Áine Phillips - charting the history of Irish performance art

Aine Phillips performing Red Weight in Krakow in 2013. Photo:- Mieszko Stanislawski

Aine Phillips performing Red Weight in Krakow in 2013. Photo:- Mieszko Stanislawski

ON THURSDAY March 23 at 6pm, Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop hosts the launch of Performance Art in Ireland: a History, edited by west of Ireland artist Áine Phillips, the first book devoted to past and contemporary forms of performance art in both the North and the Republic.

Published by the Live Art Development Agency and Intellect Books and lavishly illustrated, it brings together contributions by prominent Irish artists and leading academics, offering analysis and historical commentaries to provide an absorbing sense of the rich histories of Irish performance art.

“The book came about after a meeting two and a half years ago of Irish performance artists, from both north and south, in Dublin,” Phillips tells me. “There were about 30 of us there and we talked about how we could help each other’s work and how to set up new platforms for performance art around the country.

“Part of the discussion was that there was no book that explained the history of performance art in Ireland or documented the work of practitioners over the last 40 years since it started here. So there was no documentation or information for younger artists and students who therefore tended to repeat ideas because they didn’t know other artists might have done them before.

“There was no history for younger artists to build on and for older ones to build their legacy upon. So the book functions in both those ways, as a legacy builder and as an educational resource for younger artists and students to find out what has already been done and why, and how it has been done and to learn from that.”

The book traces the origins of Irish performance art to work by Brian O’Doherty (alias Patrick Ireland ) that emerged out of the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s. Performance art thus came late to the Irish scene and remained a marginal presence for quite some time.

There are a number of reasons for that,” Phillips states. “Firstly, there’s the predominance of theatre in Ireland, and theatre has such a strong literary tradition here. Performance art is very different, it comes from a visual art background. Another reason it received less critical attention is that a lot of performance art was done on the streets, it bypassed the galleries and museums. However, maybe now performance art is having its day; funding bodies like the Arts Council recognise it has an important contribution to make and is a strong artform in its own right.”

While Irish performance art was struggling to find acceptance at home, ironically it was winning acclaim internationally. “A lot of Irish performance artists had to travel abroad and they made big reputations there,” Phillips observes. “Yet they weren’t getting as much opportunity to show their work here. Having built their careers abroad they developed the reputation for Irish performance art internationally. I think the strength of Irish performance art lies in that it’s political and engaged in political activism. Coming out of the Troubles, it received a lot of attention from the art world internationally, and it was very innovative and had a powerful effect.”

The book includes a chronology of Irish performance art events and what begins as a trickle in the early years looks more like a torrent by the time it reaches the present.

“There are so many people making performance art now,” Phillips agrees. “It’s an exciting artform, it’s live and in front of people. Performance art has a real impact on popular audiences, even people who don’t know anything about art can still ‘get’ performance art whereas they might find it difficult to go into a gallery and engage with contemporary visual art. There has also been a huge development in community art practice and a lot of that is very performative. In recent years it has really grown and developed.”

I ask Áine if Irish performance art is different from performance art elsewhere. “Irish performance art is definitely distinctive,” she replies. “Its origins in the Troubles made it political and that has trickled down over the years. A lot of work being made now by younger artists is also politically active and I think that is unique to Ireland.

“The work of Irish feminist artists is politicised because reproductive rights here have been limited, divorce and contraception weren’t available until the late 1990s, and there still isn’t legislation for abortion. Also, a lot of performance artists work in community arts, in areas of health for example or in education, and that is very particular to the Irish context.”

What has influenced her own performance art work? “Coming to work in Galway for Macnas in 1988 was a definite influence. Gulliver was such an exciting piece of sculpture-cum-visual art. I got completely involved in street performance with Macnas and in a way that was my apprenticeship,” she says.

“I then became interested in making my own performances more experimental. I wanted to make performances that crossed over with sculpture and visual art and where the concepts were around issues of feminism. With Red Weight I was walking in the street in this beautiful red dress with a long train behind it. As I walk it’s impossible to pull it and everyone in the street starts picking it up and pulling it with me.

“It’s about that notion of pulling the baggage of your life behind you but others will always help you to do it so it’s a communal experience. It was out in the street and involved a lot of people in the performance and people really enjoyed it, that was almost like a Macnas piece of work, it definitely comes out of that tradition.

“A lot of theatre and dance practitioners and music makers will be extremely interested in this publication,” she concludes. “I think they will find it very inspiring for new ideas for inter-disciplinary work which I think that is the future for performance art in a broader sense in Ireland.”

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