DUBLIN — At 21 by 15 feet, Rachel Fallon’s and Alice Maher’s “monumental textile sculpture,” titled “The Map,” is the only object in the room, cutting diagonally across Rua Red Gallery’s main space. “It was important that it wasn’t a wall hanging, that it had some corporality, that you had to negotiate the space,” shared Fallon during the press viewing. If “monumental” immediately evokes scale, Fallon and Maher’s piece also recalls the other art historical meaning of the term: how the stained glasswork of a cathedral is monumental in function, both in that the windows are part of the building’s structure, and that they are intended to be read, from the ground heavenwards. “The Map” is a window to Irish history too often glossed over — that of women.
Reading this map, one navigates mythical territories (“Outer Sanctimonia,” “Slag Island,” “Heterotropia”), sea monsters (“Prejudice,” “Poverty,” “Ignorance,”), and fantastic topographies (“The Mounds of Mam,” “Hierarchy Heights,” “Super Ego Falls”). Sister star systems “Pecatrix Minor” (the body of a pregnant woman) and “Pectrix Major” (a single mother with two small children) indicate punishments for unmarried Irish mothers, while “The Little Laundress” and “Ten Cigs” constellations indict Ireland’s notorious treatment of women inside church-run asylums known as Magdalene Laundries, which operated between the mid-18th and late-20th centuries; according to the artists’ research, the only possession allowed these women was 10 cigarettes. The laundries were named after Mary Magdalene to invoke a biblical drama of sin (specifically, prostitution), penitence and devotion (in all four canonical gospels, Mary Magdalene crashes a dinner party for Jesus, weeping and anointing his feet and hair with expensive perfume), and, finally, forgiveness and redemption. In reality, the laundries, in which at least 10,000 “fallen” (poor, unmarried, pregnant, or otherwise deemed unruly) women were incarcerated in the first 70 years of the Irish Free State, were brutal, for-profit workhouses. The last Magdalene Laundry only closed in 1996.
Fallon and Maher’s wit, skill, and whimsy provide entries into traumas still too hard to look at directly. Referring to the tangle of crocheted entrails at the bottom of the piece, Maher says, “It’s like squeezing the map, and this viscera is exposed.” She stresses creative power but also violence, “squeezing something into the world from oblivion, like all those women forced into manual labor and birth.”
“The Map” is the second exhibition in The Magdalene Series, commissioned by Rua Red’s director Maolíosa Boyle to respond to the figure of Mary Magdalene. Constructed over two years and three lockdowns, “The Map” was itself a labor of Irish feminist-solidarity in practice, following on Fallon and Maher’s collaboration during the abortion referendum of 2018. For this project, the artists exchanged daily drawings and met weekly on Zoom with fellow artists, as well as Boyle. Hand-sewn, embroidered, drawn, painted, felted, appliquéd, and crocheted, pieces of “The Map” traveled between Fallon and Maher via post, resulting in something like an exquisite corpse. And, in fact, the completed piece represents a body: that of Mary Magdalene, whose storied red hair blazes at the top of the piece in tangled plaits of shimmering auburn and gold floss.
One of the great pleasures of visiting “The Map” multiple times has been watching viewers navigate its landscapes and star systems, delighting in discovery and interpretation, looking from bottom up — not heavenward, but at Mary Magdalene’s wild hair. However, the first impression the piece makes is something much more visceral. Entering Rua Red Gallery, one encounters “The Map” from the back, a vantage point that gives visitors, and maybe more particularly people who have carried pregnancies to term, the impression of looking at a giant foetal ultrasound. Gestation on one side, feminist history on the other, “The Map” is a redress of Christianity’s, and the Irish State’s, distortions of human sexuality and the feminine, which have been projected onto the composite figure of Mary Magdalene. “She’s a contradiction for men in the church,” said Maher, “because they depict her as beautiful and desirable, so they can have that image and look at it with impunity, while at the same time suppressing those qualities for any living woman.”
“The Map” by Alice Maher and Rachel Fallon and “We Are the Map,” an accompanying sound piece by Stephen Shannon with text by Sinéad Gleeson, continue at Rua Red South Dublin Arts Centre (Blessington Road, Tallaght, Dublin) through March 12.
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