Breathing it all in
Catherine Morris, Becoming, 2012

“The concept of true freedom… is an ecstatic embrace of the future and of possibility. It is in the mind that real freedom is born and that is where it lives. The imagination must first grasp the ideal and it is with our imaginations that we win battles. The imagination—unbound, undefeated, timeless, endless, but most of all—hopeful.”

—Alice Maher speaking at the National Library of Ireland 8 March 20111

At Dublin airport she looks out at us. Meets our anxious gaze head on as we rush past transporting our little worlds in backpacks and suitcases, preparing to reveal our own faces to the Irish State. ‘Face of Ireland’. Clean of moss and clear of clinging otherness. No snails feeding off her image; no butchered hearts or silenced tongues bleeding onto her naked body. No dancing woman in a sculptured desert of Butoh carnival.2

Alice Maher makes work that unmakes itself; that lives and dies in time. Nettles, berries, brambles and thickets all locked into a temporal shape shifting; sculptural changelings beneath which stings of grief are hidden. “I follow the work itself when it wants to go somewhere… I asked myself what would happen if you could see the under drawing?” The girl in ‘The Thicket’ watches all come alive in her rebellious and free imagination. “I wished I had recorded the stages of making.” In ‘The Music of Things’ a woman disappears into sound only to emerge as a something else or a someone other. It is in Maher’s work that we encounter the wilding—that space between pattern and ornament “where nature gets in.”3

The instruments of making and presenting ourselves in this art are as elaborate as the decorative ritual is intricate. Self Portraits are an uncomfortable (little shown) series inspired by portraits of women in the liminal moments before marriage as they are captured in medieval custom: bejeweled spectacles of future prosperity. Olwen Fouéré modeled for this series until the artist realized the work was not about another woman or another time: “it’s not anyone else; it’s me. I wanted to make an image of my self… I didn’t want to feel like I had simply disappeared West…” These works deal with the unspoken complexities of the woman and the artist who has reached ‘the permanent period’—the not so middle-age that comes long after ‘the age of reason’ has passed: “how do you drive work on when you’re in your fifties?… In portraits I was looking back through the materials of art and looking into an abyss. Aging and dying like the materials themselves.”4

The first show by IMMA at their temporary city centre ex-university residence called ‘Earlsfort Terrace’ is opening in a short while and the whole place is currently a building site. In April 2012 I walked about the empty classrooms and abandoned lecture halls with Alice Maher and the exhibition’s curator Seán Kissane.5 That day they were blacking out the enclosed racquetball court and laying a new wooden floor over the black shiny slate. It will be covered in thick carpet ready to absorb the sound of people and of film. Maher does not see the present in this building. She imagines only the future of its becoming. Her space. Already it is her space. We walk around the rooms as though they are an intimate part of a theatre or a home that she has acquired and that is being renovated for her visual and musical narrative disjunctions to find new form in October. “On this wall we’ll hang… in that space will be… we are having those pipes removed… I love that fireplace… that door’s locked…. Isn’t this room amazing Catherine? Doesn’t it remind you of being at university?… Can we cover that wiring Seán?” 

She is making the journey back and forth from her studio home in Mayo to envisage and plan and make the exhibition: “I come here all the time. As often as possible.”6 “I like this space,” she tells me afterwards as we walk across the bridge in St Stephen’s Green. “It is like an institution out of an institution. Everyone is outside of their comfort zone. This is an unknown territory for me and for them. We are all having to think and to work in completely new ways. It is a risk. I love that Seán is willing to take risks. And this retrospective will have a different presence in the city. The art will be right in the centre for people to pass in and out of whenever they like and whenever they can.” 

In this building Maher sees every pipe. She follows into memory every shaft of light as it moves from room to room. She hears the sounds the floors will make in future time. How the rotation of Trevor Knight’s as yet unmade soundscapes will flood through the darkness of a liminal doorway and bounce off the sunlit ‘Double Venus’ in the adjoining room. Entering the disused lecture theatre I see a raked hexagonal of old university wooden benches and desks sloping down to an old slate blackboard. Maher sees something else altogether. Her vision hones in on the anonymous, intimate, private words etched in abandoned moments of studious desire and protest. The ‘graffiti’ of scribbled declarations made in hiding on public desks. Like the stains on the abandoned sheets she found in St George’s Market in Belfast, Maher is once again making all the leftover unofficial traces of lives lived, a sensuous part of her art.7 In this new site-specific work entitled ‘L’Université’, Maher will invite us to collectively remember these signature moments of undergraduate life under spotlighted shafts of direct lighting.

