There is something quite apt about making an artist’s book in response to an archive – beyond the more obvious similarities of physical format. Both sit in the traditional sense as prescript systemisations, located on the periphery of art making; they are often awkward realms where old material is circled or shoehorned.
This placement can become interesting when conventional ideas of the archive and book are stretched – in the case of NIVAL (the National Irish Visual Arts Library), it is as an ongoing archive for the 20th and 21st centuries, yet unusually only established in 1997. In the case of Unfolding the Archive, an exhibition by artist’s collective Floating World at F. E. McWilliam Gallery, it is through fluid ideas of what a book can be.
How is a living archive applied in retrospect? By working backwards different values can be applied to old work, for bounds will always be pushed: as pointed out by Karen Di Franco’s catalogue essay, “work that would have been considered radical or contested is now absorbed within institutional infrastructures” Sarah Carne’s project I’m Looking for Barbara is focused on finding the artists that have been disadvantaged by parameters applied to containing the past.
“Barbara” is a personification of past women artists that have slipped through the criteria of possessing a physical file in archives. When work is sought from the past, it relies on a certain amount of publicity and prescribed importance to stand the test of time. Carnes seeks to find the women that perhaps “missed the zeitgeist” in this, for any number of reasons such as being underfunded, underproductive or not networking.
Her book is a Rolodex for viewers to add the names of female artists, working between 1970 and 1975, in order to complement more institutional archives. It sits at a study desk and chair, with images of known and unknown artists, printed books that describe her project and guidelines for NIVAL and the F. E. McWilliam archive, and an accompanying video diary of her research processes.
At first I find the project, whilst valid, rather dry and contrived. However, Carne’s emerging doubts of her motives in such a project interestingly seem to echo the ways in which the older female artists were placed – finding themselves contained in prescript structures of power and exposure that disadvantage those who work another way. Both Carnes and the lost female artists find themselves working through the same predicament. The humour of the pamphlet’s pointed instructions to the institutions also lifts the project, addressing the problems of institutional and archival language. It feels particularly apt when considering the representation of women in McWilliam’s own work: a cabinet of faceless and partial female bodies is a permanent fixture in the exhibition space.
Elisabeth Kinsella’s book touches on similar limitations, but on a personal scale: Boundless (Work in Progress) is four large, wheeled wooden frames draped in irregular grids of knitting. The lopsided pattern marks the artist’s own found time as she works around familial commitments, casting off when her periods of work finished. Taking inspiration from the pattern of the spines of “The Bell”, an intellectual Irish review journal of the 1940s, and the colours green, white and black from old Aer Lingus posters, the work is an amalgamation of Irish romantic idealism with the reality of working with compromised time as a contemporary Irish artist.
There is an act of negotiation in responding to an archival work, using an unavoidably limited understanding and shifting contextual placement. Many of the chosen items are remnants of faded elements of Irish culture, such as plans for religious alterpieces and stained glass, a folklore tale by W B Yeats and illustrated by Norah McGuinness, F. E. McWilliam’s Woman of Belfast no. 15 of 1972, and the portrayal of Irish life in late 20th century cinema. The artists’ work abstracts further from these items to allow for a comparison of contexts, removing iconography, using motif and place, employing performative actions and imbibing new importance to unloved, unfinished embroidery and studio equipment.
Looking into an archive, to create and perhaps contribute new work to it, permits a feedback system in which each artist can play with shifting importance and implicit margins. With the archival inspiration displayed alongside the artists’ responses, the boundaries between the pieces become less defined, taking on the properties of installation and a hybridised art/museum display. What is created through Unfolding the Archive does not exalt or fetishize passed elements of society, but instead uses its complex and at times problematic attributes to feel our way through cultural shifts and additional perspective.
Unfolding the Archive is exhibiting at F. E. McWilliam Gallery, Banbridge, until July 19th.