Dial M for Monument

Dial M for Monument: Mark Clare's Splendid Isolation at The Good Hatchery

Claire Feely - Assistant Curator The Serpentine Gallery

One of the more perplexing news stories to break in late 2009 reported the theft of a 40kg metal sign that spanned the entrance of former Auschwitz concentration camp. On the night of 18th December, thieves scaled the modest wrought iron gate, unbolted the iconic 'Arbeit Macht Frei' sign, and absconded leaving behind nothing but a stray letter 'i' and an imprint of the sign in the freshly fallen snow. 50 criminal investigators and a sniffer dog were sent to the grounds of the camp to search across the scattered barracks, ruined gas chambers and watchtowers that together constitute the greatest physical reminder of industrialized slaughter in the 20th century. The theft sparked global outrage with the Polish government declaring a state of emergency and Israeli president Shimon Peres demanding the culprits be brought to justice. In Brussels, the European Parliament president Jerry Burzek appealed for the sign to be returned, whereas a longtime worker at the camp museum, Mr. Mansfield, exclaimed who would have thought that the banner would be stolen?

Yet stolen it was, and the ensuing uproar only served to confirm the sense that some great taboo had just been broken. The thought of this sign stowed in the back of a hi-ace van or stashed in someone's bed-sit was an affront to the well mannered rituals of remembrance that ensure that objects of our collective history are presented and preserved in their proper place. The 'authentic' memorial, it would appear, must be kept on the original site of its production and the logic of x marks the spot, places a silent injunction on anyone insensitive enough to dare disturb it.

But what happens when these objects become misplaced, stolen, or simply moved to a different context? Can a monument, a sculpture or even a symbol be transported elsewhere and if so, in what signifying system does it then circulate?

Such questions steered the thinking behind the relocation of Mark Clare's Splendid Isolation (2008), a replica of an Israeli watchtower, to a stretch of cow grazed field in the Irish midlands. The sheer incongruity of approaching a militant structure in a pastoral setting is perhaps the first clue that something here has been taken out of context. The construction of the tower came under the aegis of Celestial Salt; a Good Hatchery programme where pre-existing artworks were 'misplaced' in the environment that surrounds the Daingean sculpture centre.

Indeed, Daingean itself has been in a state of geographical disorientation since the popular seaside town of Dingle was renamed An Daingean, causing post destined for Daingean, Co Offally, to be rerouted to An Daingean, Co Kerry. Consequently, people who had lived in Daingean for generations suddenly found themselves bypassed by the postman (also the subject of a Good Hatchery project in 2009).

A similar set of circumstances drives the narrative of Don DeLillo's much celebrated Valparaiso; a play in which the lead character, bound for a business trip in Valparaiso, Indiana, finds himself on his way to Valparaiso, Florida and then Valparaiso, Chile. DeLillo's accidental tourist is not unmindful of his misadventure. He recalls feeling 'intimidated by the systems' that choreograph his movements between metal detector and departure lounge; 'the revving engines' the sense of life support the oxygen in the oxygen masks, all of these infrastructures allowed him to reach his assigned seat and he feels compelled to submit to 'the enormous sense of power' all around him.

Like the diverted post in Daingean, DeLillo's protagonist is at sea amid the boundless flows of energy and information that together are creating new maps and isolines upon the landscape. Both the Valparaiso and the Daingean affair tacitly signify the manner in which place is increasingly reliant on its connectivity to elsewhere for definition. But what's more, such conceits strike at the very heart of the notion of site specificity and how, in turn, these specificities are subject to a steady erasure by information systems for whom place is nothing more than a fleeting string of characters on a digital display.

Sculpture, too, has its own life support systems - secondary industries that connect and communicate artist to audience. Art's connectivity to elsewhere is incumbent on infrastructures that streamline our access to a work. That an eflux announcement often outstrips the average artist fee in Ireland is fairly indicative of an attitude where 'being seen to be seen' mitigates any actual need to make something.

As a title, Splendid Isolation reads as a provocative counter-narrative to the insistence on visibility and audience engagement that today's culture a la policy documents would have us believe is a good idea. Sited in the midlands, beyond the pale of a traditional gallery going community, Clare's sculpture truly is isolated. These same policies imagine the content of public (or at least publicly funded) sculpture to be identical to the audience for it, leading to a 'mirroring effect' whereby sculpture and audience swing dance in mutually affirming circles.

Audience-centered or site-specific sculpture of this sort is alternatively described as democratic, communicative or grassroots, depending on whether you are a habitu of Mouffe, Habermas or Marx. Although this breed of 'New Genre Public Art' has fallen out of favour in Ireland's larger cities, it is still very much de rigueur in regional art centers as well as per cent for art commissions where sculptures are expected to perform as local logos. But instead of using artists to channel and monumentalize the attitudes of communities, wouldn't it be better to acknowledge that it's the tension between these attitudes and the propositions put forward by an artwork that makes a project worth pursuing in the first place? Doesn't the notion of incongruity condition our experience of place as much as anything else?

Splendid Isolation was originally produced while Clare was on residency at the Irish Museum of Modern Art and relates to themes of architecture and surveillance. Since then, it has been located at the entrance of a self-storage unit in Galway, in the keep of a thirteenth century castle in Limerick city and adjacent to a public bus stop in Riga. It's currently sited on the erstwhile front lawn Clonearl estate, the one time epicenter of the McGrath's sprawling network of land that stretched a path all the way from Galway to Dublin, and as such, a site through which one could telescope a lot of the bad conscious of the Irish toward land and land ownership.

