Alice Maher interview: Becoming (2013)

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 10 September 2014
This interview took place in February 2013 on the occasion of Maher’s mid-career retrospective at the Irish Museum of Modern Art.

“The title of the show is ‘Becoming’. It’s not ‘Being’ or something else. As far as I’m concerned, the works are ‘becoming’ all the time. Their meaning is not static.”
— Alice Maher about her recent mid-career retrospective (2012-13)

Alice Maher presents an intriguing mix of materials, influences and references— and sets a stage for mental wandering into and out of her artworks. She refers to the dark, memories, dreaming, metamorphosis, a constant state of flux, as well as myths, history, fairy tales and personal experience. Her work crosses back and forth across artistic media including drawing, painting, video/digital technology, and sculpture/ installation. For the particular meaning of her works, Maher steers clear of these discussions, which admittedly, is something I am usually suspicious about. However I was dazzled by her works and their certain mystique, and I let her lead the way on this; I experienced a process that was both unexpectedly rich and rather rewarding.

Over the past 25 years, Alice Maher has exhibited works in over 30 solos and well over 100 group exhibitions across Europe and into America. Recent highlights include her mid-career retrospective exhibited in 16 rooms/spaces in the Irish Museum of Modern Art’s temporary exhibition spaces in the Earlsfort Terrace building in Dublin, a former university building and former seat of government. Earlier Maher has had solos at the Brighton and Hove Museums (2007), Green on Red Gallery, Dublin (2009, 2005), Purdy Hicks Gallery in London (2011, 2006), and in the US, at the David Nolan Gallery in New York (2011, 2008). She represented Ireland at the 22nd São Paolo Bienal.

R.J. Preece interviewed Alice Maher on the occasion of her mid-career retrospective, which featured works in a range of diverse media. However, he focused on her sculptural works. The following are excerpts of the conversation.

R.J. Preece: The title of the first room in your retrospective “Empire of Dirt” which exhibits The Four Directions (2004-05), makes reference to Trent Reznor/Nine Inch Nails’s song Hurt, and the Johnny Cash cover version. Could you please explain, what are you getting at with this? Is it “meaning” or some kind of parallel strand or “cross-over”?

Alice Maher: Many ideas and concepts lead into and out of an artwork. But viewers always bring their own personal history and association with them to that work. Like yours, when you mentioned earlier that you had Nine Inch Nails CDs, and I like to allow an openness for that, both in the work themselves and in the titles.

Each one of these interlocking rooms is newly titled for this exhibition. The title of the first space comes from the catalogue essay which the curator Seán Kissane wrote. I believe that he heard Johnny Cash playing in my studio on a visit and he immediately made the connection to my work with thorns and materials that hurt.

But I just liked the whole phrase “my empire of dirt” and I think it encapsulates what I find interesting— like the common, the vernacular, the forgotten, the discarded, the despised, the snails and slugs, everything under our feet and in the margins of this world. And that’s why I wanted the first room one enters to be “my empire of dirt”.

R.J. Preece: In the exhibition catalogue, I understand you were particularly excited about siting your work in the temporary Earlsfort Terrace site. Why is this?

Alice Maher: I’m very interested in the space and the social and political context. It’s different than showing in a museum or art gallery. Very interesting people passed through there as students and teachers and great writers like James Joyce. And artists and political activists were students there. So it was like a space of foment, very resonant, and an interlocking space. Also, the space is like a labyrinth.

R.J. Preece: You opted for a non-chronological presentation for your retrospective. What other kinds of presentation and associations were you interested in?

Alice Maher: I was interested in restaging work in a completely new context, and putting works together from different decades even to see if there was indeed a coherence running through that work, even though the materials were completely different.

I was also interested actually in playing as well, having fun with the space—placing drawings up really high on the walls to bring attention to the architecture of the building itself, play with scale, with approach, meaning, associated meaning. You’d be in one space and hear sound from another, and this would lead you through the whole experience like a kind of game or something.

The first thing I did was have a model made of that space in my studio— so I could indeed play with that space— before ever getting in there.

R.J. Preece: The works in your retrospective are theatrically illuminated by Aedín Cosgrove of the Pan Pan Theatre in Dublin. How did this collaborative process work?

Alice Maher: I had worked with Aedín quite a number of times before and with Trevor Knight, the composer. The first thing we talked about was the awfulness of the strip lighting there! The discussion centred around the journey the viewer makes within this interlocking space— to make it easy for viewers but also an experience to travel through the space. Pools of light, from light to darkness, and onwards.

R.J. Preece: In an Irish Times article [1], you’re quoted as saying with reference to the Becoming installation, “I really don’t want anyone to visit the exhibition and be told: ‘Well, this piece means such and such.’ There is no simple key to meaning.”

Alice Maher: I’m against statements in galleries and museums where you are told, often in short phrases, the meaning of an artwork. Words and words can be very attractive, but they can trap you. Sometimes they stop you from engaging rather than allowing you in. I’d rather have the viewer bring their observations and opinions to the discussion. I think once you put your work out there, people bring meaning to it.

R.J. Preece: What do you think about discussions of meaning for artworks?

Alice Maher: The artwork for me is like a type of reservoir itself and channels of meaning lead into it and out of it. And the meaning is changing all the time. This depends on the context, whose looking at it, and how much time has passed. For example with a dress, it meant something completely different perhaps in the 80s than now.

That’s why the title of the show is “Becoming”. It’s not “Being” or something else. As far as I’m concerned, the works are “becoming” all the time. Their meaning is not static.

R.J. Preece: Could you tell me about Double Venus (2005)?

