A False Dawn by Ursula Burke : A Review

closed

“The sound as an augury of death”

This title is a starting point. I’ve chosen it as it speaks of the anticipation of looking at the new exhibition by Ursula Burke, ‘A False Dawn’. The word anticipation is our expectation ahead of time.
On 31 May 2020 plans were to close the exhibition here in limbo. While we consider time and second waves there is alteration in our vision and it is not only the wounded concerning us but those who have tragically lost their lives in the outbreak of Covid 19. Despite our experiences in the face of a plague it is human nature to consider the methods we employ to understand it and the wider dangers everyday life has in store. By no means a reflection but a catalyst for thought this exhibition currently hidden away from us speaks of many things.

The introductory title photograph I took and titled to head this essay is obviously showing the Lockdown confinement of the exterior that hides (in March/April/May 2020) the exhibition lying behind the 5th floor Upper Gallery wall.

Inside, on the other side, the drip painting lies behind. The wall suddenly becomes a current edition of the angry it leaps from. This present protection the enclosure provides, shields the new work, creating an extraordinary sense of the present as its original conceptual form centuries ago is reinterpreted somewhere we cannot experience in the intended installation. The prescience is un-calculated but if anything, maybe in the mould of prophethising is shockingly realised and the prophet being here, Ursula Burke.

On the 5th level of the Ulster Museum, traditionally the Art being the highest entry to the confines of ours and the museums strata of telling discovery. Augury is a word Ursula Burke fastens onto and it’s emblematic place in the sculpture sends us in several directions. The repurposed fresco with birds is resonant of several contexts across a longer period of time.

In the Artist statement this is said – “Often, I take a Northern Irish context as a critical point of departure from which to generalise my approach outwards to international concerns.”

This work takes in some pieces from previous exhibitions that lend their heft to this particular ascribed process. The following text from those earlier exhibitions, in part description, shows the process of thought employed by Ursula Burke.

“A large proportion of my work at present is made using Parian porcelain, a hard paste porcelain that is famed for emulating Parian marble, the substance used for carving many of the Greek and Roman sculptures from antiquity. Even though Parian is extremely hard after firing, the nature of the material exudes a kind of softness and elasticity, (almost fleshy) which at the same time formally emulates the characteristics of marble. In content, the reference to the classical period that the work allows enables me to make a conceptual bridge between idealised versions of society much in debate during the classical period and the necessity for continually suspended versions of the ideal within a post-conflict society. Northern Ireland as a region is consistently working towards peace; persistently speaking and striving to move towards an indeterminate point in the future where real, meaningful and lasting peace between tribal communities has been realized. The schism between idealized forms of civil society and consistently suspended versions of the ideal in post conflict society is at the heart of this work.” From the troublesarchive.com Art of the Troubles, The Ulster Museum Belfast, 2014; Arafudo Art Annual, Fukushima, Japan 2014; March & June Mostra, British School at Rome, 2014; Spazi Aperti, Romanian Academy, Rome, 2014; Hope for a Better Past, The MAC, Belfast, 2013 & Instances of Agreement, Kao Yuan Art Centre, Taiwan, 2011. They resonate again here.

textile
sculpture

The vision here
It summons up a thought process on life as seen though the past as a vision of the future. Called ‘A False Dawn’ it supposes also a negative position maybe where we are at, but it covers a lot of ground. The past is seen in the referencing spatial sense of the original fresco and it in part a reconstruction of. It also is a gathering of violence against the person, posing in an array of mediums the entry to the debating chamber, meeting places to discuss differences and forge policies of unity an opposite prevails into the present day and beyond.

The work seems to presuppose the history of humans default to former patterns that negatives will ensue. Far from obvious are the immemorial themes point to the wasteful oblique way we see the environs and world we live in and all its inhabitants. These only appear with scrutiny of the ‘fresco’ with images contained within it. Some local and as I alluded to the wall takes on more genus loci with the wall having in the view hidden our ‘Parliment’ a few miles out the other side having, and it’s very probable Ursula Burke had that symbolic an immovable part of our reckoning or at least a fixture of it.

Further on here I will refer to other works that seek to use art as the countenance for or own debates.

There is a reaction to repression of every kind here in the work and at its core is the politically ardent will that caught out post war worlds. Reconciliation is never over. After these ancient inherent human abstract relations pattern in nature survives beyond us. Made as each are in that miracle of combinations that under the microscope only retain pattern and forms of symmetry our abstract world is incurable evident.

The Italian fresco is a beginning but the core is the restlessness borne of dreadful pain mirrored in the apathy with which fine art beguilingly transports us towards as some judgement or acceptance of the absurd.

Fight with flight
The birds are the only animals seen in the exhibition and they figure in the settled full wall perch of the blue diagraphic take on enterprise. The glory of a fresco is simulated in the form of a testing pseudo deterioration by strands of dripped bud paint, speckled distempered plaster. The appearance is less fecund than any original fresco but holds an arresting scale in the soft light of the Gallery. It is based on the Villa of Livia which has been restored at the Palazzo Massimo in Rome which is, in this iteration, a bit like the https://www.atelier-lumieres.com/en/home Van Gogh simulator without the colour intensity.

The villa was abandoned in the 5th century AD, and subsequently pillaged and looted for antiquities. In 1863, the famous statue of Augustus of Prima Porta was discovered on the site, as well as the birds and trees frescoes in an underground dining area. These were moved to museums in the city to conserve them.

The deterioration as depicted here is arrested and an arresting state of compromise for our satiated souls. Reclaiming it with this mural effect is taking the visitor into a world that is outside the former and is evoking through the use of the flightless birds sorrowful dripping tears of paint and the abundance of natural things an anotherness we cannot see. It goes beyond us. To this Ursula Burke brings a presence of mankind’s intervention and confinement. In today’s compromised world it has wild connections. Nowhere will there be a more relevant juxtaposition in Art installation. The terracotta wilderness is the only comparable example of these themes as this has advanced new infinite interpretations.

