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Bearing Witness

The archive as witness in a world of disinformation

Archive folders

Nowadays the word ‘archive’ is very fashionable. Go to the Venice Biennale and many of the exhibits will be labelled (whether by the artist or by the curator) as an archive. Entire exhibitions by contemporary artists are frequently so designated and, of course, for most performance artists, the nature of the work residing in its ephemerality, the archive, meaning photographs, plans, charts and other documentation, is the only record of its performance. That word ‘ephemeral’ is of necessity a major component of any true archive as people rarely collect what seems to them to be quotidian, banal, or of limited yet throwaway interest. You have to be a hoarder to keep bus-tickets, theatre programmes, or catalogues from seventy or eighty years ago…

Time, as we are constantly told, is the great judge. But most of us can’t wait until we are close to death before we make the judgements. So, the art of the archive is in the collecting of material that, at the time, seems valueless but which, in the later judgement of the historian, sociologist or psychologist (to name but the most obvious) is of marked value. I keep all kinds of archives but the one I want to look at here is the art archive. Now you may well be thinking that the archiving of artists is a well-trodden path. After all, if you live in England or Scotland or Wales, you can go to your national institutions, for example to the Royal Academy of Arts or to the National Gallery or to the Victoria and Albert Museum, and even if you are enquiring about some obscure Victorian artist, you will find most, if not all of his or her catalogues, neatly filed, along with newspaper and magazine references. Not so in Ireland however.

Let me give you just one example of the Irish mindset. The major daily newspaper in the Republic of Ireland, famed for its coverage of the arts, was and is the Irish Times. For almost fifty years its chief critic and for many years the editor of its arts pages was Brian Fallon. Shortly before he retired, he wrote a column in which he said that he regularly threw out the catalogues of the shows that he had reviewed because they were not worth keeping. This was not an aberrant attitude. There are only two archives of any substance in Ireland in relation to art. One of them is at Trinity College Dublin (but it stops at 1950!) and the other is at the National College of Art & Design in Dublin.

The former archive is largely the work of two deceased art historians and consists essentially of images cut out of newspapers and magazines, along with a very limited number of catalogues. The latter, the brainchild of the recently deceased librarian Eddie Murphy who started it in the early seventies, is the archive in Ireland but, believe it or not, even for artists of the seventies, eighties and nineties, (never mind earlier periods) there are often huge gaps in terms of their catalogues. Galleries, when closing down, routinely dumped their catalogues in a skip. One Northern Irish university dumped over 60,000 volumes within the past decade…

When I started going out with an artist in the early seventies (I ended up marrying her), the die was cast. By the turn of the next decade I had started to write about art, reviewing exhibitions, writing articles and catalogues, even by the end of that decade writing books and curating exhibitions.

I had learnt, swiftly, when I left teaching to write full-time, circa 1981, that as I lived in the country and couldn’t afford to travel daily to Belfast, I needed to create my own reference library. I also learnt that, at the start of the eighties, there was remarkably little written about Irish art, and no archive of any substance in the North. So, I started to amass material. At first this was essentially an archive of what I wrote about: exhibitions, interviews, articles for newspapers and magazines, and photographs. I would ask artists to send me exhibition photographs and copies of anything that had been published about them; I kept notes when viewing exhibitions, collected catalogues, posters, flyers, invitations; I made a point of interviewing an artist (if at all possible) when he or she had an exhibition. Naturally I extended my searching to second-hand bookshops, charity shops, car-boot sales and the like. Being an idiot (and you have to be an idiot to want to do this kind of thing because nobody pays you for it and nobody, at the time, thanks you for it) I travelled all over the North and frequently down to the South of Ireland, even over to London or Glasgow or Edinburgh for example, in quest of material. Nobody paid me expenses. Quite why my wife put up with me I do not know.

I started to review catalogues in various magazines — believe it or not, when I started in the early eighties no one else was doing so and even today, when I write a quarterly catalogues column for the Irish Arts Review, I find that, so far as I know, I am still the only person so doing. Catalogues, even one-page ones, are the fundamentals of art history. What work was shown when, and where? What size was it? What media was it in? These are very basic facts, but you would be surprised at how often, for Irish artists throughout the twentieth century and beyond, these simple basic facts cannot be established.

