“THE biggest project we’ve ever undertaken.” That’s how the artistic director of the Sirius Arts Centre in Cobh describes the forthcoming unveiling of internationally acclaimed Irish artist, Brian O’Doherty’s murals after 20 years of being hidden under paper and paint at the gallery.
Miranda Driscoll, who is also the curator of this project, points out that it coincides with New York-based Brian’s 90th birthday and the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Sirius.
The original installation in Cobh — curated by Peter Murray, founder of the Sirius and former director of the Crawford Art Gallery — was, in 1996, considered a seminal moment in Irish art. Entitled One, Here, Now, the artwork is a nine-part series of stunning floor-to-ceiling wall paintings that reveal O’Doherty’s interest in the ancient Irish Ogham alphabet. It pays tribute to the Irish language.
In 1972, O’Doherty changed his artist name to Patrick Ireland in protest at the killings of civil rights marchers in Derry, on Bloody Sunday. After the Good Friday Agreement, the artist reverted to his original name.
Miranda, who has been running the Sirius Arts Centre since 2014, is hugely excited about the project, which will be marked by a year-long series of specially commissioned artworks, music compositions, performances and talks to celebrate and preserve these “important Irish works for future generations”.
Associated talks and events will take place at the Crawford Art Gallery and the CIT Crawford College of Art and Design. The project is supported by the Arts Council, the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Cork County Council, the Port of Cork and Colourtrend. The project patron is President Michael D Higgins.
Miranda explains how Brian ended up creating the murals.
“Brian was in Cork to do a project at the Crawford. He was staying at Sirius. The story goes that he walked into the central gallery at the Sirius and was blown away by the light. It really is a beautiful light-filled room.
He decided with Peter to do one of his Ogham drawings. They were his signature pieces. He worked from floor to ceiling, across the whole room, producing a series of abstract drawings with Ogham writing at the top.
“It took about a year to complete. Then it opened and it stayed up for a good year or more. It was a key moment in Irish art.
“The work later had to be covered up as the space was needed for the gallery. A lot of art- works like this are meant to be ephemeral so the wall mural is essentially a temporary thing. Instead of painting over it, it was decided to cover it with liner paper and then paint it with emulsion. Peter was saying that maybe someone would come along some day and uncover it again.
“The restoration we’re doing is quite a big job. We have to take down the paper, take off the paint and look at what’s behind. The walls have been drilled over the years. It’s an important job because we’re restoring the work and not just uncovering it. The conservator is Don Knox. It will be restored in January, February and March and will open again on April 20 and run for just over a year.”
Brian will attend the opening with his art historian wife, Barbara Novak.
The programme was launched Friday January 19 at the Sirius.
“What we’re doing that day is closing the central gallery, which will never be the same again. We’re going to tell people all about our plans. A wonderful artist, Kevin Atherton, will perform his piece called In Two Minds. He will be collaborating with writer and poet, Sarah Hayden. Kevin’s work would be very much linked with Brian’s. He looks at identity and is very much influenced by Flann O’Brien, as is Brian. Kevin’s piece, a video performance, will play in the central gallery. It will essentially be him looking back at a piece he made in the Serpentine Gallery in London in the 1970s. He will be interviewing his younger self and revisiting his piece 40 years later. It’s a brilliant piece. I saw it as a student.”
Miranda says both Brian and Kevin “are kind of mysterious”.
“They work with multiple identities. Over the years, Brian has used various pseudonyms. He questions the role of the artist and is a writer as well. He has written fiction and is a very well known critic.”
He wrote the influential book, Inside the White Cube: Ideologies of the Gallery Space. Born in Ballaghadereen, Co Roscommon in 1928, he grew up in Dublin. He studied medicine at UCD and did post-graduate work at Cambridge University and at the Harvard School of Public Health. He has devoted his life to art since 1957.
Brian, says Miranda, was an important figure in the conceptual art movement in New York in the ’60s and ’70s. His name is synonymous with Marcel Duchamp (a significant influence on the artist), Marc Chagall, Joseph Albers and Edward Hopper.
“His medical training feeds into his work. As a doctor, he studied perception and that has come into his artwork.”
She recalls being at an opening “when an artist whispered in my ear, pointing out a Patrick Ireland mural. I later started digging around and talking to my colleagues about Brian and his work. I started to uncover the story (of the Ogham murals). I found old correspondence. The best part was when I contacted Brian about my idea (of restoring and unveiling the murals). I got an instant positive response.”
When the murals are on show again, Miranda says you don’t necessarily have to know anything about Brian to experience the work.
“They’re really beautiful pieces and the light is fantastic in the Gallery Room.”
The Brian O’Doherty project promises to be one of the highlights on the calendar of artistic events for 2018.