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The Art of Absence by Michael Sherman

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Over the last couple of months we have seen glimpses of remarkable goodness, selflessness, and generosity amongst the Irish population.  We have also seen an enormous amount of coping mechanisms and strategies being shared online among friends and families. I was flicking through the TV channels recently and I came across a show on art by one of my heroes, Grayson Perry. So I googled it! The aim of the ITV show, Grayson’s Art Club, is to bring people together through art. Every week the Turner Prize-winning artist hosts the show from his studio where he creates new pieces, leads masterclasses, and finds out how other artists have been spending their time in isolation. He also encourages viewers to produce visual representations of their time in lockdown, and the plan is to display the art in an exhibition chronicling the changing moods of Britain in isolation.  It’s a great idea that will, no doubt, produce fascinating work. Not a bad strategy for coping with isolation.

Just a few weeks before our own restrictions kicked in, we too had an art strategy of sorts. The college had launched an art exhibition of work by three local artists Bridget Flannery, Anne Martin Walsh, and Bob Fraiser as part of our ‘Here Together’ project, a phrase which has taken on a whole new meaning lately. The Architectures of Belief and Rhythms of Ritual exhibition of mixed media and collage, melted flowing glass and carved limestone, and land/crossover performance art offered the college community an alternative way of seeing our landscapes, our belonging, our beliefs, and, indeed, ourselves. The art is situated along the corridors, outside and across from James Doyle Room and outside the Moriarty and Philosophy lecture halls – spaces which, up until ‘lockdown’ we all passed through on our way to class, to meetings, and to work. Thanks to the art our corridors were no longer only spaces to pass through but also spaces to pause, reflect, and even argue! And our corridors too, for their part, provided the opportunity for the art to surprise us. You could even say, our college became (and remains) a gallery.

It is strange not being there. I imagine that our offices, lecture halls, and corridors have become works of art in their own way  – marked out by our absence, and, for now, on pause. Even though we meet virtually, and are very lucky to be able to do so, as good and all as technology is, nothing beats the real thing. Looking for a parking spot; students chatting all along O’Meara corridor; people going in and out of the library; the smell of food and the sound of Beat 102-103 FM in the Dining Hall before a 9.00 a.m. lecture; calling down to someone for a quick chat; and the chats and laughter in the tea room are all things that make up the gallery that is our college. These are real things in which we realise that what we do is a good thing, and we do it best together. Ironically, right now, the college is one of the safest places to be precisely because we are not there. And the art which is in its own self-isolation cocooning mode couldn’t be safer.  This is all good, but it is still so strange to think of the presence of absence about the place.

It is said that the artist and the arts stand for ways of exploring life that reflect an openness to an otherness that disrupts our attempts at closure. Oddly enough the invisible coronavirus is doing that for us now all by itself except, in this instance, it is the virus, and not us, that is keen on closure. We want and yearn for everywhere to be open again. We are keen to strive for alternative and new ways of being, of working, and of doing what we do best. As Picasso observes ‘what one does is what counts, and not what one had the intention of doing.’ Across the country we are baking, crafting, and repairing; cycling, recycling, and upcycling; walking, talking, and listening a lot more than before. While flattening the curve, we have also begun to see the value of ordinary activities. More and more we are seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary things around us. And we need to continue to be creative with the conditions that have been imposed on us. We didn’t choose this but we can choose to be imaginative in how we respond and live in our new situations. Like Grayson Perry using art to bring people together, and the college’s art exhibition exploring new ways of looking at belief and belonging, we too can experiment with all of our new and re-discovered quirks and life-hacks during this time. We can live our lives in more wholesome and worthwhile ways by becoming artists in our own way. And, in the process, we may well have done much more that just cope.

 

In his poem Advent, Patrick Kavanagh captures the experience of the extraordinary in the ordinary in his usual brilliant and sobering way. I’ll finish with the first two verses.

We have tested and tasted too much, lover-
Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.
But here in the Advent-darkened room
Where the dry black bread and the sugarless tea
Of penance will charm back the luxury
Of a child’s soul, we’ll return to Doom
The knowledge we stole but could not use.

And the newness that was in every stale thing
When we looked at it as children: the spirit-shocking
Wonder in a black slanting Ulster hill
Or the prophetic astonishment in the tedious talking
Of an old fool will awake for us and bring
You and me to the yard gate to watch the whins
And the bog-holes, cart-tracks, old stables where Time begins.

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