The terracotta wilderness of the former is obliterated by the intensity of a blue landscape with grid mesh patterns and inserts of hand held lenses capturing a circle of place, Carson’s Statue or The Stormont Mile.
We are pulled into the wilderness of our transmuted political lives.

The allegories may be there but the tonal qualities of the former fresco as a vehicle are explored as an effect less intensely or otherworldly here as Ursula Burke realises her ‘Augury of the Birds.’ The Villa of Livia is the original title and this alternative is extending the reach of the original due to its pastiche allegory of a beautiful location, even garden of Eden. … “La Villa di Livia a Prima Porta da praedium suburbanum a villa Caesarum”.

The place here, it’s genus loci, is compared to this former mythical imagining which itself is captured in its frozen fall from perpetuity and is a relic of another view of the world. The meaning is placed in either location to be one where we aspire to flourish beyond expectations held across the fence in the fresco. “Livia had a fresco painted on the walls which reproduced the nature outside. In fact there are several types of trees, and there are also 69 different types of birds, like those found in the woods around the villa,” said Biondi.

Other Portraits
That illusion is not far from in both the former and Ursula Burke’s own latest interpretation here, one perceived by the Artist know as the old man of Modern Literature, one James Joyce, whose eyesight, with another ironic twist of fate in this context, was about a tenth of normal sight and therefore he was unable to invest in the visual much other than an observant contempt-or, while being in the opposite a master of the language lingual he contritely put a verse to this connection –

Buy a book in brown paper
From Faber and Faber
To see Annie Liffey trip, tumble and caper.
Sevensinns in her singthings,
Plurabelle on her prose
Seashell ebb music wayriver she flows.

His book was of the two shores of the Liffey, on the harbour of people, the brown paper bag the admission it was censored and contained connections with Finnegans Wake..

Not the enigma poetry expected but a blunt instrument of a sales pitch. This is itself a play with words as you are invited to enter a tributary of life where the rawness and morality is cast in metaphors of the rivers proximity to us. The river is carrying away our thoughts. The changes in the tidal flow are stilled only by the momentary galina.

What he was doing was leaving a literary ghost mark for a world that was unprepared for it. Anna is both woman and river and “her fluvial maids of honour”, from all corners of the world, constitute 350 river names.’ Edna O’Brien.

This is the same wilderness an author felt able to enter and express while H.G.Wells, Nabokov, DH Lawrence, thought the less of it, TS Eliot was along with Samuel Beckett no stranger to its strangeness as ‘Anna Livia Plurabelle’ became a morality tale of the river as the conscious being, once entered you cannot return to join in the same place again. The essay by Edna O’Brien is simply a testament to that works genius.
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2 planes

Bleakness lies before the precious and it is not recreational, recreation is a simile after all and it is an escape while being present. What appears is the thought Ursula Burke is in contest with the world as seen. That she attests to other consciousnesses and parts and gives here a very formative tale to investigate. Along with Joyce she is a companion to the diversity and is gathering in throwing porcelain of her own concepts in bruised and battered allegories which for a long time have proven solid and robust conquests of authorative voice.

The wonderful new book by Colm McCann ‘Apeirogon’ which he snatches a story of combatants he met as lives witnessed in the Middle East to convey the union of ordinary people through the common loss of a child, is illustrated in physical existing metaphors wherein the entry points A,B,C, in the occupied areas are under surveillance of drones cameras and watchtowers the lines of movement that must be adhered to. Gate A is to a Palestinian area, it is illegal for Israelis to enter it. There reasons might be collaboration and assistance? Gate B is to an Israeli held area which Palestinians can enter with adherence to the areas rules as they provide services to the area. Gate C is a settlement occupied only by Israelis. Only Israelis are allowed in. This is the real manifestation of a global human malaise. To take it to another level is the containment of the rooms, a truth, an encounter then a reflection. The broad scope is a problematic one in this confined space. Later I suggest reasons for this opinion.

Just as another fine line of connection there is a review in Los Angeles of the novel being also about birds. ‘Also About Birds: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict’ in Colum McCann’s “Apeirogon” by Ben Libman

Beyond malaise is the witnessing of such division and conflict and Ursula Burke has produced in the area of the 5th floor something akin to the separate rooms, at least for my purposes of analysing what I’d seen within its pictorial walls that similar guise. Akin is the name VSO call their volunteer magazine which centres on the junctions of family and repair. This is also a part within the scope of Ursula Burke’s vision here. The many pieces of sculptured heads themselves are displayed on trestles and Dias as types of singular grief and fortitude.

The typed imprint sometimes seen in Ursulas work, of tattoos and messages is again used but less dominantly. The tattoos are in fact the bruises and broken defaced, literally heads full of self image and identity harmed but unbowed. Each forms a art of the same collective. The ‘rooms’ – Gates I eluded to – are usefully given mapping in the accompanying exhibition booklet.

The collective is known as ‘The Wounding’. In the same room, the point of entry are two smaller pieces, Blue – The Sphinx greeting you as you enter and the foremost image identifying what the exhibition is taking you toward. Due to the limitations of space there is only a small explation of the aims and it is immeasurable how much can be taken away or witnessed in calculations of meaning and the exploration of the work.

piece

It is brutally beautiful from the onset. Delivering a coruscating abundance of tales in principle using humans at its core. Natures supremacy is also our configuration. The birds are in an evolutionary state, as we happen to have common migratory processes instilled within us. The flight as opposed to flightlessness is adjudicated in poetry, Seamus Heaney’s works are peppered with birds. As local artist Jefferey Morgan has often in his paintings, his fellow Artist in words, Michael Longley has himself a fascination with birds and their flight. Even in this same space (RUA 2019) birds were appropriated in Jeremy Morgan’s painting of Wiggenstien, as a perch for birds, his trusted companions placing context to philosophy in the edges of Connemara.