“The power of that unseen face took seed in the city’s imagination…” 8

The first time I saw an Alice Maher’s work ‘live’ was in Brighton 2006. I walked into a dark room. Wooden panels walled the gallery—or were the walls painted dark red?—the taste of the ‘Berry Dress’ lingering from one room to the next. Night time everywhere and at its centre a gleaming fairy tale bed of snow. Pure white compact ice: the seventeenth century Thames river frozen in a costumed festive wintertime. This bed. ‘Mnemosyne’. Glistening smooth in readiness for a return or abandoned forever. Spectacular and strange. I went back again and again to the museum that was just a slow stroll from the house where I was unable to sleep. The space for the exhibition was not in a gallery as such, but in a museum building set in the decorated pretty wedding grounds that sustain an eighteenth century folly. ‘The Pavilion’ was the ahistorical playground of excess; the temple for debauchery and elite consumption that defined the political inconsequence of King George IV’s reign of Empire. 

On the way up to the exhibition I passed a glass cabinet displaying Parnell’s face etched onto a Land League cream jug. A walk away in time and in geography from where Ireland’s hopes died.9 If you opened the non-existent windows of the ice bed room you’d hear the sea that carried his body out of adulterous sin and back to Ireland. October 1891. Maud Gonne was on the same boat journey as the coffin of Ireland’s national hero. She was dressed in mourning—not just for Parnell as everyone assumed—but for another, hidden loss. A child that was not named.10 Yeats met her off the boat as the Irish formed a black wave of mourning that lasted all the way from King’s town harbor to Glasnevin cemetery and on and on into imagination and memory. I heard a security woman saying that ‘Mnemosyne’ defrosted itself each night only to re-frost itself into a different bed throughout each next day. I asked if I could come back when the museum was closed one night to see the unmade bed and she said, ‘no’. Each night as I stood in waking sleep, the living breathing qualities of that disappearing bed remained at the periphery of the city’s central darkness. “The moment when a feeling enters the body is political. This touch is political.”11

“I saw immediately what was to come next and I hesitated to step forward…”12

Where does Alice Maher’s work come from? “I found my language in drawing.” Are the untamed, exposed, ever-changing Mayo landscapes of the West where she now lives similar to the rural South she grew up in? “No. This is wild. Tipperary was tame. Big Trees. Big deep, deep waters. The Galtee Mountains. That was the place that was first conquered and the lands colonized. Such good land.” After completing her first degree at the Crawford College of Art she ended up studying in Belfast explaining that at that time the Irish Republic did not offer any postgraduate visual arts educational programmes. “The context is very important”, she recalls. “Belfast was a warzone. Ireland was a churchzone.” The 1980s. A decade in Ireland where footsteps sank into liquid lore almost as quickly as Ireland’s youth were ejected as emigrants into unknown other places. Statues moved in landscapes that would hide the disappeared for decades. As Geldof collected funds for African famine relief, Irish women and men starved on hunger strike in prison cells. Partition bled into both sides of the border. Women stood looking at themselves and each other, wondering at what point their bodies and voices had become so invisible to contemporary society and to history. A perverse religious patriarchy was the done deal in States and institutions that effectively outlawed women in public and in private space. Contraception, abortion and any sexuality that was sexual was banned. “That was a period for me of tearing things up… I wanted to create images of woman doing anything but lying down.” Unsurprisingly, during a student show in Belfast, Maher was asked to remove one of these images from the public foyer of the college.13 The resurgence of unemployment and emigration that we see in 2012 was business as usual in the 1980s. “That was when I went to San Francisco on a Fulbright and then I traveled onto Mexico alone. I saw Frida Kahlo’s work for the first time. Nation and Art”.14 

“The ‘death mist’ as she came to call it, the fog of the future was about to clear.”15

In the late 1980s the work began moving between painting and object making. “I was belting out of the stocks. I had so much to say,” she recalls. “So much to spew out. You spend the rest of your life distilling the spew.” Rooted in the visual aesthetics of the medieval worldview, her practice captured the way artists and people in the medieval period understood themselves and each other. Their inner perspective reflecting and communicating the interior psyche through the visual in public space:

“Traditional art education taught that everything began with the renaissance and linear perspective. But to me, the flattened plains of medieval art are more true to how people actually think and feel rather than how they technically see. In medieval paintings saints were big, people were little. People understood what they were looking at.” 

