in History of Art and Fine Art (Painting) from the National College of Art & Design, Dublin in 2015 and is now completing an MFA in Painting at NCAD. Her resolutely abstract works combine found materials – scraps of timber, old picture frames reused as stretchers, fabric, string – with an approach to the application of paint that bridges the ‘happy accident’ gap between the intentional and the incidental. Each painting operates according to its own internal logic and reveals the cumulative history of its making on its surface. She is not precious about her work, and the haphazard process of its making is frequently reflected in the manner if its display. Recent exhibitions include Periodical Review #5, Pallas Projects and NCAD Gallery, Dublin; Eight-Letter Word, Basic Space, Dublin (2015); The Student and Recent Graduate Show, Catalyst Arts, Belfast; and One & One, Project Space, NCAD, Dublin (2014). Ní Lamhna was shortlisted for Talbot Gallery & Studios’ Most Promising Graduate Award 2015 and is currently working towards her first solo exhibition. She lives and works in her native Dublin.

Emma O’Brien (b. 1991, Dublin, Ireland) graduated from DIT with a BA in Fine Art in 2013. She creates incredibly detailed large-scale drawings of two-dimensional figurative artworks (paintings, prints, drawings and illustrations) dating from the early Renaissance to the mid-twentieth century in which the difference between aspiration and representation is impossible to distinguish. O’Brien reproduces the various realities her source images depict on a monumental scale that both magnifies and distorts them. She generally uses pencil, charcoal, ink and paper – materials that are usually considered to be preparatory to the final artwork or finished piece. Recent solo and group exhibitions include Drawings II from the National Collection of Contemporary Drawing, Limerick City Gallery of Art (2015); draW, The Joinery, Dublin; Summer Group Exhibition, Cavanacor Gallery, Donegal;Pencil on Paper, Broadcast Gallery, DIT, Dublin (2014); RDS Student Art Awards and Travelling Exhibition, various venues nationwide; and The Drawing Box, Higher Bridges Gallery, Fermanagh (2013). O’Brien is a founding member of the artist group PNCL and has completed residencies at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Monaghan; Cill Rialaig Artists’ Retreat, Kerry (2015); and Listhús Skammdagi, Iceland (2014). O’Brien lives and works in Dublin.

Sophie Prendergast (b. 1987, Cork, Ireland) studied Fine Art at Limerick School of Art & Design from 2008 to 2010 and graduated from IADT with a BA in Visual Arts Practice in 2014. She is currently completing an MA ARC at IADT and her work is largely concerned with the formal qualities of the physical and metaphorical values of abstraction. Prendergast examines the transformation of everyday materialsthrough an expanded concept of sculpture that references Western art history and cultural heritage and results in minimalist sculptural installations that elegantly explore the physical limits of the materials she used. Recent solo and group exhibitions include Compression, Ormston House, Limerick (2015, curated by Ed Krčma); Para-Sculpture, Ranelagh Arts Centre, Dublin (2015); The Future Perfect, Rubicon Projects, Brussels; 474:document|work|space,The Drawing Project, Dún Laoghaire (2014); and CAST, The Drawing Project, Dún Laoghaire (2013). She is the recipient of bursary awards from Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council (2016, 2015) and an Arts Council Travel and Training Award (2015) and has completed residencies at The Guesthouse, Cork (2016) and The Model, Sligo (2015). Prendergast lives and works in Wicklow.