Jeffrey Morgan’s Wiggenstien

The Sphinx is an art subject since it’s earliest embrace. In essence power is anthropomorphic with this creature a heraldic peaceful force showing control, the complete opposite of ourselves of its innate image of pure evolution. This is no Tutankhamen (another tomb is believed to exist beyond the famous Egyptian find) but it is emblematic of faith, virtue, spirit and soul all equated with blue and light blue is associated with the Throat Chakra in eastern mysticism. The element of ether belongs with this and the bruise signals I am here, a human, both the yellow and red absent from blue transition to the physical take it to a stage statues do not have.

It is hard to speak of the delicate forms the world takes without seeing the contrasts presented. They are a dialogue of themselves. The hanging head ‘Augury’ in the third room is a synthesis of a beam, a pressure treated, well selected, worn railway sleeper of a crossbeam, a bodyof woolen torso. Who am I? – it seeks an answer to. Both of itself and the visitor under its presence. The stainless steel grille of the sixties ventilation above and behind it is brought into it in my view, with its rational place occupying the space also and filtering away the august air of the solemn interior in which we invent time and thought.

solitary insular war

Inherited. A congress of anger.
In ‘Augury of the Birds’ is a context which is as I recently reminded a commentator having a pop at a geographer in a political context, of the animal having a locale and no borders – pinemartins. One of the Irish animals that possess enough guile as to be from even further away. These common carnivores are found in Scotland and the species mustelid have been around a long time. They are not confined by fences while birds are even less confined. They find a way to cross boundaries.

Here there is a joy alongside a trying contest with hope in this display and conceptual world. By creating, and arches sanctity of place, light and stillness take the visitor to a similar room or series of spaces as the La Villa di Livia a Prima Porta. No longer a place of restful pastoral solitude here there are cast relics or people. The heads and bruised elegance given to the new born is cast with its brethren’s burden. The baby is a clear embodiment of this veil of sorrows already inhabited by the person. James Joyce spent years developing a new dialogue and who is Finnegan? Who is the wanderer? The point from one place to another is taken by allowing seeing places symbolising your existence. A habitat or vantage point like the Martello Tower.

space

The man-made is like a Seán Hillen postcard montage/collage sustained with images taken in combinations and gathered. Like a rickshaw on the canal towpath incongruous and accepted. The allegory of Birds is one which goes beyond our eight mile, for most experiences of that scale, vision unlike the birds whose flight allows them elevation and survey. Often looking at horizons it is observed or intuition tells us, why would you look for meaning in it, what is meaning and why would it have to have meaning.

Library of Congress
Like Joyces work this Gallery is a ‘book’ of ideas subverting the ordinary scroll of everyday blindness. Joyce’s tenth of normal eyesight comes with the baggage of having to find other ways to create. Recently I have been discovering how common the impairment in sight is found in art. Locally the colour blindness encroaching in degrees and in severity was occurring with Paul Henry and Basil Blackshaw. Ursula Burke is using the head as the all seeing self and its variances are dispersed with degrees of damage and all physical with the awareness there is damage within always.

A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.’ Kafka. In the current ‘Democrat’ debate a commentator pointed out – literally – if Elizabeth Warren had an axe/sword at the discussion Bloomberg was all over the place, he would be ‘shish kebab’. Perhaps those words should be removed from any political context. There is a plethora of subjects in political debate for violence which Ursula Burke has brought to this and it is a wild card I throw into the cannibalism of political discourse. Discursive not constructive. The view being, it is present in chambers of supposed governance.

There is another oblique observation which I throw in as it comes from the family of ‘The Origin of the Species.’ Gwen Raveret, a very quick mind and Artist when a boarder at school in France wrote when returning to the comfort of the Darwin household this.

In all that time there is only one vision that I keep: a flash, seen through the garden hedge, of some sheep in the next field, with the frosty, winter light running along their backs. It seemed like something from another world: the real world, to which I should escape again some day. It kept me alive.’ Gwen Raveret. (A Cambridge Childhood)

In that clear mind the outside vision is seen through nature. People happen to inhabit that world along with the animals she recalls. The words are extraordinary well in keeping with the Darwin insights.

The Wounded
With the tenderness of porcelain Ursula Burke is calling out “the company of self-obsessed fuck-offs who squandered and destroyed the world …..” Gabriel Tallent. Except they continue to preside over the collapse. As in Dresden the mercurial pliability of the material as manipulated in the Dachau Concentration camps is once again primordial in its fragile solidity. These works are combined and brought from each singularity of a human entity, to become the assembly of The Wounded. The scene graceful and stark. Each head has a four cornered timber dias and they rest on the flat top at eye level. The combined display’s each suppose a human scale though they are at times not at the human scale but either or above or below. The child’s head for instance is larger than its normal size as is The Sphinx – Blue. As Colin Davison has in his Lives series and as is his practice the energy of a person is advanced beyond the know parameters thus confronting another aspect, that of an outside deliberate context. Apathy, hurt, fortune, fortitude, resilience, absence, they are all there and more besides. That is the gift art brings, as the lie Picasso referred to. The False Dawn maybe is presaged in the baby at the beginning of life consumed by applied identity.

There is an ever more disturbing connection to be made and it is with regard to that pliability of the Parian Porcelain. In a tragic irony it became a fixation of Himmler as in the Edward de Waal book ‘Figurines in Dachau’, of The extraordinary story of Porzellan Manufaktur Allac as it is further testified, the delicacy was a fine art beloved by Himmler and Hitler. Himmler called porcelain ‘one of the few things that give me pleasure’ and Hitler gave it as gifts. That skill advanced in Dachau a violation of human life.

