Vox Materia – the substance of a voice, a voice made palpable, tactile, material. The work for this show hinges on a new intervention into the ideas of expression and obstruction that have been central to Maher’s practice. Expression carries within its etymology the idea of something pressed out, under pressure. Pressure and expression are registered here through facture as well as conceptually, through wood relief prints and a suite of small bronze sculptures squeezed from the artist’s fist.
Building on her previous practice of engaging with historical and mythological sources as a starting point for material exploration, Maher began the work for Vox Materia by looking at two sources that can be understood in relation to women’s histories and struggles for equality, making this body of work something connected to both ancient histories and contemporary debates. The first point of reference was the 12th Century carving of a mermaid by an anonymous sculptor, and the second source was the baroque sculpture of Apollo and Daphne (1622-25) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (figure 1). Maher has long realised the power of narrative to draw in her viewers, having considered the relationship between femininity and myth throughout her career. With her usual attention to those historical characters that bear on our contemporary conversations, the figures of both the mermaid and Bernini’s Daphne, frozen in the moment of transformation, are fecund ones for interpretation, full of mythopoetic potency and violence. However, although these themes are all present, Maher diverges from her previous interventions within narrative to create recalcitrant material objects that remain obdurately unfamiliar.
‘mermaid emerging’ was the subject line of an e-mail Alice sent to us during the early stages of this project, containing photographs of her making graphite rubbings at Kilcooley Abbey near Thurles, Co. Tipperary. Struck by the figure, Maher produced a rubbing of the relief, creating an indexical trace of the stonework. In the photographs of this process, we see the trace of the mermaid emerging in striating lines, an index of the shallow profile of the original, rendered in negative to reveal a flattened figure with a skull-like, grimacing face (figure 2). Typical of Maher’s interest in complicating representations of femininity in ancient sources and hybrid forms, this mermaid is no temptress. Instead she is pictured as monstrous and restrained, captured by what appears to be a giant manacle around the tail, revealed by the artist’s rubbing.
Designed to keep the curatorial team, based between Cork and London, up to date, the ‘mermaid emerging’ e-mail showed early engagements with site, cultural memory and material trace. In one photograph, the artist has one hand pressed onto the paper and the wall behind it, the other creating the marks that reveal the mermaid’s profile. The nature of this transference is worth considering; not a re-rendering, instead it is an index of the curves of the stonework behind, made possible because the stone is flat enough to facilitate a register of the work. The trace made through the repeated scribble of the artist’s hand translates the hard, cold stone into a more tactile form. The grainy detail demonstrates the inexact nature of the transfer, gaps of white show through where the stone is flat below and the detail of the mermaid is made ethereal by negative image. For final work that so clearly speaks to the body, it is interesting to think of the graphite rubbing in relation to the wood reliefs and bronzes – the material engagement with the cold, hard surface of the stone to record a fictional body so resonant with other meaning. This gives us a way of thinking about these works that develops through process, updating the artist’s on-going engagement with the notion of becoming – the title of her 2012 exhibition hosted by IMMA in Earlsfort Terrace – and inscribing it into the development and evolution of Vox Materia.
The works on show here have not developed directly from the rubbings that Maher made in 2017. Instead, there are two distinct processes at work. The first underlies the strange, creaturely wood relief prints that fill a single wall of the gallery. This new suite of works on paper appears at first like tightly delineated pools, suspended in unrelieved whiteness. Abstract yet insistently physical and densely striated; the forms, overlaid with bright watercolour wash suggest something visceral but not securely human. Exploring shape and gesture through physical movement, the first stage in the process of making these works involved a photographic recording of artist’s active body. Maher – interested in considering the body not as a field of representation but instead as one of experience – began the process physically, moving slowly through contorted positions, focusing on the feeling of stretching and shifting. These are the opposite of posed positions: rather than presenting the body to an outside eye, the camera acts as a partial trace of the artist’s experience of corporeality (figure 3). What emerges are chronophotographic records that show the artist hunched and stretched, the gestures, translated into a series of still images, offering us a fractional record of an internal and individual exploration of the body. Similar to the graphite rubbing, there is a translation here that stands in relation to its original, but alters its meaning, at a remove from the original process and experience, but entirely affected by it. Looking through the resulting images, Maher selected number to transcribe into pencil drawings. For these, she focused on the silhouette rather than the detail, adding another layer of process that obscures the connection to the image of the body and distances itself from the original movement. In their final stage, the pencil drawings were translated to wood relief prints, creating striated and grained silhouettes which were then hand coloured by the artist (figure 4).