It was probably only in 2002 that organisation became a major factor. Previously I had written art-related material for a huge number of magazines and newspapers, but I consciously streamlined my writing and, by 2002, I was largely producing work only for the American magazine Sculpture and for the Irish Arts Review which had just become a quarterly. Having been headhunted for the magazine and having initially refused, I changed my mind when asked what I might like to do. I said I wanted to produce a major interview with a living artist, and a catalogues column in every issue, plus the occasional article and book review. To my surprise, the editor and owner agreed. Although I thought I was reasonably well-organized, I soon realised that I needed a proper archiving system: after all, by my own calculations, there were at least 1,500 artists active in Ireland between 1960 and 2000, and the majority were still alive! And so, the archive boxes started. Alphabetically organised, each artist had a folder (sometimes several) which contained everything I could acquire on the individual. There are now roughly sixty archive boxes, shelved in rows in one room of my library. Added to that are the other shelves, which contain books and large catalogues on Irish artists, again alphabetically organised. In addition are many, many shelves containing references works (such as the catalogues of museums and galleries, or histories and the like). That’s before we look at the archive boxes which contain material on museums, galleries, annual exhibitions and so forth.

If you have a mind like mine, you soon realize that one archive leads to another. For example, I was particularly interested in the socio-political artists, the so-called Troubles artists of the North. No one was collecting them, or writing about them, so I decided to take on the task. But you can’t really understand this kind of work if you don’t understand what is happening on the ground in the North, so the Troubles archive, about which I have written elsewhere, includes not only books on everything from Irish history, geography, sociology, politics and ethnography, but also a huge number of pamphlets, ephemera, newspapers and magazines, many of which were issued in extremely small numbers, or in very fragile forms (gestetnered paper for example). People think that microfiche means that you don’t need the actual newspaper or magazine, but the experience of the actual paper is quite different: the quality of the paper, the size of the page, the relationship between the ads and the articles. No microfilmed image can convey the actual experience, any more than a reproduction of a work of art can convey the experience of looking at the actual work.

This particular archive also contains works on the literature of the period — theatre, poetry, short stories and novels (including genre fiction), as well as music, both pop and classical. Theatre programmes, taped cassettes of writers talking about their work, letters, all of this was pertinent, as nothing exists in isolation, particularly during a long-lasting war zone. All of this archiving fed into my determination to document (for example) the Troubles artists. If you look at the Mexican Civil War, the Spanish Civil War, or the art of Germany during the war years, you find that the history books are illustrated by the war artists and that the artists themselves attracted major attention. Not so in Northern Ireland. The major collecting agencies had refused to collect them, the Arts Council had refused to support them, so I started to produce material on them: Directions Out, the first survey of Troubles art, curated by myself for the Douglas Hyde Gallery in 1987 with a 20,000-word catalogue; Magnetic North at the Orchard Gallery in 1988, again with catalogue; Art, Politics and Ireland, a book on politics and art in Ireland in 1989; a retrospective of a Troubles artist called Victor Sloan in 1992 for Impressions Gallery in York, with a book-length catalogue; Troubled in 2000 for Pitzhanger Manor in London; Icons of the North for the Golden Thread Gallery in Belfast in 2007, again with a book-length catalogue. Still, in the North even now, there is little interest in these artists: the authorities prefer those artists who didn’t really live through the worst of the Troubles, or better still, artists from England or abroad, as they produce ‘cooler’ work. As a result, a recent exhibition at the Ulster Museum, purporting to be a survey of Troubles art, was nothing of the sort. But my archive exists, and as history has taught me, as it’s not going to go away, sooner or later the academics will come calling, and the evidence will be there for them.

Another part of the archive is the art library, about ten thousand volumes, out of which I have quarried many a play — the cycle of eight called Picasso’s Women; Francis and Frances loosely based on the artist Francis Bacon; and most recently a trilogy on the artists Titian, Tintoretto and Canaletto. What is it all worth? A considerable amount. In relation to the main archive (ignoring the books) there is no equivalent to it in Ireland, or anywhere else. At the Belfast auction Ross’s, a single, not-particularly-difficult-to-find catalogue can go for £20 and more — and that’s just the art catalogues. Many of the art books range between £50 to £500 pounds each.

And what else is in store? Well I have two, on-going, long-running projects, if I can find a suitable publisher, both being quarried from the archives. One is a history of the Troubles artists, but situated within the entire spectrum of the arts, literature and politics of Northern Ireland (ideally two volumes, with one volume being an archive one, illustrating fugitive catalogues, pamphlets and images); the other project is a critical history of twentieth-century Irish art, with the emphasis on that word ‘critical’. In the quagmire that is Northern Irish revisionism, it seems to me that bearing witness is important.

Brian McAvera is a playwright, director, curator, art critic, and art historian. He has also published criticism on literature, theatre, film, and the visual arts; and published poetry, short stories, and television films as well as plays for both theatre and radio.

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