The Concentration Camps became a crucible, some surviving it is presumed due to their skills and competency with the material, within Dachau. The factory in Allach became too small, and at the end of 1940 it moved to Dachau concentration camp. There were many advantages of having the factory here. There was the immediate gain of using the prisoners. The Allach porcelain company – as with the porcelain manufactory in Meissen – was losing skilled workers to the eastern front, and here they could draw on the talents of inmates. The few prisoners brought in from the camp in 1941 grew to over a hundred by 1943.

threads

Geography and Boundaries
While a heaviness of subject is somewhat eased by the actual area of the exhibition in what is a very large space within the Museum in the three parts of the 5th floor it has a difficulty. This is so large a subject the confinement of it is problematic. The particular and evident use as much is possible of minimal presentation by exhibiting one piece on one wall emerges as a tentative approach. There is little room for reflection.

Embroidery is a dominant presence which it is possible to approach as well as view from afar. This is seen as a hanging of an image created with the softness of thread while being the concord of hate in the image as people assailants each other or defend themselves. Blood is threads dripping in tapestry. The Politicians piece is given largesse and prominence and the wooden star frame is accentuating the methodology. The piece is however crowded in the sense it has companions in the room and they are not linear. If only the pace was larger and it were possible as would happen in a linear Gallery or Circular, Getty type space, lead you through from a piece to another piece. Instead it is a conflict of images and though the earnest use of light and separations is used effectively as much as is possible it seems a narrative is lost.

Despite my ‘eulogy’ on certain aspects and being able to draw interpretations from it on a vast scale at times, it torments by not being a story developing as it could. This is evident in seeing it with others and hearing responses and the quickness of a journey does not help. Would it be better were The Wounded be confined to their own room and reflection be removed from the other works? It is difficult to imagine. Another thing I found was not being able to describe its arc to an artist before they visited and it is not entirely obvious where the story begins and what the nature of the fresco analogy is. Is it important to read the ‘fence/bird’ metaphor as the original had foreseen? Is it suffice to take the fresco for what it is by long objective observation? It was long silent before being revealed.

This is a unique reconstruction and was delivered by work on many levels by a number of people under the artists instruction. It is formed with architectural references also in the entry point and the articulation the Gallery, a modern sixties space with delights of formation and detail familiar and a shift in art presentation in itself. Now sans Pirelli Black Rubber Floor unfortunately.

Embroidery is a method deployed as an invocation of political abuse. Comparisons for me are to be made with the work often carried out by local artist Brendan Jameson. It was not long ago he replicated a war picture with plastic bricks and fired pellets at the pixelated plastic image and it showed the connection of a bombing and burnt presentation in a soft caricature the hardness of violence. Often Brendan Jameson produces work similarly contextualised of hard subjects developed with soft materials, sugar cubes towers, cranes and wool is often employed. It is a demographic pluralised by many in art.
Often troubling images are significantly made impactive by use of colour and texture. All art is a combination of the signatures, symbolic, icon, index. The hardness softness is a vocabulary which will last long and be emotive.

The use of tapestry is often seen as belonging to Power bases but that is long gone as a means of expression except the clothes and dress attire is often still predicated on status and power. By creating this soft expression of the subjects it is a dynamic pushing us to new collections of ideas. There is a thought of the location becoming a debating chamber itself, of the aftermath of debate being scrutinised by us. This is part of the envelope of any art project, to transmit and alter and show a way of seeing which is the converse and opposite of normal perceptions of the same thing or realised in an alternative shocking or engaging way.
Our familiarity of the discourses is of course a point to hold and it is also capable for other universal viewpoints to arrive at much the same thought processes.

Of all art work with a narrative centred on human conflict and Guernica apart, I found the ballet ‘The Green Table’ by performed by The Bathsheva Dance Company of Israel the most powerful I have ever witnessed. As our own ‘troubles’ spiralled and became a proximity of human harm visited on many taking away lives and their future this recoiled as a parallel depiction performed as a ballet, it arrived without warning as acts of violence do. Other forms of art could provide similar responses, it so happened to commit totally to the horror of war and human disagreements being at the core.

If we go back to the original and the notion earlier, ‘this Gallery is a ‘book’ of ideas subverting the ordinary scroll of everyday blindness. Joyce’s tenth of normal eyesight comes with the baggage of having to find other ways to create.’ it presupposes a normality in that the original was designed as a dining area. Imagine what discussions might have fed those at the table. The outside is perceived as harmful while dining is a convivial and discursive learning rewarding essential social norm. While dining there is withdraw to a safe refuge to take in the harvest of all they survey.

The Green Table’ is that place of discourse and it is used not for dining but as a place to reflect and act out positions of difference and the meaning is held all are equal while a temporary lapse in normal hostilities are replaced by conversation. It seldom works as conversation is held among people as they swamp agreements or common purposes while energising other equations as a test among their piers. So the table is a mediator on levelling out. The people are of course ardently different holding outside ideas they must attend to, adhere to and visit so they are not confronted once they’ve left of change. That is also a spiral of centrifugal force. Like a satellite of thoughts much as the reverence held by the construction of Newgrange and other core layline driven spaces. These rooms are a place of discovery in the most part. They reflect on what is. They also offer food as the dining room is destroyed and in limbo while we navigate the pieces while discovering thoughts fresh and recalled.

Paucity in Religion
As the work is attempting to take on a huge subject and our lack of mediation among nations it races toward the singularity of existence seen focused on individual choices and from the sign of the baby holding a flag on entering the world it is apparent this is individuality with context. The onrush of societal norms are that contagion it is difficult to remove ideas away from.

Predicated by the notions and practices instilled since birth it is rare that independent thought perseveres without some identity context. None more so than religion. I can see the argument and that is a toxic word in some places is that our times have always been trapped by war and conflict with Northern Ireland a place known primarily through its troubles near past. So I have found the following story from a pioneer going to another place, taking with them no doubt their own societal convictions, some puritanical and conflicted with the freedoms of others, to be very tangible.

