Alice Maher Becoming is housed in IMMA’s temporary off-site space at Earlsfort Terrace in Dublin city centre, during renovations at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham. When the exhibition was first mooted, the Royal Hospital or Earlsfort Terrace sites were both considered, but Maher was excited by the prospect and challenge of a new exhibition space with different histories and resonances. Earlsfort Terrace was home to University College Dublin from 1883 to 2007 until UCD moved to its larger campus at Belfield. Earlsfort Terrace has a complex and layered history. The Irish Folklore Commission was founded there in 1937. It was home to the Oireachtas from 1919 to 1921, and the foundation of the University there formed part of a politico-religious ideology which sought to shift the centre of the city away from protestant Trinity College, towards a new catholic university centre. In May 2007, the Irish Times published a series of articles to mark the closing of Earlsfort Terrace and described such note-worthy events as, ‘in 1965 Brenda O’Halloran was the first woman to wear trousers in class’, a hint perhaps that a feminist revolution was imminent and noteworthy figures who were educated there range from Nuala O’Faolain through to James Joyce. The galleries being used by IMMA contained part of the medical school and many of the doors leading into rooms now used for art works have name plates like ‘Experimental Physics’ suggesting an esotericism of another sort and curiously appropriate as titles for artworks or exhibitions. Following the closure of the medical school, the space was the Forensics Laboratory for the Garda Síochána adding layers telling of law-enforcement, transgressions, and of proofs being found in minute details.
These layerings, these palimpsests have informed the layout and choice of works for the exhibition. The labyrinthine nature of the building’s history as led to an exhibition constructed in a similar manner. Works from different periods inhabit the same spaces, sometimes uncomfortably, as new associations are made and recurring themes are illuminated. Less familiar works have been chosen over those frequently exhibited both to introduce the audience to different works and to confound their expectations. Shifts in scale are constantly apparent, and Maher’s paintings are re-examined within this context. A purpose-built, white-cube space might have contained a formal, chronologically arranged retrospective; but Maher has constantly insisted on the prospective potential of the space, and to this end the exhibition contains Maher’s new 2 screen film installation, Cassandra’s Necklace (2012), a new site specific work L’Université (2012), and a reconstruction of Cell, first made for Kilmainham Gaol in 1991. And so IMMA contributes to the on-going becoming of Earlsfort Terrrace, adding to its story but keeping in mind the words of one of its alumnus: ‘There is no past, no future; everything flows in an eternal present.’
Founded in 1991, IMMA has had a long association with the work of Alice Maher as already by 1993, her work Keep (1992) had been installed in one of IMMA’s opening exhibitions called From Beyond the Pale and her work was to reappear regularly in exhibitions such as Distant Relations, (1994); The Glen Dimplex Artists Awards, (1995); Irish Art Now: From the Poetic to the Political, (1998); Shifting Ground: Fifty Years of Irish Art (2000); Tír na nÓg, (2004); and Altered States, (2009).
It is hardly surprising that Maher’s work would have found such fertile ground at IMMA as its first Director, Declan McGonagle, speaking on the opening exhibitions stated that “the title ‘Inheritance and Transformation’ was used to mark an understanding that the idea of a building’s architectural inheritance, the idea of a museum and the idea of modern art were already being tested and transformed in the world and we intended IMMA to be part of that wider process” McGonagle’s use of the word ‘Transformation’ is key to any discussion of the work of Alice Maher as her career has been marked by many moments of surprising shifts in material or form often accompanied by striking spatial interventions as she continually asserts a process of becoming, or change within her practice. This can be seen within the microcosm of her works held in the IMMA Collection which vary from the small, delicate organic work, Berry Dress (1994); the large-scale painting and installation, Familiar (1995); through to the recent animated drawing, The Music of Things (2009); all of which form part of the current exhibition.
McGonagle speaks of ‘testing’ the role of The Museum and that of modern art. Should a museum be a place for ‘dead’ art, a static place which only looks backwards and makes artefacts out of art, a collection full of relics of some arcane cultural practice—or can it be something different?
Becoming fits into a strand of programming at IMMA which presents mid-career retrospectives of the work of Irish artists at a point in their career when the publication of a monograph on their practice is useful and timely. In the past decade this series has included Gerard Byrne (2011), Anne Tallentire (2010), William McKeown (2008), Michael Craig Martin (2006), Dorothy Cross (2005), and Willie Doherty (2002) each of which are, ‘sophisticated art practitioners in a world that is constantly changing. They are not merely aware of that changing landscape but ready to contribute to the changes themselves, not just in Ireland but in a wider world. Their art is a vehicle for direct engagement with the world, ultimately a political position’. In fact IMMA’s history has been closely intertwined with a number of Irish artists who emerged in the eighties and nineties, Maher among them at a time that has seen startling changes in the fabric of Irish life and society.