The silhouette has been a feature of Maher’s works since 2003, with works such as Poet and Foxtail, followed by her Lectores Mirabiles series for the National Library in 2004 where decorous bodies sprout fantastic, organic appendages, alluding to the
imaginative possibilities liberated by reading, while her 2007 show The Night Garden populated the RHA’s Gallagher Gallery with pullulating crowds of Boschian hybrids. A silhouette compresses a three dimensional form into a flat shadow, unalleviated by detail, floating in an unalleviated sea of background. It’s an abbreviation, an aide de memoire. It is also linked to the very beginning of art history; Pliny the Elder recounted how the daughter of Butades the potter recorded her lover’s profile before he left for war, tracing his shadow cast on the wall in a pencil outline, providing a reminder indexically linked to its original. Against such melancholy beginnings, the origins of the term silhouette are less grand , traced back as it is to the French minister of Finance, Etienne de Silhouette (1709-67), noted for his parsimony in public expenditure. His name was applied to things made cheaply, including inexpensive portraits cut from paper, rather than more elaborate portraits made in oils. Reducing three dimensional objects into flat renderings that elide their detail, the silhouette condenses the subject down to its shadow in a reduction of means and technical acuity, an accessible form of representation. Not quite a folk art, but a hobby of amateurs, use of the silhouette ties in with Maher’s investment in media or materials traditionally unvalorised by art history.
Unlike the traced outline or the shape cut from paper, these silhouettes have been translated into a form of relief print. While woodcuts or woodblock prints are traditionally carved, the composition gouged out of the wooden block or plate and then inked and passed through the press, Maher’s wood reliefs are different, compact yet undulating forms cut in outline from plywood and unrelieved by carved marks. The glitches and whorls of the wood’s surface absorb the ink and are pressed out onto the paper. The marks and patterns don’t immediately register as knots or wood grain however: there is something pelagic about them which evokes pools, eddies and rivulets, or the crenulations of a sandy beach at low tide. Something bodily also; the knots suggestive of eyes or ears of navels; orifices where the body opens out to the world - or even something geological; layers of stratification and sedimentation compressed over millennia. The resultant images are insistently physical but obdurately refuse to cohere. They have been rendered strange in their translation from medium to medium, like a Chinese whisper. The outcome is an insistently flattened image that retains the trace of each layer of this process. Not removed, but reduced, the literal pressure of the press that creates the prints can act as a metaphor for the translation of movement into image, as though the artist’s physical experiments, the drawn mark and the rendering of the three dimensional plates have all been compressed into a condensed and resonant proposition.
This process of translation is also at work in the bronze forms that sit in the centre of the gallery in a large cabinet, long, low and wedge shaped, so that one looks down into it, as if into a pool. Arrayed in this cabinet are twenty-three small, sinuous objects, slickly patinated. These sculptural forms fit in the hand and were first made from wax, squeezed in Maher’s fist, and then dipped again in molten wax to achieve a smooth, slippery finish (figure 5). Each shape then registers the force of her grip, recording the fins and bulges that escape through the gaps in her fist, extruded under pressure. In this way the objects display evidence of the movements and the physical effort that produced them, retaining the memory of her gesture. The process results in simple, primal forms which evoke both sensual pleasure but also a measure of perplexity. As with her 1995 exhibition Familiar, there is a complex dialogue at work between the works on paper and the sculptures. Like the relief prints, these objects also refuse to resolve, or rather, refuse easy identification: they are at once bones or turds, organs or lumps of coral. If we were to pick them up, then would be heavy, smooth and cold; intimate yet leaden and resistant.