Maher’s light and mobile installations for Boole Library in 1988 were made up of a series of tents inside which trysts are made: “when you went inside, the tents moved round and round you.” These instillations evoked the erotic comfort of “hiding beneath mother’s skirts” in their visual rhyme with the shapes of Piero della Francesca’s Madonna Della Miseriacordia: “The security men said when I went to take down the instillation: ‘Oh don’t. We love them. We used to go eat in them ‘cos we’re not allowed go eat’.” How does Maher feel about hearing ‘live’ feedback from people who encounter her works and instillations? “It is joyous to get the story from someone who works in a space where your work is showing. That they have a daily interaction and relationship with it. It gives life to the work. A sense in which it lives beyond you.”

Maher acknowledges that “people’s stories feed the work”, yet it is also true to say that her art has played a role in the public private ceremony in the ‘god knows it’s got to be this time’16 of other people’s lives. When ‘Bread Tree’ was first installed in Skibereen County Cork, home to one of the worst effected areas of the Irish Famine of the 1840s, the birds did not eat the loaves made by a local bakery and hung in a tree by Maher. When she made a similar Bread Tree in the grounds of University College Cork in 1989 couples who came to be married in the nearby Chapel would have their wedding photographs taken by the tree. In Pointiers she created a work called ‘L’Arpent’ that looked like an opening, a darkness, a doorway located right underneath the highway.17 Brides would flock there too and have wedding photographs taken not in front of the near-by medieval actual doorway, but in front of Maher’s cultural rhyme. Maher clearly enjoys witnessing such unexpected public responses to her works. In France, as she launched her multiple daughters of Venus—orange giant heads; life buoys that were girls—into the lake at Saint-Denis she heard a young daughter ask: “mama if those mermaids stood up would all the water go down?” One head went missing and was later found on a local market stall covered and surrounded by fruit.

“I closed my eye, my nose, my mouth, my hands, my lower cavities; I closed every avenue to the outside world…”18

Maher’s first site-specific work was commissioned for an exhibition “In a State” that was installed in Kilmainham Jail, a former prison that is now a national museum in Dublin.19 Taking a retrospective glance back into this earlier installation work, ‘Cell’ will be re-imagine and re-made by Maher for ‘Becoming’. Kilmainham Jail was where the leaders of the 1916 revolution and their republican predecessors had been imprisoned, tortured and, most often, executed. Kilmainham was also where anti-Treaty prisoners would also be held in the years following Partition. The commission for the 1991 show marked the first time Alice Maher had ever been inside this iconic space or inside a prison cell. She chose to make a work in the cell next door to where Grace Gifford-Plunkett’s 1923 jail paintings had been over painted and ‘improved’ by an enthusiastic artist in the 1960s. The cell she chose was also located directly above the dungeon where United Irishwoman Anne Devlin had been tortured for refusing to testify on behalf of the British State and for displaying solidarity with the eighteenth century Irish Republicans through a protest of silence.20 “The space was alive to me”, remembers Maher who began making the work while she was helping her sister to nurse their dying mother. She collected brambles for the sculpture from the ditches near her childhood home in the South while of a night she captured in sketches her mother’s waking dreams.21 “I don’t want to associate autobiography with the work. It’s there quietly. I know it’s there.” 

The brambles had a very sharp smell that the artist has not expected: “making the work was like cultivating a live thing that gave off a bitter plant smell that got stronger as I shaped it.” Twenty years on, the original ‘Cell’ (which is a large ball of thorns) is still doing time, living and dying—getting smaller either way—in the human cell that is also a political cell. Up until the early 1990s, Maher’s work had been largely figurative: with ‘Cell’ she began an engagement with the history of materials where the meaning came through the actual form and context of the exhibition. The thorns, the brambles, the prison cell. I had heard that Brian Keenan saw ‘Cell’ when it was first shown and I contacted him to ask if he remembered it. We had a conversation in May 2012 that Keenan allowed me to record. In what follows Keenan explains how he went to the exhibition just four months after his release from imprisonment in Beirut in 1991. The conversation is worth quoting from at length because Keenan’s reaction to the work is so visceral. He communicates not only the impact of seeing Alice Maher’s sculpture, but of how the textures and scale of that work helped him to realize his own artistic practice as a writer. He states towards the end of the conversation that his interpretation and response to the work has nothing to do with Maher’s own interpretations or reasons for making ‘Cell’—a work that he calls ‘Ball of Thorns’ throughout, concluding: “but that’s why art works, isn’t it?” I began by asking him if he remembered seeing ‘Cell’ and the context of the broader exhibition in Kilmainham: 