Quiet a long list of destinations for an Israeli watchtower and one that throws up more associative trinkets than a bar brawl throws up loose teeth. So what to make of all these citations? Whereas once sculpture could be said to make 'sense' only as a function of concept, audience and location, we are now witnessing an unprecedented level of cultural collage where seemingly disparate references are brought into unlikely relationships with one another. As early as 1931, film director Sergei Eisenstein published his theory of 'intellectual montage': the film cut as a collision of pictures that produces meaning not contained in any of these pictures on their own. Similarly, Clare 'edits' his sculptures, cutting and pasting in and out of different contexts: surveillance/museum, architecture/urbanism, Israel/land-ownership. In this montage machine, the facticity of the sculpture as a watchtower quoting a specific architectural moment in the Middle East is somehow less important than the conflicts it occasions when it context hops to its next destination.

Nail-house monuments that hunker in our townships like lazy behemoths may soon be assigned to the scrapheap of cultural anachronisms. Staying still strikes a blow against our modern fixation with speed and mobility. A few years after Eisenstein expounded on his idea of 'montage' in film, the urban historian Lewis Mumford was decrying the notion of 'modern monuments' as a contradiction in terms, saying that the idea of a monument was completely at odds with modernity's bottomless appetite for constant change and renewal. If the idea of monumentality was old hat then, think what a generation who grew up with wikipedia and Ryanair would make of it? With the increased mobility of images, bodies, information and commodities, an understanding of place must necessarily incorporate aspects of the virtual and the transitory. For a wiki-drifter, a news story on fortified housing in Israel may well be the first link in a chain that connects up disparate continents and cultural eras, creating communities of interest unbeholden to nation-state boundaries. A firewall poses a greater infringement on freedom of movement that its physical counterpart ever could.In this way, the 'referential collage' that Clare's Splendid Isolation brings into play is very much in keeping with today's cultural logic with its emphasis on mobility over fixity and associative drift over sustained engagement.

So where is the 'proper place' for public sculpture? In a way, all sculpture has a perambulatory nature, in so far as there are movements between conceiving a work, finding the cash to produce it, releasing it into the world and finally witnessing it slip out of public memory, fall into decay or be definitively removed. Sometimes this lifecycle is interrupted by surreptitious twists of fate, as happened to the now properly infamous empty plinth in Letna Park, Prague (Clare's 2009 video work From Left to Right is also a excellent example of 'misused' public sculpture). This massive concrete pedestal was once footrest to the world's largest representation of Josef Stalin towering an impressive 15.5m in height. Shortly after the monument's unveiling by a rather nervous Otakar Svec in 1955, a process of de-Stalinization was spreading across the eastern bloc, leaving the colossus as an unwelcome guest in Czech's ensuing revisionist-history party. It was destroyed in 1962 and, brilliantly, by 1996 the remaining plinth had found itself a new lease of life supporting a 10.1m tall temporary statue of the king of pop, Michael Jackson, the bitter irony being that Jackson's promotional stunt epitomized the precise personality cult that the architects of the original Stalinist monument were condemned for.

A more recent and critical chapter in the history of moving monuments took place in Tallinn in April 2007. The offending statue in this instance was a grave marker to Red Army soldiers who fell during WWII - a sore spot for re-independent Estonians but also a positive signifier of Russian identity for the large numbers of ethnic Russians who remained in Estonia after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Amid political controversy, the newly elected Ansip government relocated the Bronze Soldier and exhumed the buried bodies from a square in the center of the Capital to a military cemetery in the suburbs literally marginalizing an already precarious community in the city. This mismanagement of symbolic capital resulted in two nights of rioting in the streets of Tallinn and a string of reprisals from the Russian and international community.

Closer to home, the flatlands of Daingean have also suffered their share of iconoclasm. When William the Bad, heir to the McGrath dynasty, burnt down his Clonearl estate, the stones of the house were sold off to the Christian Brothers to build the nearby college of Roscrea, as if to ritually cleanse the landscape of so much bad blood and ill-feeling. Symbolic acts of this nature are necessary steps in the ideological reclamation of a place, and likewise, the removal of sculptures and monuments serve as poignant reminders of how quickly cultural and political attitudes can change.

Mark Clare's sculptural works stake out a space in which to question pertinent issues relating the role of monuments in contemporary culture. Monuments are seldom passive, nor are the social meanings ascribed to them. They commemorate events that should not be forgotten and celebrate heroes that a nation can collectively respect. Central to this project is the ability of a physical object to convey historical or political information, and more often than not, this is achieved through systems of symbols, citation and reference. Clare's Splendid Isolation layers reference in a way that highlights the unresolved nature of what constitutes an appropriate monument to a past that nevertheless bears heavily upon our political present.

Similarly, in other works, whether explicitly examining the performativity of statues in public life (From Left to Right) or simply throwing a spotlight onto the lesser regarded trivialities of common culture (The Politics of Small Things), Clare's studies seem invested in this emblematic potential of an object. Since the 60's, artists have consistently worked alongside or against the monumental residue that runs through artworks placed in the public sphere. Claes Oldenburg, for instance, played a decisive role in elaborating an antiheroic approach to monumental sculpture. His proposed 'Underground Memorial' for the tomb of President John F Kennedy, had it been completed, would have involved burying a statue-of-liberty sized president head down in the ground, turning the very idea of a memorial literally on its head. Similarly, Clare's delirious structures reform traditional attitudes towards public sculpture and its relation to place. If the monument is to continue as a valid cultural form (in an age when unilateral opinions are not very much appreciated), then it looks as if turning history on its head might be a good place to start.