In both cases, processes that started out in movement end as determinedly static renderings of abstract shapes: not fleshy or visceral but bodily still. Given the images translation from medium to medium: the photographed body, translated into a hand drawn silhouette, translated again into a shape cut out in wood and then passed through the printing press, the original sense of – or recognition of – the artist’s body is obscured, but a sense of embodiment does remain. These works convey an insistent physicality, yet one seeded with ambiguity and ambivalence. Given this, we might ask what kind of experience of embodiment is being communicated here in the fleshy creases and folds, skewed and compressed limbs that split and intersect. The roseate, mottled bronzes too – small and sleek, summoning touch – are they biomorphic? Organic? This does not seem to do justice to their highly polished surfaces that are smooth and pebble like: looking more like objects found but not fully understood, some archaic projectile perhaps, or some trace of a ritual long since forgotten.
Suggestive as they are of other meanings – something we’ll explore further below – it is important to dwell on the physicality of the works on display here, particularly on their connection to an absent body made manifest through its trace. The index of Maher’s clenching fist in the bronze sculptures and the layers of translation in the wood relief prints from movement to drawing to printing to watercolour, act as residues of the artist’s process, one so closely tied to corporeality. Both sets of work register intangible aspects of the body. In the bronze sculptures we see a record of the force it exerts on the wax form, the effect of muscles contracting, compressing a malleable substance to the point of resistance, ending as a document of movement and resilience, cast in bronze as a permanent memorial to this physical relationship between an artist and her materials. In the works on paper, we see a process of translation that offers an unexpected interpretation of in the internal experience of the body, investigating shape, material and form on the basis on an initial exploration of a physical sensation. Those twists and contortions that the artist first experienced end in an image that renders a view of the strangeness of the body when considered with focused attention.
The hybridity of the images suggest creatures on the boundary between human and animals: as hybrid as mermaids, but less specific, more monstrous, less defined; which derives from that focus on the body as felt. In both the knotted, abstract figuration that emerges, and the lumpen traces of a now absent body, there is a rejection of the conventions of the representations of women, a constantly marked and problematic territory. Through offering a view of the female body as a site of interiority, explored from within rather than from the outside, Maher offers a feminist complication of the initial image of the mermaid. Hybridity becomes not a reference to a strange and threatening mystical creature, one that remains external to our everyday experience, but instead describes an excess that is always within the body, as an always present internal experience where sensation suggests meaning, where the distance between the imagined insides of our bodies – the muscles that flex and stretch, the blood that flows, the synapses that spark – and the outside world that requires translation and interpretation.
That this is both a subjective exploration and a gendered one is important. The practice of writing the body (to paraphrase Hélène Cixous’ famous call to action) is not new amongst feminist practitioners. Artists have been examining ways to re-imagine the body in art since the advent of the feminist art movement in the 1970s, considering how to visually imagine the female body in light of the sexualisation and objectification that have historically accompanied its imaging. Maher’s flattened creaturely forms and petrified lumps can be read within this lineage of art practices, differently inflected as they are by their reference to the ways in which female bodies negotiate space. However, much as this theory has evolved since its first discussions in the 1970s, the female body is no longer imagined as the transhistorical, transcultural phenomenon it was conceived to be in Cixous’ first considerations. Instead, Maher’s works seek not to represent an amorphous female viscerality but instead are specific to her own body as a woman negotiating the at once vexed and yet increasingly optimistic territory of the female body as it is imagined in contemporary Ireland. For exploring this in more detail, it is necessary to turn to the significance of myth in interpreting these images, which we argue, stand not as a transcultural reverberation, but as a set of parables that relate implicitly to our current political landscape.