“Oh yes, I remember it quite clearly…I wasn’t long back from ‘my holidays’ as I call them…I went into the cell where the Ball of Thorns was…It struck me immediately…a kind of sense that: ‘Oh my God, I’m looking at myself. I am looking at a visual representation of all those years I’ve spent locked up.’ But particularly, the nine months that I was in solitary confinement in a small cell six foot by four foot and a sloping ceiling so you could only stand up at one end of it….It was pushing the walls back…It had taken root and it was growing there and it was pushing the walls back and that sense when I was locked up of the capacity of mind to push walls back into the middle distance. My walls didn’t move. But what happens in your mind pushes them back. So that you stand in a bigger vista than the reality of the place that you’re in… It is something intuitive, something emotional or something psychological that’s being figured here.’… The meaning of it to me is: I have walked into a poem. The perfect revelation or mirror of a time that I passed through and found incredibly difficult to write about. And here it was… I just wanted to worship it… it was like affirmation. I just walked into an acknowledgement of where I have been and I couldn’t talk to people about it and I find it difficult enough to write about it. But here it is. Why Alice did it has got nothing to do with what I have seen, but that’s why art works the way it does. It pulls back the blinds and lets you see beyond the limitations and the clutter of your own personality.”22

 “Retrospective. That word. I don’t know. This exhibition is not about the past.”23

For an artist a solo show is “a time to see where the practice is at but it is also a risk because you have to move on”. In contrast, a retrospective is a capturing and reassembling; remaking and making new of all the moments in a series of rooms and spaces that become like memory cells.24 It is appropriate that the retrospective begins with a new work that is made up of rhymes, intonations, preoccupations, signs and codes that are embedded in all of Maher’s artistic practice and that the visitor can see throughout the exhibition. ‘Cassandra’s Necklace’ is a new double screen film co-made by Maher with Vivienne Dick and accompanied by a soundtrack co-written and produced by the artist with Trevor Knight.  

Maher invited writer Anne Enright to compose a piece for the exhibition: “She picked out an early unpublished script called ‘Cassandra’ that she had written in 1985, the exact time when we first met each other. I remember I was making a work called ‘Keep’ and she came and stuck her head in a bag full of hair that I was attempting to wind into braids. We were then two struggling artists trying to make our way, but she was already totally fearless. For this catalogue, I asked Anne to respond to my work and yet I ended up responding to hers in a new film and in my own secret writing of a story based on the script that she sent to me.” In ‘Cassandra’s Necklace’ we see grey lunar phallic landscapes. A woman feeding on berries till they look like blood pouring from her mouth. A young hand tries to rub out an image of a volcano from an older woman’s back. In rubbing, the drawing becomes animated.25 The film takes place on two screens. A woman covered in rocks is whistling. On the second screen we see an inanimate body stretched out, an image reminiscent of the Mantegna Christ? ‘Yes, but her eyes are open and she is very much alive unlike the cadaver of Mantegna’.26 A hand slowly moves through one screen and enters the other. Disembodied bodies try to touch. Stroking rocks instead.  

When filming the scene Vivienne Dick observed: “she’s like the girl in the thicket… touching, feeling outer and inner space”. The film is itself a retrospective, a way of re-imagining the icons of past works. Lambs tongues appear as a necklace around the neck of Cassandra at the end of the film. An image that Maher has used several times in other works: “I first saw lambs tongues in the English Market in Cork. Very sexual shapes, buds of taste, organs of communication. I started to buy and collect them.” The silver plate in the film is a still life, a mirror, a shield, a gifting of medusa’s face and John the Baptist’s head. The silent woman with tongues around her neck looks out at us and smiles a secret smile. She looks back at herself across two screens. Here again we are reminded of Anne Devlin’s silence. A woman’s voice displaced; she speaks in tongues. Cassandra. “You hear her name and associate her with having done something bad”, observes Maher, “as though she’s the one who told lies. Yet she was the one who always spoke the truth.”

This is a myth traced through pledges of marriage, rape and sexual entanglement. A woman’s gifts of prophesy that is transformed into a curse of vision matched by disbelief. To speak truth only to a future that is privately known to one and unknown by all others: isn’t this what an artist is and does? Isn’t this the strange dialectic of time and contingency that are locked within the retrospective? At this exhibition in IMMA we are looking back through a body of work that was and is breathing the future into itself; projecting and forecasting; making and unmaking. Looking back at her own earliest works, Maher concludes: “I was making the work but in an unconscious space… almost as though the work was responding to what we now know was going on. The institutions. The children passing in lines. We knew what was going on. We didn’t enquire about what was going on. My own mother was churched.27 She was aware of this degradation. I wasn’t making art in response to all this, and yet, when I look back the work was breathing it all in.”