The aspect of faith or belief, in which peace is a foundation sought through religious positions is brought through in the context of the USA sate of Montana a narrative which is brought by necessity into the thinking of a pioneer. I have not seen a clearer statement on the examination of religion as seen through the individual and their own choices and the fundamental need to be observant of their own actions and place it in context of a worlds mission. Progress through peace. The exhibition alarms us and covers this – Religion – Passage – without having the place to display it.

wall fresco

James Fergus – Montana
“I said religion often had something to do with the fate of nations… the Christian religion brought about a long period of ignorance still known to us as the dark ages, during which thought was curbed, common education banished, and conscience given over to a rude, vulgar and ignoranat priesthood.

 "And whatever good Christianity may have done since, much of the degeneracy of mankind during this period must be laid at its door... Christianity alone was left to darken and degrade the masses of Europe with only an occasional flash of independent thought, until the 14th century when we gradually see the flicking lights of a coming dawn. Gallieo, Bacon, Luther. 

James Fergus as many pioneers sought a new dawn to live a life somewhere identity was not fixed but hindsight brought those words spoken above. In a nation never conscious of the Indian belonging to their lands and the desolation of a form of life caused by the migration into their lands it became, evokes another false dawn.

Another analogy I find in the film The Ghost Story by David Lowry which in this context unravels life backwards in a place revealing a past and positioning a future.

….walks over to to one of the pressure treated beams that line the road. She sits down.

This essay has taken many turns and has remained unpublished for a few months as the nature of the exhibition takes on more relevance and meaning. Now published 01 06 2020 I have settled on a degree of understanding and interpretation and as this world shows there is every truth in the individual having their own view in this compellingly complex world.

To finish I have noticed another reality. The Wuhan ‘origin’ of Coronavirus 19 was from dead bats. Bats it is pointed out in another book ‘Quarantine’ by John Grace, hang from caves upside down and their ‘eyes’ having limited vision in the conventional ‘sense’ are fixed as they hang on the ground, not the heavens above. The Bible uses the ‘quarantine’ of forty days in the desert to get across the story of ‘human examination’ where prayer expresses inner most thoughts. The daylight fasting contrasts with the bat and it’s lack of sight, no need for daylight and living a life in darkness without a canopy of exterior wonder as colour, our use of vision, gives us so much apparent contrasts that ultimately are illusions.

John Graham

01 June 2020

Belfast

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The Secret Scripture : A Film Review


The Secret Scripture

Director Jim Sheridan, Producer Noel Pearson, Screenplay by Jim Sheridan, Johnny Ferguson. Cast, Vanessa Redgrave, Rooney Mara, Eric Bana, Theo James, Aidan Turner, Jack Reynor, Susan Lynch, Siobhan Redmond, Adrian Dunbar. Music by Brian Byrne, Cinematography Mikhail Krichman, Edited by Dermot Diskin, Production company, Ingenious Senior Film Fund, Voltage Pictures, Ferndale Films. Cert. 12a. Duration 1hr 48mins.


Beyond Dublin in the Green

Some people have got this film horribly wrong and are unable to cross over into it’s tragedy in a trinity of hope. The Irish Times gives it this ‘tribute’ – What’s that? Who’s he? Where’d that come from? When Barry’s novel was published, several critics argued that the final unlikely twist felt at odds with a hitherto disciplined narrative. It says something about the film that the reversal feels perfectly at home among so many even greater lunacies. It even casts sectarianism into a new vein without making comment of how diffuse these things are to convey – it seems in a blind alley Ireland. The mastery of the Bible both potent and conclusive lends written comfort to Rose, a woman betrayed.  It is within the unspoken reading between the lines we go with this film based on the novel of the same name by Sebastian Barry which makes for more imagining than the act of storytelling in film this is.  Nevertheless it is handled extremely carefully with a melding of eras and in themselves drawing comparisons.  The landscape is more familiar to the Irish and the need to know (Philomenas Story is a close relative) diaspora from Canada, America or Britain whose children are the fathers and mothers of new generations of the ‘departed’.  In complete association too are those left beneath fields, institutions buried so none would reflect on their memory except the mothers and those in the know.  From Priests to Police to Orderlies. Into the equationn come knowing townsfolk contributing to the complicity and getting on with their lives by ignoring it in order to straighten their own existence in the changing world.  For the story to begin we enter the present day at Rose’s Hospital and Residential Care home in the midst of it closing down.  Some lessons are learnt and there is clearly an attempt by Director Jim Sheridan to acknowledge Times have changed and the bullying and treatment of people like animals has been removed.  In this present environment there is real care and a making good with what is at hand.  Even the prospect of Rose being able to go to somewhere other than a mental asylum has reared its head.

With the dramatic stroke of a pen Sebastian Barry conjures up a back story to the aging and institutionalised grande dame Vanessa Redgrave playing Roseanne McNulty whose 50 years committal to this decaying and listed for demolition Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital, is transported on the journey of her earlier life and circumstances.  Doctor Grene (Eric Bana) is sent to determine whether Roseanne is fit to be released.  The younger Rose is played by the affluent and Irish connected, Rooney Mara whose arrival in a small village in 1940s Ireland causes two men, a fighter pilot and a priest, played by Jack Reynor and Theo James.


New horizons revisited

Jim Sheridan has Oscar-winning debut My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father as home based movies and into Irishmans habitual magnetic pull to tales of immigration he went and it did not fail him with the exile story In America, and was an acclaimed award winning film also.  Some subsequent entries to the mainstream movie still didn’t seem to suit his work and this is a return of more recognisable formats and it is an attempt by Sebastian Barry to story tell the periods which define present day Ireland the diaspora and wars intervention.  This of course brings in relationships as the bolstering narrative force.  The auld triangle of a beautiful young woman and two bantam cocks clanging the auld triangle and creating conflicts?