Alice Maher: I purchased a cheap bust in a shop of Canova’s Venus. People would perhaps buy it for their garden. A piece of kitsch actually. Then I had a mold made, and two wax Venuses made from the mold. Then I cut off their hair and joined them head-to-head with a huge serpentine, anaconda-like shape. And the two are looking in opposite directions, and sitting specifically on two pillars.

Hopefully people will bring to this what they think of doubleness, what it means to be looking in an opposite direction, doubling, coupling, Venus— the ideal of beauty. Also, I like that it’s Canova. He’d have been copying from copies. So it’s a copy of a copy of a copy.

R.J. Preece: With Four Directions, this work kind of freaks me out. It has this alien-looking shell shape, and you have it connected to the song Hurt. What would you say about this work? Where did you get the shells?

Alice Maher: I started looking at snails. I don’t know, they may have come into the studio or something. They are fascinating creatures. The first thing I may have noticed was the slime on the windows. It’s like a beautiful brushmark, something like De Kooning would have made. Then I started feeding the snails with natural dye in it; their slime came out a different color. They’re interesting— they are an inner and outer creature— they have a soft body and a lovely shell. They are always “at home” with themselves. The markings on their back are all completely different; there are no two. They are hermaphrodite but they have to meet another to procreate.

R.J. Preece: Are you also interested in kitsch here? Sometimes there are shell objects in kitsch shops.

Alice Maher: Yes. You’ll see that in a lot of the work, like with Godchildren (2010). That would be because of an interest in the vernacular, the ordinary, trying to bring the two together— high and low art.

With snails, I’ve also made prints of their slime. I did lots of works around snails. Then I started using the empty shells of dead snails. But there’s loads of other work around it. In fact, any piece that you see in the show, when you start digging, you find there are loads of other works around that piece in many different media.

R.J. Preece: How about Keep (1992)?

Alice Maher: At that time, I was moving between Belfast and Cork. This was years before the Belfast agreement or anything like it. I had a part-time teaching job in Cork. I starting collecting hair from both cities— from hairdressers— and I made these ropes of hair. The centre of the ropes is a hemp rope and I worked the hair around the rope. That was interesting— to show people’s attitude to hair— detritus of the body— repulsion and fascination. The subject of hair is in so many stories, myths, fables. What is represents in terms of femaleness, strength, monstrousness. It has so much meaning; it has its own language completely.

R.J. Preece: What about Collar (Portrait) (2003)?

Alice Maher: That’s from a whole series of portraits I did in 2003. They are the only photographic images I’ve made of myself.

R.J. Preece: Why the sheep hearts and then later the lamb tongues?

Alice Maher: The heart has a number of meanings for people in loads of different contexts. And also the wearing of an internal organ on the outside of your body is very resonant with meaning as well. You have broken hearts, the sacred heart, [etc.]. That’s why I used it, because it has many associations and meanings. And to wear it as a piece of jewelry, almost.

R.J. Preece: What were a couple of the more interesting memories for you, the writings, that you spotlighted in the lecture hall installation?

Alice Maher: They were all interesting to me because I know they are evidence of the students who sat there. And their minds were wondering into other areas, like worm holes, through time almost. Some did drawings. Some wrote stuff. Some expressed loss or longing. And the depth of feeling sometimes resonated through those scratchings. One writer wrote “I miss her” and then you see “I still miss her”. You could actually feel that depth of feeling coming through time, that longing. So sometimes they used their desks to record things other than what they were there for officially. For me, it was about what was going on unofficially.

R.J. Preece: Who do you consider to be your biggest artistic influences— and what aspect of their work?

Alice Maher: I love Medieval art and I think I’m indebted to it for my interest in scale and non-linear narrative. Also, oral traditions— stories, fables, hearsay, bad words— all that kind of marginal activity and culture. I think that has had a big influence on me. I love Goya, his disgust and dispassion for human kind. I would say I like artists who don’t fit into any movement— they’re claimed for certain movements but they are movements in themselves— like Francis Picabia and Louise Bourgeois. I’d probably put Helen Chadwick in there. Rosemarie Trockel.

R.J. Preece: Could you tell me about the collaboration you have regarding Mnemosyne?

Alice Maher: The collaboration is with Tom O’Dowd, who is an engineer and specializes in making refrigeration units for shops and supermarkets. He’d never made anything that wasn’t “functional” and he was really interested. We worked for many months, and on the shape. So it could look like a sarcophagus, a pram, or a bed, or a couch. Tom worked out the engineering— how it would work, how it would go on and off.

I think we found a really good space for it [for the retrospective] because it’s at the kind of centre of the whole labyrinth. And the room it’s in is a type of oval shape— no corners. So it’s like the beating heart of the exhibition.

R.J. Preece: With that work, with the title, you’ve pointed it to Greek mythology.

Alice Maher: Yes, Mnemosyne was the goddess of memory. And she was the mother of all of the arts. Ironically, she’s completely forgotten. So, I liked to use that. The piece itself works on memory, if you think of it as using the moisture in the air— everyday— to create itself. When it’s turned off, those memories are gone.

R.J. Preece: What challenges are you currently facing in your artistic practice?

Alice Maher: The biggest challenge is to simply keep going.

It’s easy to start copying yourself. In a market-driven art world, you can make things that people think are great. “Oh, I’ll just make more snail globes. Or make it bigger, make a hundred of them!” But the challenge is to follow the work and keep going into a new era— and for your work to remain relevant, and resonant, for the age in which it is made now. If that could be, that would be… wonderful.

Aidan Dunne. (11 October 2012). “Through the looking-glass with Alice”. Irish Times.