The Map, a monumental textile sculpture, represents the suffering of Irish women throughout the ages and is the second exhibition in the Magdalene Series at Rua Red.
“She was human: she bled, she cried, she sweated, she loved, she had emotion.”
The first thing that strikes you as you walk into the exhibition at Rua Red is the scale of the artwork. The dimensions of Alice Maher and Rachel Fallon’s collaborative project are not listed in the exhibition materials, but if I had to guess, I would say that The Map is about four metres high and six metres wide. It is a monumental work of art, rising far above the audience’s eyeline, and is easily twice the height of your average exhibition visitor. Its size is facilitated and accentuated by Rua Red’s capacious gallery space, shrouded in darkness, which invites the spectator to walk around and contemplate the powerfully illuminated artwork from many perspectives. Given the ample surroundings of the room, you are permitted to concentrate on the artwork without getting distracted by other visitors or worrying that your movement will block someone else.
This room is a necessity, because The Map demands your undivided attention. It is a hybrid artwork, equal parts tapestry, sculpture and mural. Maher and Fallon’s piece is one in a series commissioned by the gallery to explore the cultural, theological and political relevance of the Christian figure of Mary Magdalene, who features in all four Gospels of the New Testament as a follower of Jesus Christ, and appears at both his crucifixion and the empty tomb after his resurrection.
Magdalene’s role in the spiritual doxa of the Catholic Church is highly contentious. The prominence of her stature in the Christian pantheon was undermined by Pope Gregory in the 6th century, who made her synonymous with the prostitute that washes Jesus’ feet, despite the fact that nothing in the texts substantiates this connection. Gregory’s institutional misogyny is at odds with the Gnostic Christian tradition which, in texts like the Gospel of Thomas, portrays her as one of Jesus Christ’s most valued apostles, and often alludes to their romantic relationship. In Ireland, of course, Magdalene is perhaps most widely associated with the abominated system of Catholic asylums that took her name in the 18th century, designed as workhouses for ‘fallen women’, i.e. single mothers and girls in abject poverty.
Maoliosa Boyle was appointed the Executive Director of Rua Red in 2017. The genesis of the Magdalene series comes from her experience as a student in NCAD in the early nineties. “It was around this time that the last Magdalene Laundry in Sean McDermott Street in Dublin was closed,” she recalls, “and as a young single mother myself I was horrified at the fact that women were being institutionalised for being pregnant outside of marriage.”
In addition to her awareness of the growing scandal that surrounded the Magdalene Laundries, Maoliosa had started making work “around Mariolatry – the veneration of Mary – and was introduced to the work of the feminist writer Marina Warner… I became interested in the figure of Mary Magdalene because of how she was used to represent the polar opposite of the Virgin. Our image of her and everything that we know about her has been constructed by men. I was interested in the balance created between the two female characters. Dark and light, pure and sinful, heavenly and hellish, virginal and lustful. Mary Magdalene is usually represented as the penitent whore at the bottom of historical paintings, crawling around the floor, wet with tears and sinful. To me, she represented a realness. She was human: she bled, she cried, she sweated, she loved, she had emotion.”
Over the next two decades, Maoliosa kept returning to this constellation of ideas, and finally, when she had taken over at Rua Red, she decided that the time was right “to curate an exhibition with artists who would make interrogative work about the conflicted and mysterious figure of the Magdalene.”
Although I knew little about the show’s context when I visited the gallery – and I immediately connected with the artwork, because it is as bold and rich as it is immense – once I understood the background for Maoliosa’s curatorial framing, I was able to appreciate how apposite Maher and Fallon’s intervention in this series is. The Map is a multi-vocal artwork that speaks to the concrete struggles of contemporary feminist politics in Ireland at the same time as it references textual explorations of femininity from a range of mythic, poetic and theological sources. It is as though the nation’s collective unconscious has been analysed for every allusion to the female gender and the results were transformed into a cartographical survey. As you might imagine then, The Map has too many elements to summarise the artwork adequately – I can only hint at its depth.
Its various islands sit upon a vast ocean, which in turn is contained by a stellar, otherworldly void. This void is the unknown, a place beyond the land and sea. In one sense it represents the galaxy, where constellations of stars amount to pictures drawn by points of light, each of which are given evocative titles like ‘Death and the Maiden’, ‘Speculum (the Mirror)’, and ‘The Seven Devils’. It also alludes to ancient seafaring maps by depicting various personae blowing from the edges, a nod to the Greek Anemoi, minor gods who were characterisations of aspects of the wind. The largest landmasses in the ocean are distinguished from one another by colour: they are mustard, green, grey, white and peach. Each island consists of multiple landmarks, including urban structures, natural habitats, historical monuments, and psycho-imaginary zones. In addition to the scale and variety of the geographical features, one of the great joys of this artwork are the names that Maher and Fallon have assigned to their landmarks: Jezebel Heights; The Imaginal Forest; The Swamp of Transgression; The Ballroom of Romance, (its entrance above the Slippery Slope); Spinster’s Grove; Lacrima Peninsula; The Napery; Medea Drive; The Cave of Mitigating Circumstances, etc. In the centre of The Map an archipelago of small islets similarly rhyme and contrast with one another: Utopia, Heterotopia, Gordonia, Myopia, Hysteria, Melancholia, the Isle of Shits, Silly Isle…
That said, as much as the creativity of this linguistic surfeit is aesthetically appealing on its own terms, the artwork aims at something more: beyond the irony, there is forceful pathos. There are signs everywhere of an all-too-real history of violence and neglect, including references to Savita Halappanavar’s tragic death and the X case. The Map represents the suffering of Irish women throughout the ages, and lest you forget, you need only look down: spilling from the bottom of artwork, a copious web of blood-red material spools dramatically on the floor.
Intriguingly, Rua Red afforded the artists the opportunity to engage with a writer for the catalogue text, and from this suggestion another artwork has sprung. We Are The Map, a spoken-word performance based on a text written by Sinéad Gleeson, is exhibited in the adjoining gallery. Maher and Fallon are experienced collaborators, and the vividness of their artwork speaks to the strength of their creative partnership, but Gleeson’s lyrical intervention fits in neatly with their established aesthetic, a perfect accompaniment to the project. An ethereal voice rises and falls, buoyed by composer Stephen Shannon’s haunting score: “I am the women given letters, not names. I am Sappho. Marsha. Maura. Ena. Green Tara. Black Madonna. I am the first girl child they put into the septic tank…”
Words: Tom Lordan
Image: Ros Kavanagh
The Map: A collaboration by Alice Maher and Rachel Fallon at Rua Red is enjoying an extended run until Saturday March 12th.