Myth in 2018
An engagement with mythic femininity was important to Maher’s development of this work, providing a series of conceptual markers through which to frame the project. The mermaid that emerges from beneath Maher’s graphite pencil for example, is one that suggests a female figure made monstrous, imbued with a threatening sexuality. Historically understood, the mermaid is a siren that has lost her voice; in some stories, very violently - her tongue ripped out so that she might be granted human legs - a silenced figure that is at once irresistibly seductive and also a harbinger of disaster. Silencing emerges as an important idea underlying this work, not only in the mermaid’s lost voice, but also in the other important reference point which informs this work, Apollo and Daphne, the sixteenth century sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Specifically, it was the dark void presented by Daphne’s open mouth, emitting a wordless gasp/scream which stood as the punctum of the work for Maher. Griselda Pollock’s essay on the sculpture draws out its mythopoetic significance: Daphne, fleeing from Apollo’s violent pursuit, calls out to her father, the river god Peneus to save her from her attacker. Bernini’s work famously captures this moment of transformation, as Daphne’s soft, fleshy body petrifies into wood, rough bark and snaking roots. This act of rescue is also an act of violence, the hard bark that protects her naked body from Apollo’s uninvited touch in Bernini’s sculpture also acts to encase her. For Maher, Daphne’s gasping/screaming mouth contained within it the abject reality of this tale. Her focus is not on the beautifully carved marble, but the empty space cut in stone that represents both Daphne’s cry and the last breath expelled from her transforming body.
How to link these coded references to the baroque sculpture and the 12th century mermaid carving? Both derive from myth, and both involve hybrid states, implying or actually depicting the process of transformation. The reference to myth is helpful for thinking further about the relationship between this work and feminist understandings of the body. In Marina Warner’s study on the tropes of popular fairy tale From the Beast to the Blonde she points out that fairy tales such as those by Charles Perrault and Hans Christian Anderson – the Little Mermaid providing a prime example - encrypt procedures of authority from various moments in history, valorising silence as a feminine virtue, and thus encouraging young girls to become passive, silent and obedient. Likewise, when the brothers Grimm collected fairy tales, they tended not to include stories which existed in folklore that featured strong, clever female heroines, and instead gravitated (however consciously is debatable) towards stories with active male protagonists, and passive females. Not only that, but Warner cites Ruth Bottigheimer’s analysis of the speech patterns in the Grimms – as the Grimms published their later editions, the female heroines used less and less words, and the female villains spoke more. Thus, she argues, girls tended to subconsciously receive the message that to be worthy and desirable like the female heroines in the stories, they must be quiet. Myth then stands as a way of thinking about how gendered codes of behaviour and expectation are communicated socially not as ideological assertions that demand particular types of behaviour and forbid others, but instead as universal truths related to long standing historical knowledge. As Griselda Pollock reminds us, ‘myth is [...] at root a fable of the tensions in culture, translating into stories the rules of conduct of a social group or a cultural formation’.
However, the ways in which this myth plays out in contemporary culture are not predictable as Ashley King Scheu identifies. In her study of Simone de Beauvoir’s interest in myth in her writings, she points to the ways in which mythological and fantastical renderings of femininity feature in the author’s recollections of her childhood, how, rather than silencing Beauvoir and her sister, instead they would engage with their narratives, ‘[taking] up the well-known stories of martyrs and wicked stepmothers and manipulat[ing] them, recreating their stories just as they pleased. Scheu excerpts Beauvoir’s descriptions of the effects of this: ‘Just when the silence, the shadows, the boredom of the bourgeois buildings invaded the vestibule, I would unleash my fantasies: we would sometimes bring them into being […] enthusiastically supported by gestures and words, and sometimes, as we caught each other in our spell, we would succeed in taking flight from this world, up to that moment when an imperious voice would call us back to reality’ Even patriarchal myths therefore, though unquestionably formative, are not necessarily determining: their effects are intangible and their results unexpected. So it is for Maher and for women who were, like her, raised in 1960s and ‘70s Ireland. Rejecting the patriarchal narratives of conservative Catholicism and insisting on the importance of women’s voices, Maher was one of a number of artists, such as Pauline Cummins, Alannah O’Kelly and Anne Tallentire among others, who fought for recognition not only of individual female practitioners, but of the importance of recognising and representing female experience. Her association in the late 1980s and 90s with the Women Artists Action Group formed in Dublin in 1987, and with the Northern Ireland Women’s Action Group formed in Belfast the same year, contributed to a movement that sought to both recognise the pernicious nature of being silenced and to counteract its effects through solidarity. The need to counter the exclusion of women in supposedly defining exhibitions such as Directions Out in the Douglas Hyde and Making Sense: 10 Painters, 1963-1983 at the Project Arts Centre, (both held in 1987), meant mounting an urgent challenge to the institutional silencing of women through activism and in practice, creating group shows, agitating for more inclusion and recognition of women artists, and speaking directly as well as abstractly on women’s issues. This was made more urgent by the social and political climate of the time: the Eighth Amendment had been enshrined in the referendum of 1983 and there was everywhere the evidence of society’s violence against women with the false accusation and subsequent harassment of Joanne Hayes in the Kerry Babies case and the death of Ann Lovett both recent memories and Magdalene Laundries not yet a thing of the past.
