IN CONVERSATION with Catherine Morris
Saturday 20th March, 12 noon
The exhibition was featured on The View, RTE 1 on Tuesday 16 March. Click here to watch the clip. (Viewable with RealPlayer)This exhibition is a remarkable departure for Mick O’Dea and yet it is also a journey all the way back to his childhood home in Ennis, where, as a boy he played toy soldiers in the family bar in the unlikely shared company of ex-British service men who had fought in WW2 and Old IRA veterans. For the old men who had fought in real zones of combat, the boy’s plastic tanks and guns became tangible examples of what equipment had worked or hindered their own intricately remembered army manoeuvres. Forty years later, the artist recalled: “₁In my father’s pub the ex-British army men were rank and file rather than commanders, though when it came to giving me advice about how to lay out my plastic solders they took on the role of commanders.” For Mick O’Dea, the childhood military toys would inform two decades of his visual art practice. The ‘hand of god’ and the hand of the painter moving soldiers around abstract dislocated games of war.In this new exhibition at Kevin Kavanagh, O’Dea brings to bear all his wealth of experience as a painter of the human face and body; and as a landscape artist consciously receptive to the ever-shifting patterns of light. Throughout Black and Tan previously inanimate faces are lit up by living warmth and personality; we can trace the seasons in trees and know the time of day by the way the artist re-captures a depth in light as it falls across shoes, buckles and straps in a Dublin street or a Cork Barracks. The artist contends that: “history is never over. History is always present.” ₂It is remarkable to consider what it is that Mick O’Dea achieves in transforming Irish historical photographs (nicknamed “the mirror with a memory”) into something more life-like and real. We so often think that the photograph – particularly ones taken so long ago and at liminal moments of history – will expose an authentic truth about a person we did not know or an event we did not witness. Black and Tan emanates from a nuanced and intensely rich research ‘project’ the artist has undertaken: O’Dea has been delving into the national, official and unofficial, archives; disseminating information and images from history books; tracing and identifying police spies; drawing and painting vast canvases; creating multiple charcoal and pastel sketches; and pacing around the contemporary snow covered city remapping in digital the complex spaces of trauma captured in the early historical photographs he has collected₃.The most unusual finding from his research is the one that underpins this exhibition. O’Dea reveals how the official Irish Civil War was foreshadowed by the Irish men who aided and abetted the notorious ‘Black and Tans’ during the Irish War of Independence:“In the true sense the War of Independence was a war of liberation rather than a civil war… The show is primarily concerned with the War of Independence from the time of the arrival of the Black and Tans in March 1920 up to the truce in July 1921. The Black and Tans were brought in to augment the RIC [Royal Irish Constabulary] who were suffering grievous losses from assassinations and resignations. As a considerable minority of the ”Tans” were Irish and the rank and file of the RIC were Irish one could argue that the War of Independence like many of the struggles in Irish history was yet another Civil War with a lot of British on one of the sides₄.”This is no easy subject matter. This is no easy narrative. Every face casts a shadow. Every soldier leaves a darkness. O’Dea has drawn richly on the visual traces of the Irish past to create a radical intervention into how contemporary audiences and future generations encounter and remember war. The artist began some of these portraits by literally projecting the archival photographs onto vast canvases. Then he sketched the bodies and the uniforms and built the characters in charcoal before painting washes of acrylic colour into the frame. In projecting memory onto the canvas, O’Dea casts Irish visual art back into a history of consequence that is still difficult to envisage. So intimate is this work rooted in his own Irish childhood, that sometimes O’Dea’s concern rests with the stage set of location: how a window in the background of three auxiliaries playing with a gun for the camera in a Dublin Street resembles the bar window of his father’s Ennis pub. These pictures often re-imagine war by re-animating the objects that feature in popular songs of the time: the intricate mechanical body of the Crossley Tenders that contained eighteen Auxiliaries attacked by Tom Barry’s men in the ‘Kilmichael ambush’ of November 1920. In this show, O’Dea illuminates the coded minutiae of power as disseminated through clothes, fabrics, shoes, boots, hats, guns, cars, tanks. Moreover, he reveals a history that was not determined by De Valera or Collins or Griffith. Many faces inscribed anew in Black and Tan are not the known: they are the terrifying unknowns; the unnamed soldiers who left a scar on the country the size of a border. Mick O’Dea’s exhibition opens a new door to the visual cultures of Irish military history and the key is turned once again on our uncertainty.
Catherine Morris is a postdoctoral research fellow at the John Hume Global Irish Institute at University College Dublin and a guest curator with the National Library of Ireland. Her book “Alice Milligan and the Irish Cultural Revival” will be published by Lilliput later this year. “Discover: Alice Milligan archives to exhibition” will open at the NLI in May 2010.
₁ Email correspondence from Mick O’Dea to Catherine Morris, 14 February 2010.
₂ Mick O’Dea in conversation with Catherine Morris at his Mountjoy Square studio, 13 February 2010.
₃ In particular O’Dea draws on the work of photojournalists such as W. D. Hogan who was a commercial photographer who supplied pictures of events following 1916 to Irish local and national papers such as the Weekly Freeman. Books of particular fascination for O’Dea include: Tim Pat Coogan & George Morrison’s The Irish Civil War (London: Seven Dials, 1998); Willian Sheehan’s British Voices: From the Irish War of Independence 1918-1921 The Words of British Servicemen who were there (Cork: Collins Press, 2005) and Richard Bennett, The Black and Tans (London: Spellmount Press, 1959; 2007).
₄ Email correspondence from Mick O’Dea to Catherine Morris, 14 February 2010.