Currently installed at the Garden Galleries in IMMA, El Lissitzky: The Artist and the State, is an exhibition curated by Annie Fletcher and Sarah Glennie. Although the show predominantly features the work of Russian constructivist artist and architect El Lissitzky, it functions more as an allegory to the work of Irish Revivalist poet, playwright, and author Alice Milligan. Combining museum-typical informative displays about Lissitzky and Milligan with offerings from contemporary artists Rossella Biscotti, Núria Güell, Sarah Pierce, and Hito Steyerl, the show’s disjointed feel compliments the varied work of Milligan, which ranged from newspaper articles to theatre, always bounding between the poetic and the historic. Assisting as curatorial advisor for the show is Dr. Catherine Morris, whose academic research forms the basis for our understanding of Milligan’s radical practice.
The significance of Milligan’s role in the Irish Revival of the early 20th century is often overlooked due to the scholarly conception that the Revival was a predominantly literary movement, overlooking the importance of other art forms during that period. Alice Milligan’s cultural output, which began during the centenary of the 1798 rebellion, was realised in local newspapers, magic lantern lectures, self-published journals and community theatre shows in the format of tableaux vivants, a form of theatre which featured silent costumed actors posing accompanied by a narrator. By using these tableaux to depict important moments through Irish history, Milligan sought to offer a vision for Ireland’s future which would grow from a critical awareness of its shrouded past.
The accessible format of Milligan’s tableaux performances allowed for them to be cheaply and easily re-enacted, thus reaching a wide audience. Costumes and sets were often built or sourced by the participants; these communal aspects of Milligan’s tableaux are referenced in Sarah Pierce’s works Gag and Wigs. Constructed from debris sourced during the exhibition’s installation, Gag combines the site-specific ethos of Milligan’s tableaux with the jagged geometric forms of Lissitzky’s drawings to create a protruding installation of small sculptural oddities.
Morris suggests that the silence of the tableaux had political connotations. Milligan was frustrated by the silencing of Irish women in the constitutional politics of the time; the pictorial tableaux representations allowed the (often female) participants to re-appropriate their silencing and translate it into an empowering act. While on hunger strike in Kilmainham Jail in 1923, a number of Irish women prisoners in A Wing performed a series of costumed tableaux vivants depicting republican heroes Robert Emmet and Anne Devlin for their comrades in B Wing. This display, as Morris writes, allowed them to show their allegiance to their historical forebears ‘whose legacy was, like their own experience, one of disempowerment, bodily torture and silence.’
Hito Steryl’s Surveillance, Disappearance, looks at the subjugation of the body under conditions of modern surveillance. An LCD monitor with a camera placed above it reflects a static image of the room in which it’s installed. Upon walking in front of Steryl’s monitor, the viewer’s body is transformed into a camouflaged silhouette which allows the viewer to see a Lissitzky offset print on the wall behind them, as projected through their own torso. While this piece dehumanises the viewer, turning them into an abstract transparent rendering, Steryl also provides temporary solace from a life lived under scrutinous surveillance: an imagined disappearance.
The works of Núria Güell and Rossella Biscotti resonate with the turbulent aspects of Milligan’s life as an Ulster-born protestant republican who, despite being proud of Belfast’s history of republicanism, felt a longing to be in Dublin. Güell’s work Stateless by choice. On the prison of the Possible is realised through legal documents, video footage, and photography, which charts the artist’s struggles to break free from state representation. The embroidery of Biscotti obfuscates demographic data into abstract chart-like geometric compositions which pose questions about the statistical nature of nationality and statehood.
Milligan once wrote: ‘These anniversaries of ours are no empty celebrations. We mean not alone to honour the dead but their principles that live as well.’ In the lead up to the 1916 centenary, it is apt that Milligan’s unconventional style of commemoration is being honoured and exhibited. Milligan’s work, whether it was performed or published, was equal parts accessible and radical; it was not over-concerned with mourning abstract concepts of the buried past, but rather pursued and made concrete the moments from history that she considered vital for her contemporaries’ understanding of their Ireland. IMMA’s exhibition poses itself as a fitting primer to what is likely to be a year focused on the ideas of commemoration and remembrance: ideas with which Alice Milligan should be synonymous.
The exhibition El Lissitzky: The Artist and the State runs at IMMA until Sunday 18th October.
Words: Aidan Wall