2018 however, is a different moment. Although at risk of speaking from within one of those bubbles of optimism that emerge frequently but fleetingly in the history of the women’s movement; from our position as curators, we feel resonances between this work and a moment in which women are being considered not for their silence, but for speaking out . Now, in a time of ‘Nevertheless, she persisted’, with #MeToo still raging and the referendum on the 8th amendment scheduled to take place later this year, the idea of being silenced is under attack like never before. Silence from a feminist position is no longer the condition against which we must struggle but instead is increasingly the condition of a recent and shameful past. Speaking out against sexual violence, on the murderous histories of Tuam and the other Mother and Baby homes around the country, on the cruelty of denying safe, legal abortion to women, women’s voices are voluble, angry and demanding change. Certainly none of this is new, but there is a ground swell of mainstream attention, a recognition of the realities of these sufferings in the media, and a sense of collectivism and support that provide hope that the issues raised will no longer be side-lined.
Looking at the development of Maher’s engagement with myth throughout her practice registers this change in mood: there is a shift in the role of the mythic and the nature of its relationship to the contemporary world. As David Lloyd argued in his 2012 essay on her practice, this has always been a thread in Maher’s work, and he points to the ways in which she has engaged with mythology as a way to explore contemporary society since her early work such as Bee Dress (1994) and Nettle Coat (1995). Focusing on the film Cassandra’s Necklace (2012), he considers the way in which the mythic in Maher’s work: something he describes as being ‘not frozen or tied to fixed archetypes but opens corridors between past and future, turning every moment of awareness into a space of transition or an opening into labyrinths of allusion’ – is a kind of rhythm brought into the practice, the ‘dissonant, syncopated quality of the mythic’ that underpins narratives of transformation. In Vox Materia however, though still legibly in line with Lloyd’s reading of the work, the nature of the rhythm of myth and the kind of transformation that is registered has shifted. The mermaid’s silence and Daphne’s final scream are not presented to us through a subverted imagining or rendered in the folk materials Lloyd identifies as associated with a ‘care for materiality’ which suggests a ‘steady attention to the borderlands at which artifice rubs up against the natural.’ Instead of foregrounding the uncanny presence of this relationship between the natural and the artificial, the objects and the images on display are recalcitrant in their materiality: insistent, meaningful and stark. The shifts and transformations that dominate Maher’s film drawing The Music of Things (The Double) (2009) or the dusty charcoal and chalk surfaces of drawings featured in the Glorious Maids of the Charnel House (2016) are no longer visible. Instead, the images on display here are resolute, defined not by their reference to other works, but stand as autonomous statements.
Compare the relief prints and bronze objects to a work such as Double Venus (2005), in which two identical Venuses are linked by a muscular snake-like protrusion emerging from the back of their heads (figure 11). The image that Maher works from refers back to Canova’s casts of classical Greek and Roman statuary, an over-determined visual language that suggests multiple ideological and aesthetic connections. In Vox Materia, although Daphne and the mermaid are present conceptually, these ideas are worked through the artist’s body instead, creating a new, strange language that no longer relies on a pre-given visual language and instead makes something new, and, despite its obscurity, declarative. Moving away from a visual language of questioning and indeterminacy, this feels more like a statement.