Rose has kept a dairy all these years and we enter its tableau – shortly into the arrival of Rooney Mara from Belfast where it’s unsafe after bombing there.  The arrival of a beautiful independent woman is on this West Ireland landscape in the shadow of Yeats Benbullben outside Sligo, is to an already developed hybrid of gentry, Anglo patrons and a subdued, suppressed by Religion ‘compliant’ malcontented population.  They are not mercifully at war though many across Ireland went and fought alongside the British as it was 1. an option 2. There was little for them at home.  The mainstay of any small community is its perverse sense of hierarchy and those who disobey and act up are likely cast out.  Rose is recruited into her Aunts Hotel Temperance establishment and quickly the honeypot of the scented air takes her into the midst of village taboos.  The first ‘normal’ encounter is with a young man called Conroy a labourer for a hard nosed local family.  They have a built in hatred on the English and when there is another approach not altogether religious and skirting his own anxieties surrounding masculinity and his sacrifice comes Father ..    Rose deflects such straight eyed advances and goes her own path while accepting invitations to the local dance.  The presence of the Church is everywhere and in the dance hall they are required to keep apart while hoAldi get one another while the Priest including the presence of Father …. they leave enough space not to be sinful.

The film is drawn out using a great deal of passage from the present to the past.  It in done with good untroublingbpassage and with the versatile Vanessa Redgrave playing the Lady Rose and the unnerving accurate Rooney Mara as the younger vunerable Rose.

Inconsistencies and alterations. Implausibilities? 

Very strongly held views on this film have come from many who find the story confusing and too contrived in its far fetched coincidences and shaping of characters that feature less in the book than put to purposes dramatic here.  Some even call it a travesty.  Sebastian Barry having sold the rights keeps his counsel and his silence is taken as being far from endorsement. There certainly are large parts of the long history left in the book and a Rooney Mara’s Rose here has a prominent role in a central love story which contains its central themes.  She is an incomer, she is a beautiful sophisticated woman, she is of independent mind, she is entering a part of ‘remnants of occupied’ Ireland beset with unfettered resentment, she enters a village which has ahigh morality  driven by the Church, she is also in proximity to state institutions which remove children and separate single mothers from their babies and lock them up and give their babies away for money.  She also is in proximity to a Medical system crudely operating the appliances of ECT and shock treatment as normal for mental illnesses or difference.  She also notices the formidable rectitude of everyone to hierarchical status including her domineering Aunt (Siobhan Redmond) who’s name along with a few others are not easy to find on press credits oddly.  So is it deplorable to drop large parts of a book and get Shakespearean in this gazette of Ireland observed by the Filmaker Jim Sheridan who wrote the script along with the late Johnny Ferguson.?  There are central characters in this which do not sit comfortably with some people.  The airman flying a Spitfire – they ignore the reconnaissance tasks in the West Coast Atlantic seaboard where U-boats were often found and Lough Foyle famously being the last outpost for plenty of U-boats and also forget the American airbases – the recent BBC My Mother and other Strangers gave you the opposite to this film, delivering a War soap opera – which were in Fermanagh and all across Northern Ireland full of troops and airmen training to be pilots in preparation for the Secret D-day landings.  8,000 in Kilkenny Co.Down alone. While the book may have consorted with the flying mission instead of being a land based soldier, it matters little.  Bonzos are quite capable of shooting down ‘foreign’ planes and planes crash.  Many flights no doubt took place over this very stretch of Ireland’s republic.   Where do you take fault?  Is it the neatness of parts of the linkages.  Is the element of delving into people’s past too trite?  Sheading interesting characters? Is the ludicrously large white collared Priest Father Gaunt too comical and pathetic a figure. His character is volumously turgid and corrupt of a conflicted man. Are the nurses of the old school too clean and Matronly while being intensely underlyingly cruel? All these questions to my mind are nonsense and in the core of the film Rose is telling you how unstable memory is. The record to has advanced writing out that history.  Some of it is fantasy and in parts some of the grim reality turns out to have another side.  I don’t care if half the time the story finds a simple way to the next part as we are closely kept to the woman at is heart trying to imagine what happened to her.  Can you imagine how much she must have struggled to put that behind her.  For her imaginings of what happened to ultimately coincide with a partial reality?  The questions need not be effecting in terms of how they are coming to you as essentially they are in the realm of broken fractured memory.  The script actually places false directions in Rose’s mind only.  The other characters are real and no such bewilderment is visited through them.  Their part is sometimes savage and brutal.  Rose’s is in a state of protection in a fixed world she has inhabited for 50 years?  Can you imagine the damage caused to her and many women like her?

Similarities

I opened the play The Steward of Christendom at random and came across the same times as here. There are common investigations and trials of the past – society in Ireland – undergone by Sebastian Barry of which I rate the play as masterly, profound, haunting, sad forgotten history, much as this film indeed takes us into and it is quite political but Donal McCann made it definitely ‘other’ about the human improsoned in Ireland. Inside the Institution and outside on the Island fighting seeming wrongs. It made the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end in its horrific prescience. Even now it inhabits the same place – even more so given the recent barbaric dreadful disclosures of previous generations guilt and the pain inflicted in those institutions.  Here’s the line I found straight on opening its pages of the powerful orderly Smith – Even in the ward of old dames with their dead brains, have some of them opened their eyes and are weeping to be woken, with your bloody shouting.  Do you want to go in with them, old man? After I beat you! Sebastian Barry on the case even then.

