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At Rest, in Peace: Farewell to Patrick Ireland

Patrick Ireland burial. Photos by Mac Innes Photography.
Patrick Ireland burial. Photos by Mac Innes Photography.

On Tuesday, May 20, 2008, shortly after five o’clock in the evening, the artist Patrick Ireland was buried in a shallow plot in the scenic gardens of the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin. Best known for his rope drawings, sculptures, and labyrinths, Ireland exhibited internationally for over thirty years. He produced installations for Documenta 6 and the American Pavilion at the 1980 Venice Biennale, as well as galleries and museums throughout Europe and the United States. A 2006 career retrospective traveled from the Dublin City Gallery and The Hugh Lane to the Grey Gallery in New York.

A procession began with the museum’s accompanying exhibition, The Burial of Patrick Ireland. At the interment site, a modest pine coffin holding a death mask of the artist was lowered by pall bearers into the ground. The somber services included orations and poetry readings by prominent art world figures, culminating in a haunting recitation of keening, the traditional Irish mourning wail, by artist Alanna O’Kelly. At the completion of the ceremony, the audience of onlookers—comprised of the artist’s family, friends, colleagues, scholars, reporters, and members of the general public—burst into raucous applause as Brian O’Doherty, the man who created Patrick Ireland, stood with his arms outstretched, cheering “thank you for peace!”

“We are burying the hate in a ceremony of reconciliation celebrating peace in Northern Ireland,” O’Doherty stated. This “joyous Wake and Burial,” as the invitation and program declared, was an unexpected coda to an event that took place 36 years earlier. On January 30, 1972—a day now famously known as Bloody Sunday—a group of unarmed civil protesters, several of them teenagers, were shot down by British troops during a march in the Northern Irish city of Derry. In a year, that would prove to be the most violent of the Troubles, when tensions peaked between Unionists, who wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, and Nationalists, who believed Northern Ireland should unify with the rest of the Irish Republic, the British military was at its most hostile.

Patrick Ireland was born out of this internal conflict shaped by external forces. Irish historian Marc Mulholland has remarked that “Northern Ireland’s tragedy is that its people have not been able to agree upon a common identity.” It was only fitting, then, that Brian O’Doherty would opt not to supplant his own identity with that of Patrick Ireland, but to add him to an inventory of personas that he crafted throughout his career.

At a 1972 performance in Dublin, documented in the piece Name Change, O’Doherty was rolled out on a stretcher by two assistants. On display before a live audience of witnesses with his head shrouded in a white stocking, he was painted green from head to toe and orange in the opposite direction until the colors merged, becoming a muddied personification of the Irish flag. Name Change inscribed the political division of O’Doherty’s homeland directly onto his body, rendering the national split in the medium of his own physical geography. The ritual marked his official adoption of “Patrick Ireland” as the creator of all his future artworks.

A notarized letter, included with the documentation, pledged that Patrick Ireland would remain O’Doherty’s artistic identity “until such time as the British military presence is removed from Northern Ireland and all citizens are granted their civil rights.” The alias served as more than simple nominative substitute—it would be O’Doherty’s nom de guerre. Although he continued to work professionally and publish as Brian O’Doherty, he refused to exhibit art by Patrick Ireland in England, thereby assuring that all future projects by Patrick Ireland would stand as expressions of political protest. With this highly politicized deployment of his artistic persona, O’Doherty imbued Patrick Ireland with the identity of a nation at war with itself.

Patrick Ireland’s intense nationalism is even more striking when bearing in mind that O’Doherty undertook his Name Change while serving as editor-in-chief of Art in America, perhaps the broadest and most mainstream journal for American art at that time. During his tenure at the magazine, he edited special issues on themes such as the state of American art museums and the revised history of American art at the turn of the twentieth century. In fact, O’Doherty had lived in America since 1957 and, by 1972, was also working as a program director at the National Endowment for the Arts. As a federal funding agent, he had a formative role in supporting and shaping a range of cultural institutions, from the nascent alternative art spaces founded throughout American cities to arts-themed programming on public television broadcasts.

As someone who both provoked and scrutinized developments in mid- to late-twentieth century art, O’Doherty held a unique perspective on the cultural production of his time. In a 1973 essay for his magazine Art in America, O’Doherty wrote, “If the seventies are distinguished by anything, it is the ways in which context has become content.” Though written about a subject unrelated to his own art practice, O’Doherty’s assertion provides a key to his conception of Patrick Ireland as an artwork created in response to political conditions.

Throughout his career, O’Doherty secretly published under other pseudonyms, using them to free his own ways of thinking and enabling him to express overarching ideas from multiple perspectives. He revealed his various identities in a 1998 artwork, effectively reuniting them under the single voice of their creator. More than a pseudonym, more than a persona, Patrick Ireland was an entity realized by its context and therefore remained distinct until political circumstances rendered him obsolete. On May 8, 2007, Home Rule was restored to Northern Ireland. The Sinn Fein republicans and Unionist democrats made a commitment to share power, vowing that peace would prevail above all in spite of their still-divergent goals. Upon this declaration of peace, O’Doherty recognized that the premise that brought Patrick Ireland into existence necessitated his retirement.

On Tuesday, for the last time, Brian O’Doherty wore Patrick Ireland’s costume of white smock and trousers, his face covered in a white stocking. He stepped forward in the final moments of the ceremony, removed the stocking from his head, and threw it into the exposed plot. As the crowd dispersed and the coffin was covered, onlookers stepped forth to toss handfuls of earth into the grave. It will be marked by a headstone reading ONE HERE NOW in both English and the ancient Celtic language of Ogham. This common refrain in the artist’s work signifies the harmony of the individual with space and time—the absolute unity of content with context.

Now that Patrick Ireland has been laid to rest, his role within O’Doherty’s arsenal of identities has become clear. Yet less evident, even to those at the occasion, was a definitive answer to the question of who was Patrick Ireland—or, more precisely, what was Patrick Ireland? Throughout the burial ceremony, Patrick Ireland was referred to in many different ways by speakers including O’Doherty himself. During his poignant recitation of a letter of goodbye to Patrick Ireland, scholar Ingmar Lähnemann pondered whether Ireland was an artist or an artwork. In fact, this confusion is essential to the complexity of O’Doherty’s entire body of work.

According to O’Doherty, Patrick Ireland was a signature. Through the hand of his surrogate identity, the expatriate O’Doherty was able to engage in the political struggles of his home country as an active participant. Finally, Hans Belting, the eminent German art historian, wrote a poem to be read at the burial, in which he observed: “The mask renounced his identity / as the artist withdrew from his person. / In choosing a symbol / he became a symbol.” Patrick Ireland symbolized the discord of a bifurcated nation but also—as that expectant “until” in the Name Change document suggested—the hope for a reconciliation that finally came.


Whitney Rugg


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN 2008

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