Given Maher’s increasing involvement in politics, perhaps this concern comes as no surprise. Much of her energies in recent years have been dedicated to contributing to the Artists Campaign to Repeal the 8th Amendment, co-founded with Cecily Brennan, Eithne Jordan and Paula Meehan in 2015. Working with artists including Rachel Fallon, Aine Phillips, Breda Mayock and Sarah Cullen the group created banners to work as agit-prop artefacts designed to rally supporters and convince the undecided (figure 6). In this very different, collective and political project, to which Maher contributes, imagery rendered in textiles has been used to create statements for protest, explicitly rendering the injustice of the 8th Amendment in visual form (figure 6). Within this context of women's increasing vociferousness, we can consider the new work for Vox Materia, its insistent materiality, its density and unapologetic viscerality. Whether this is a turning point for the historical silencing of women remains to be seen, whether the mythopoetic narratives associated with femininity are under threat is uncertain, but perhaps what we can see here is an optimism that figures in the materials refusing the tropes of disappearance and transformation that figure in the myths that inspire them. Not the vanishing of a woman bound and destroyed by the threat of rape, nor the silencing of the hybrid creature: instead bodies emerge in unexpected and insistent forms, unapologetic and unafraid, voice is made material, hard and heavy.. Not so much a threat made from below, or a play with still unquestionably dominant patriarchal meanings, Vox Materia figures the persistent, irreducible female voice in a moment where it feels like its time might finally have come. Still abstract and bodily, consistent with the long lineage of its development, it follows that such a statement would come from an artist who has for decades been one of the leading actors for feminism in the arts both internationally, but particularly in Ireland. Reflecting the ways in which the register of female voices have changed from angrily seeking acknowledgement, to a collective insistence based on solidarity, we can only hope that this work will sit in relation to wider changes in our political present, standing as a record of the moment where the silenced female voice asserted itself with renewed force.
 David Rosand, Drawing Acts: Studies in Graphic Expression and Representation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 4ff.
 On the history of the cut-out silhouette portrait, see E. Nevill Jackson, The History of Silhouettes (London: Connoisseur, 1911)
 Griselda Pollock, ‘Gasping at violence: the trauma of gender’, After-affects/After-images: Trauma and aesthetic transformation in the virtual feminist museum, (Manchester University Press: Manchester & New York, 2013), pp 1-37, p. 55
 Marina Warner, From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers, (New York: Farrow, Strauss and Giraud, 1994), p. 208
 Warner, From the Beast to the Blonde, p. 394
 Warner, From the Beast to the Blonde, p. 394
 Griselda Pollock, ‘Gasping at violence: the trauma of gender’, After-affects/After-images: Trauma and aesthetic transformation in the virtual feminist museum, (Manchester University Press: Manchester & New York, 2013), pp 1-37, p. 55
 Ashley King Scheu, ‘Walking in a Man’s World: Myth, Literature and the Interpretation of Simone de Beauvoir’s the Second Sex’, Literature and the Development of Feminist Theory, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015) pp. 81 -94, p. 87
 Simone de Beauvoir, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, trans. James Kirkup (Cleveland, OH: World,1959) p. 61 In Scheu, ‘Walking in a Man’s World’, 87
 It bears noting that this tone of optimism is one that caused some nervousness when we were drafting this essay. In our discussion, we talked about whether optimism was called for, particularly when feminism has often gathered momentum in ways similar to that which we are currently experiencing. There have been many times before where it has seemed like some palpable change is coming, only to see the concerted response of patriarchal forces that further entrench their own legislative and cultural perspective (we could see the initial introduction of the Eighth Amendment as one such example). However, whilst aware of the risk of representing a moment of unfulfilled optimism - and mindful that we come from a generation of women privileged enough not to have fought before to see our efforts frustrated - as curators we agreed that this hope was to us worth registering as a small record of our current moment. Activism, after all, is a form of optimism, therefore we wanted to do justice to those people fighting for our human rights and to the hope they make possible. We felt it important to acknowledge the promise this moment in early 2018 offers, even if there is a retrenchment, the act of speaking out has forced cracks into a system that may - we believe will - make change possible.
 David Lloyd, ‘Cassandra’s Smile: On Alice Maher’s Metamorphosis’, in Sean Kissane (ed) Becoming: Alice Maher (Dublin: Irish Museum of Modern Art, 2012), pp.66-83, p. 72
 Lloyd, ‘Cassandra’s Smile’. 69