1 Maher’s full talk at the Alice Milligan exhibition event can be viewed at:
2 In 2011 Dublin Airport’s Terminal 2 hosted an exhibition of 250 photographic portraits entitled ‘Faces of Ireland’ taken by Kevin Abosch. Alice Maher’s image was positioned on the wall passengers’ pass just before they descend to passport control.
3 Alice Maher in conversation with Catherine Morris May 2012. All quotes throughout this essay by Maher are taken from this extended conversation unless otherwise stated.
4 The ‘permanent period’ is a term Richard Ford’s character Frank Bascombe uses to describe his life as a 55 year old in the third part of his trilogy The Lay of the Land. At the end of the first novel in John Paul Sartre’s Roads to Freedom trilogy, Mathieu Delarue finds he has reached, ‘the age of reason’. 
5 I walked around the space with Alice Maher and Seán Kissane on 11 April 2012.
6 This level of access and planning with an artist is unusual for curator Seán Kissane who admits that with artists he most often ends up doing virtual walking tours of their gallery exhibition space on skype.
Transfiguration came out of work that was made and exhibited first in Belfast in 1988. Maher was then drawing using colour on sheets that she bought in St George’s market. “When I got them home I saw that they were stained.” She elaborated on these stains that to her were traces, shadows. 
8 Quote taken from unpublished manuscript of story entitled ‘Cassandra’ by Alice Maher, p.3. 
9 Charles Stewart Parnell (1846–1891) leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party was elected president of the Irish Land League in 1879, an organization that protested for land reform in Ireland. He was caught up in an affair and divorce scandal in Brighton and died unexpectedly at the age of 45. 
10 Alice Maher was intrigued by a Victorian painting hanging in Swansea Museum called ‘The Death of Sarah Dillwyn’ that depicts a group portrait of all the living members of the child’s family ranged around her bed at the very moment of her death. ‘Mnemosyne’ investigates the form of ‘bed’ and the meaning of ‘memory’ through the action of freezing.
11 Adrienne Rich “The Blue Ghazals” in The Will to Change: Poems 1968–1970. (London: Chatto and Windus, 1971), pp. 20–24.
12 ‘Cassandra’ by Alice Maher, Ms. p.1.
13 This was a work entitled: . 
14 Alice Maher discussed the impact of Frida Kahlo on her work at a recorded gallery talk she delivered during the Kahlo and Rivera exhibition at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (5 May 2011). 
15 ‘Cassandra’ by Alice Maher, Ms. p.1.
16 Lyrics by Ian Curtis from ‘Ceremony’, a song by performed by Joy division in 1980. 
17 ‘L’Arpent’ (The Long Acre) included a number of works that the artist installed on the banks of the river Clain.
18 ‘Cassandra’ by Alice Maher, Ms. p. 22.
19 Jobst Graeve curated ‘In a State’
20 Anne Devlin was an Irish Republican who acted as housekeeper to revolutionary United Irishman, Robert Emmet.
21 The Thicket (1991) was accompanied by a booklet containing postcards of the drawings in the show but also sketches the artist made of her mother’s waking dreams and some unidentified family photographs from the artist’s childhood in the West of Ireland. A copy of this document can be accessed along with many others in the Alice Maher archive at the National Irish Visual Arts Library ( 
22 I am grateful to Brian Keenan for his generous communication with me.
23 Alice Maher in conversation with Catherine Morris April 2012. 
24 In the 1990s artist Louise Bourgeois made a series of instillations she referred to as memory cells: “The Cells” she stated, “represent different types of pain: physical, emotional and psychological, mental and intellectual… Each Cell deals with a fear. Fear is pain… Each Cell deals with the pleasure of the voyeur, the thrill of looking and being looked at” (Centre Pompidou, 2008). Bourgeois commended Maher’s work as ‘folk art’ after the artist brought ‘Berry Dress’ to show at Bourgeois’ New York Salon in the late 1980s. Maher explored her encounters with Bourgeois and the impact the French-American artist had on the development of her own work in an Irish arts programme ‘A Giant at my Shoulder’ recorded by RTÉ in 1999:
25 “The drawing of a volcano on the back of the woman came from my first photo project with a woman’s group in Tallaght Co. Dublin, and with the photographer, Mary Furlong. The women were photographed in their chosen costume, as how they wanted to be seen. In items that expressed themselves somehow. They said I had to make a photograph of myself too and asked: ‘what will you wear?’ I took a piece of crayon and drew a volcano on my chest.” 
26 Alice Maher in email correspondence with the author.
27 This was a ritual practice ceremony now largely discontinued in which women were forced to be ‘purified’ by the Catholic Church after giving birth before they could leave the house after a period of confinement

Related Works