Mapping the Magdalene
Irish Arts Review 38(4), 2021 , pp.68
On first entering the Rua Red exhibition space to view ‘The Map’, a new monumental textile sculpture by Alice Maher and Rachel Fallon, you will see the back of the piece. It appears at first like a map glimpsed darkly, or like a mirror that has aged and foxed with time. Walking towards the front of the piece, you are met with a riot of colour. Set against a background of deep blue of Thai silk, ‘The Map’ is spread across the surface. Islands, archipelagos and headlands are marked out on a sea of painted blue-green silk, with fanged monsters named ‘Poverty’ circling the deep. At the helm of ‘The Map’, a female figure (Mary Magdalene) with wild, flowing, knotted hair is turned away from the viewer. When you look down, the bottom edge of the sculpture spills crocheted entrails in deep red, as though it cannot quite hold the weight of what it tells, and its visceral realities must out, one way or the other.
There is no obvious way to journey through ‘The Map’, although the figure of Eve occupies the upper right-hand corner, the original and probably ultimate Fall Girl. Oileán Olc (Slag Island) initially looks like a planned suburb, but the tidy houses are named ‘Scapegoat Estate’, the block of flats called ‘Jezebel Heights’, just beside ‘Slut Walk North’, and ‘Slut Walk South’. Below this, there is a larger green island, with such familiar landmarks as ‘The Ballroom of Romance’ (a health and safety sign warns of the slippery slope at the entrance), and the Mountains of Mam spill milky droplets from embroidered pink nipples. This is an island of fecundity, desire, and despair – ‘Lover’s Leap’ sits on its north-eastern coast. To the west, there is a jagged land mass onto which is painstakingly stitched the litany of acts, rules, and pieces of legislation that governed, constrained, damaged, and often killed women (and others) throughout the history of state. To the south, you will find the Napery, a pale place made from the damask linen tablecloth of an Irish parochial house. This is a territory that is ragged, stitched over and over with sashiko stitches (translated as ‘little stabs’), in part in a pattern of tiny crosses. Just north, you will find a further dark island, in which kneeling women wash chequered floors, at the feet of the unseeing Virgin who both takes the form of a supporting caryatid and the blue-crowned Lourdes holy water bottle. Plans of the different Magdalene Laundries occupies the top half of this island, only a hop, skip and jump away from the nearby Pillars of Society, and the squinting windows of Backbiters Row. Maher and Fallon have woven together tragedy, anger and a dark, often bawdy humour, with Sheela-na-gigs and other raucous, liminal figures occupying the corners of the map.
An adjacent space hosts a sound installation by Sinéad Gleeson and Stephen Shannon. A lush soundscape, with contributions by Mary Barnecutt, Sadhbh Sullivan and Matthew Nolan is overlaid by Gleeson’s reflective ‘stations’ of 24 spaces or encounters of the map. The visual richness of the main gallery is balanced here by Gleeson’s careful enunciation of this dark litany. The sound piece concludes with a chorus of voices repeating ‘We Are The Map’, and includes Catherine Corless, Vicky Phelan, Felicia Speaks, Rosaleen Mc Donagh, Marian Keyes and many others. These voices inspired the ‘miraculous medals’ stitched on the ‘The Map’ itself.
‘The Map’ forms part of the Magdalene Series at Rua Red in Tallaght, curated by Maolíosa Boyle and which includes Amanda Coogan, Jesse Jones and Grace Dyas. Maher and Fallon worked collaboratively on ‘The Map’ throughout lockdowns, building on their previous activist/artist engagements. ‘The Map’ immediately recalls their jewel-toned banners of ‘The Repeal! Procession’ at EV+A 2018 in Limerick. Maher and Fallon were moved by about the absence of any visual iconography of Mary Magdalene across Ireland, despite her invocation in the Laundries, and the presence of sultry, penitent Magdalenes in the national collections of art, with their downcast eyes and unreliable drapery. They drew on traditions of mapping – both the maps of the Irish landscape produced for colonial and taxation purposes, but also the pre-modern maps of the known and unknown worlds, in which the wilds of the edges of the world are teeming with monsters and gods.
‘The Map’ is a cartography of the known and the unknown worlds of Irish history, an uncompromising tour of pain and shame, shot through with humour and icons of resistance. The latter brings to mind the philosopher Rosi Braidotti’s idea of ‘nomadic ethics’. She writes of a ‘nomadic, non-linear philosophy of time’ involving a ‘creative reading of memory’ that is particularly significant in cases of negative or traumatic memories of pain or abuse. She writes that while ‘acknowledging this particular location – as a wounded memory of pain as well as a historically grounded space’, it is also possible to create a political act in the gesture of transcending, in the creating of ‘transformative alternatives’. In many ways, this feels like a helpful key to Maher and Fallon’s ‘The Map’, which calls a reckoning, and in its worked material expression, insists on those transformative alternatives.