DUBLIN — How do artists respond to the institutional horrors of the world? This is a huge and urgent question in our tumultuous time. I found a deeply affecting case history in Dublin, Ireland.
Northern Irish glass artist Alison Lowry has mounted an exhibition that addresses well over 200 years of crimes against women and children perpetrated by the Catholic Church, in collaboration with the Irish state. It is a devastating exhibition.
A brief background: In 2012 a mass grave holding the bodies of 796 children was discovered in Tuam, Ireland on the former site of St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home, an institution run by the Bon Secours Sisters order of nuns from 1921 to 1965. Mother and baby homes (a tragically ironic name) were homes for unwed mothers and their children, many of whom were forcibly taken from their mothers for adoption, and the women forced into manual labor to “pay” for their care. The hygienic and medical conditions were abysmal; as a result, many of the babies, children, and mothers died.
This grim discovery was coupled with the ongoing investigation of another site of institutional abuse. The Magdalene Laundries, a Catholic institution run by nuns where unwanted women and children worked in forced servitude benefitting the church as a lucrative laundry facility. It is estimated that upwards of 30,000 women and teenage girls lived in slavery in these institutions from roughly 1760 until 1996, when the last workhouse was closed. Children in families where there was domestic violence were also routinely taken by the state and placed in “industrial homes,” also run by the Catholic Church, where the victims’ treatment was cruel and brutal.
These are the verifiable facts that Lowery used as a basis for her exhibition, titled (A)Dressing Our Hidden Truths. Her primary medium is a form of glass fabrication called “pâte’ de verre,” meaning literally “paste of glass,” an extremely labor-intensive 19th century form of glass casting. The technique is more typically associated with beautiful, ethereal forms than the commemoration of slavery. The aesthetic beauty of the material that Lowery is using serves to amplify the horror that it depicts. The exhibition also employs text, audio, and video to tell the stories of the survivors of these two separate but interwoven institutions.
Housed at the National Museum of Ireland–Decorative Arts and History, near central Dublin, the exhibition is installed in a slightly claustrophobic rabbit warren of small rooms, and painted black. You enter and begin a beautiful and emotionally wrenching journey. The first cases illustrate how women were shorn of their hair, their possessions and even their name; they were given new, Biblical names by the nuns.
The first object one encounters upon entering the exhibition is a life-sized, old-fashioned work apron fabricated of unfired pâte de verre over fabric. The beads of glass are textural and thick, giving the apron a slight fuzziness — like an old-time photograph that is slightly out of focus. The apron is both hard and soft, an interesting visual metaphor for the labor of laundry.
A piece hanging in a glass vitrine has this chilling title, “Instead of the Fragrance There Will Be Stench; Instead of a Sash, a Rope; Instead of Well-Dressed Hair, Baldness; Instead of Fine Clothing, Sackcloth; Instead of Beauty, Branding (Isaiah3: 24)” (2019). Four pairs of giant glass scissors dangle from rosaries in the case, glittering in a very bright spotlight. Piles of long human hair lay in a heap on the floor of the case. Next to the case is a listening device where one can hear the voice of Catherine Whelan, born in 1935, now deceased, who recounts being conscripted to a Magdalene laundry at the age of 14. She describes in detail how she was “punished” by the nuns, in particular the experience of being held down and having her hair cut off.
Almost every work of art in the exhibition is accompanied by audio testimony. The recordings are deeply saddening to listen to. The exquisite beauty of the objects focuses us on the disconnect between what we are seeing and what we are hearing.
In the piece “Red Cardigan” (2019), Lowry collaborates with poet Connie Roberts to memorialize Roberts’ experience growing up in an industrial home. Taken by the state at age five, along with her 14 siblings, she endured 12 years of incarceration. After her mother’s death, she returned to her childhood home where her father presented her with a red woolen sweater that she had worn before being taken. Its innocent color and the evidence of her mother’s hand mending the frayed old garment inspired Roberts to write a poem about her life that sparkles with crystalline sorrow. Lowry then responded by casting a replica of that sweater — a small artifact of a little girl’s sad life. As with the other pieces there is an audio recording of Roberts quietly reciting her poem.
The showpiece of the exhibition is a group of nine infant christening gowns, made of pâte de verre and nylon fibers. Entitled, “Home Babies” (2017), the gowns hang slightly above our heads and gently turn and move as viewers in the two rooms bear witness and disturb the still air. A voice intones solemnly the names of the 796 babies whose bodies were discovered in the St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home in Tuam. Like a mantra, the soothing, mesmerizing incantation of names becomes the background sound of the entire exhibition.
When I visited the exhibition in mid-May it was the only crowded room in an otherwise almost empty museum, itself a former military barracks. The visitors were mostly women, some weeping openly. There are many survivors of these homes who are still living and this project is an important documentation for them of the abuse that they suffered. It is also gorgeous to look at. Lowry successfully marries the content she is working with to the beauty of her materials, a very tricky relationship to accomplish.
Delicate yet hard-edged, sensitive yet unflinching, deeply personal and yet universal, this show is most worthy of the stories it tells.
(A) Dressing Our Hidden Truths, at the National Museum of Ireland–Decorative Arts and History (Collins Barracks, Benburb Street, Dublin, Ireland) runs through May 2020. It was curated by Audrey Whitty.