Eric Bana takes a high dose of listening to his requirement for enquiry about Rose.
The rich dramatic material at play and the fascinating historical backdrop means there’s plenty here that proves initially appealing. The young Rose is trapped by her sexuality, arousing interest in men without the slightest provocation on her part yet facing the full force of blame from those around her. The film briefly explores the complicated rituals of dating at the time and the dangers of a bruised male ego when a woman dares to turn a man down.
Initially there was a backlash in contemporary Ireland to the book with its closeness to history and claims of abuse ever in the headlines playing out.  It was seen in reviewers eyes as being far fetched and characterisations of romance purile and simplistic. For the film it’s seen likewise by many. The closing of the film is too contrived and unexpected as Vanessa Redgrave holds centre stage with her marbles intact.  The Secret Scripture use devices of story telling which only flow smoothly in books but it is admittedly hard to convey in the time period of a movie.  Demands of twists and turns though have been dealt with very satisfactorily by Jim Sheridan and there is no overplay of the gestures and realisations as they unfold.  With Vanessa Redgrave playing Beethoven’a Moonlight Sonata, (an accusatory critic paled at its repetitiveness) in solitary moments in a room, we see the breathing diaphragm of a living person recollecting her past.  It is not only sweet and convincing it is powerful and moving.

For the time periods to intermingle we have to have contrast and Susan Lynch playing the part of a present day nurse becomes a key vehicle for the sensitivity of history learnt. Her knowing, caring, is in seeing the woman in Lady Rose and reflecting on what she has gone through over forty years.  With the instruction having been given to assess her being taken up by a psychiatrist who is intrigued by the fortitude and forceful will of Lady Rose, is Eric Bana who plays admirable the ‘outside’ caring professional, quick to note discrepancies in the work of his peer, the notable Dr Jello  of Adrian Dunbar who is in charge with emptying the establishment and sees it as in ‘the line of duty’ as a role he plays with predictable solidity.   Dr Grene on the other hand is given slack and time by Sebastian Barry to develop a quick relationship of patient and Doctor which in present times of austerity are unimaginable.  Nevertheless an authors due – the slack given on occasion to movies due to time scale particularly in adapting books – is to make plausible a story’s reach.  Eric Bana and Susan Lynch form a convincing team and share the sandwiches, lunchbox treats and soups etc. or whatever sustenance is at hand in between Rose’s rest and elderly ramblings.  They too remain in the ghost like building emptying around them.  That is when switches occur back to Rooney Maras action packed life take us into a believable village – preposterous to critics of the book – with fabrications of conflicts infighting and japes and foolery unbetoken of Ireland of the time.


Irony lost on viewers

Sebastian Barry has of course given some ribald irony and an edit of preposterous heft to the story as if to say – Ireland, you were present when this was happening around your ears yet all you could do was turn a blind eye and more than that get caught up in rebellion against a country at war and a religiosity which tore the faith in God out of you and created a purgatory here on earth. It is tangible to see this cussedness in Irish people of that time but it causes more pain it would seem.  The truth always too has its victims. That is the line, the horrific line this film wishes to take us over and into a powerful emotionally troubling period for the characters who represent in fiction real people’s lives unimaginable at this distance horribly corrupted and ruined.  So there is a backlash of morality fighting for concealment as due reflection turns over too many stones close to the perpetrators unable to come to terms with their own families part in these vexing times.  Why drag up the past?  The reason is it uncoils itself in many ways not least in being held in so, it becomes repeated as a manifestation of ancient held in guilt in the sub-cncious passed on.  The doplar effect of the mind.  Séan Hillen in his Irelantis fictional world creates a counter narrative in art with the juxtaposed John Hinde visions of Ireland and as richly as film and novel forms.  More is essential for understanding ourselves the better.

There are scenes in the film which many will find arguable and condonable however I see those particularly disturbing pieces of work as entirely plausible credible entries to the hidden stories Ireland has masked for decades.  It may not be the truth but it bears an uncanny resemblance to the unfurling detail.  It is why it must be examined for what it contains, not for what you would like it to appear.


No chemistry? It’s not totally about their relationship but what hovers around it.

On parallel works

Hence the auld triangle goes jingle jangle. From Galway to Dingle, from Derry to West Cork it’s been happening for decades. Both the internment of the young and vunerable and the institutional abuses therein. The Steward of Christendom by Sebastian Barry was an intensely brilliant play I’ve seen several times and had on it acting – the unforgettable The Dead film character of Gabriel Conroy played by Donal McCann whose performance in John Huston’s 1987 film of the Joyce short is itself a piece of Irish history and also a masterful core part of Irish Cultural excellence in all its various themes.

The themes of the play are not equivalent in this film but provide another shape to the times within this film. For a synopsis of The Steward of Christendom – I’ve extracted the following from a ubiquitous source. The play opens in a county home (an inpatient psychiatric facility) in Baltinglass, Ireland in 1932, some years after Irish independence. In the opening scene, Dunne (Donal McCann) appears to be raving incoherently, reliving an episode of his childhood. As the play continues, Dunne slips from moments of lucidity to reliving parts of his career as a senior officer in the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP), especially the handover of Dublin Castle to Michael Collins in 1922 after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. He also relives memories of his family, particularly his daughters, Annie, Maud, and Dolly. Dunne is also visited by the ghost of his son Willie, killed in WWI; Willie’s ghost appears to him in the form a 13-year-old child but dressed in the soldier’s uniform of his 18-year-old self.

Here the date focussed on by Barry is the early 1940’s. The institutions had been around and become part of the identity of Ireland. In Belfast the 1932 move to Stormont from what was and had been the Northern Ireland Parliament one hundred yards from QFT in the now Theological College since partition in 1925. Sebastian Barry covers this ground in much of his work, of institutional Ireland of State and Health the life on the streets and rural world grippingly as he loosely affirms family connections with the Thomas Dunne the Dublin Metropolitan Police Commander in the play. So too this film for its depiction of a former period of important movement in Ireland. These histories are intertwined and Michael Collins, Eamon de Valera both had ‘seats’ at the Belfast Union College but never once collected from the fifty boxes of the MPs the Order papers of the day for that emerging Parliament. One could play the card Eamon de Valera was a double agent to the British hegemony as future republicans were to similarly trade their countries status. Not in a film though as truth is mainly stranger than fiction.

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Conclusion ####4

I began with a mindset carrying ideas of the lukewarm critical reception of the book and film, both inhabiting that doubt common to adaption of part historical narratives.  I need not have concerned myself too much because this film opens up a layer of life which is seldom considered in its continued influence and in the magnitude of its shaping usand the identity formed as a Nation on its multiple layers of relationships across continents, across short sea journeys and across hedges and parishes.  It harbours a fiction I see to contain many probable realities. I never read the book.  In the depiction of Lady Rose played brilliantly on both parts. Rooney Mara as the young independent free spirited, intelligent incomer beauty full of warmth and expectation and the kaleidoscopic thespian skills not wasted or lost of Vanessa Redgrave, herself no stranger to loss or to Ireland’s perplexing past, is not only endearingly charming but purposely disjointedly harmonious and comforting in its plainness.  There is nothing plain under the surface no matter what the Irish take or spin on it happens to be or where the deniers – and they are the ‘plain’ folk of Ireland themselves, mostly due to present many frstations of suffering across the world would prefer to banish and put away in a state of complacent bewilderment.  If only that were our only path.  The Secret Scripture is written – a form of blasphemy- in black on the Bible – as in the Temperance Hotel (you could say it was a depiction of Ulster which has many many connections with Sligo) – here is a Lilliputian Jonathan Swift world of male believe.  Now and then.  The Bible being the only book – in this puritan hotel – is the only marginila Rose has to take into her incarceration as a hidden diary.  For its uncovering, not matter it’s Preposterous retrieval there are unsettling truths like the words of the Bible itself.  As it is not a Book which is safe in the Clergies hands nor taken with pillars of salt in communion amongst the suppressed and mal treated citizens, already infiltrated by a siege power of a monarchist force.  Since the 1166 occupation the persistent and systematic entrapment is in plain sight from the pulpit and before the pulpit.  Both the Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland contrite and corrupt in unity of suppression against Gods will.  This film will be seen initially as a passing anecdotal fable worthy of a watch but light on appeal.  It will upset and conflict with perceptions narrow and broad but I would say it will after several viewings reveal itself in time to be full of its own contested narrative slowly bringing a reckoning to bear as its bold and more extreme view is received as history continues to recite its clarion vision.  It is there for us to see in a wider sense and while novels, films can only open some fictional presentation of a past long gone it is always a sudden shock to see its proximity to truth and realisation is slow but within reach.  On a question alone of the mix up of plot and some too fanciful occurrences I knock it back from being a 5 as it is to my mind of a very determined voice setting out to familiarise the world and those closer with the inexcusable period in the past in this country – worse if most probably being effected unknown to us in other parts of the world – and it is a piece of the pyramid of truth being built in memory of those children and women.

It is like a whisky chaser hitting your throats but this is why the fondness for diversion is like dashing your head on the rocks.  So much is ventured there is no small comfort to be had except through thinking along the lines I think Jim Sheridan, Sebastian Barry and the fine strong cast found themselves nurturing.  While it is discomforting it is due plenty of deliberation.

John Graham

22 March 2017

Belfast

On at Queens Film Theatre from Friday 24 March through to and including  30th March and on General release.

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Post Behan Brectian Proustian stories

In Ireland the confinement of Women and Men distinguished little in Mental Institutions from the Prisons like the Mountjoy that inspired the Dominic Behan The auld triangle goes jingle jangle. The lyrics still are chilling and how the Bi-sexual Brendan Behan came to them is anyone’s guess but the waking traingle of the Prison warder still makes people sit up and listen to these lyrics – the last verse.

In the female prison there are seventy women 

And I wish it was with them that I did dwell 

And that auld triangle, went jingle jangle 

All along the banks of the Royal Canal

Was the mind of Ireland imprisoned during these times?

From The Quare Fellow of 1956

ACT 1:
A hungry feeling came o’er me stealing

And the mice were squealing in my prison cell,

And that old triangle

Went jingle jangle,

Along the banks of the Royal Canal.

To begin the morning

The warder bawling

Get out of bed and clean up your cell,

And that old triangle

Went jingle jangle,

Along the banks of the Royal Canal.
The screw was peeping

And the lag was weeping…

(SONG BREAKS OFF HERE)

ACT 2:

A hungry feeling came o’er me stealing

And the mice were squealing in my prison cell,

And the old triangle

Went jingle jangle,

Along the banks of the Royal Canal.

On a fine spring evening,

The lag lay dreaming

The seagulls wheeling high above the wall,

And the old triangle

Went jingle jangle,

Along the banks of the Royal Canal.
The screw was peeping

The lag was sleeping

While he lay weeping for the girl Sal…

(SONG BREAKS OFF HERE)
The wind was rising

And the day declining

As I lay pining in my prison cell

And that old triangle

Went jingle jangle,

Along the banks of the Royal Canal.
In the female prison

There are seventy women…

(SONG BREAKS OFF HERE)
The day was dying and the wind was sighing,

As I lay crying in my prison cell,

And the old triangle

Went jingle jangle,

Along the banks of the Royal Canal.

ACT III, Scene II (end of play):

In the female prison

There are seventy women

I wish it was with them that I did dwell,

Then that old triangle

Could jingle jangle

Along the banks of the Royal Canal.

To this song provided for The Quare Fellow by brother Dominic we can add along the themes of imprisonment is this universal song. 

I shall be released

By Bob Dylan

They say ev’rything can be replaced

Yet ev’ry distance is not near

So I remember ev’ry face

Of ev’ry man who put me here

I see my light come shining

From the west unto the east

Any day now, any day now

I shall be released

They say ev’ry man needs protection

They say ev’ry man must fall

Yet I swear I see my reflection

Some place so high above this wall

I see my light come shining

From the west unto the east

Any day now, any day now

I shall be released

Standing next to me in this lonely crowd

Is a man who swears he’s not to blame

All day long I hear him shout so loud

Crying out that he was framed

I see my light come shining

From the west unto the east

Any day now, any day now

I shall be released

 

End