Shane Cullen's Fragmens Sur Les
Institutions Republicaines IV
CCA Glasgow 6 September to 18
Shane Cullen has filled ninety-six
eight by four feet boards with approximately thirty-five thousand words
of text, the wording meticulously copied from David Beresford's account
of the 1981 Irish hunger strike, Ten Men Dead (Grafton, 1987).
Cullen's act of textual transcription
focusses upon a series of letters produced by Republican prisoners during
the period of their politically-motivated refusal of food whist being held
in Long Kesh prison in 1981. These secret communications or "comms" were
inscribed in minuscule script upon cigarette papers in order to avoid the
texts' detection by the Long Kesh guards. Rolled or crushed into balls
and wrapped in cellophane, these tiny pellets of compressed text were then
smuggled out of the prison (hidden in the various orifices of the body)
and delivered to the IRA leadership.
Since the late 1960's there has
been an increase in the use of textual material within the visual arts.
One could point to a whole subsection of artworks made entirely of text,
including pieces by Ilya Kabakov, Tom Philips and Robert Smithson. In his
book The Responsibility of Forms (Basil Blackwell, 1985) Roland Barthes
suggests that from a certain perspective painting can be considered to
be a kind of writing. Cullen offers an interesting reversal of this observation.
Furthermore, it would be productive to compare Fragmens... to the visually
inventive works of poets such as Mallarme and Apollinaire, rather than
keeping one's comparisons strictly within the visual arts as conventionally
Fragmens... should also be considered
in relation to the increasingly popular gallery practice of installation,
each individual painted panel being but one distinct part of a larger work
designed to generate a single, coherent ambience rather than be seen as
a series of discrete paintings. Around this production of multiple units
hovers the ghost of Warhol's mechanically produced, serial works but also
that of the 'dumb' copying of the jobbing signwriter.
Cullen claims Fragmens... is a piece
of social research rather than a means of either celebrating or condemning
those parties--of whatever political persuasion--involved in the 1981 hunger
strike. One may look again to Barthes for a relevant observation. In his
book Writing Degree Zero (Hill and Wang, 1967) he notes that "...a history
of political modes of writing would...be the best of social phenomenologies."
(p. 25). It should go without saying, however, that no work of art is,
in the last analysis, politically neutral.
How are we to read Fragmens...?
What is the relationship between the text employed as 'subject matter'
and the surface of the support? Cullen has chosen to paint by hand ninety-six
panels of text. The consequences of such a decision are in no way trivial
for someone who is to actually take on this task. Nor should we, as viewers
or readers, ignore this aspect of Cullen's practice. Cullen has committed
himself to a not inconsiderable amount of labour by choosing to make these
paintings by hand. Indeed, had Cullen instead decided to utilise methods
conventionally employed in the reproduction of writing the resulting objects
would not be paintings at all, but merely yet more printed text. What might
be termed the 'slow intensity' implicit in Cullen's physical production
of Fragmens... should be borne in mind when considering the piece. The
painstaking manner of the work's production is of considerable importance
with respect to its interpretation.
The "comms" were produced as private
letters whose general status has, however, now been considerably altered,
by their general publication but also through Cullen's decision to use
them within his artistic practice. A double transformation has been enacted
upon what were initially written and transmitted as a clandestine correspondence
intended only for a select readership. When first published the "comms"
became pieces of public information. No longer 'mere' private messages,
they are now historical documents available for consultation by anyone
with an inclination to check them out. Cullen's painted version of the
texts gives their public presentation another twist. The artist would appear
to be simply quoting an already available source (Beresford's book), since
what is translated into painting is not the "comms" themselves but the
version of them provided in Ten Men Dead. Not only has Cullen not quoted
from the actual letters, but has also included within his transcription
from the book Beresford's editorial insertions. The panels have been transcribed
in the order that Beresford quotes the "comms" in his book. In both the
book and upon the painted boards these additions are indicated through
the use of square brackets. As Beresford comments in his "Author's Note":
"An important foundation to the book as a whole is the huge volume of "comms"
given in Ten Men Dead. Cullen is able to give only Beresford's selective
rendition of the texts. In some sense, then, Fragmens... is concerned not
so much with the 'first order' textual traces of ten Irish political prisoners
but with the subsequent interpretation of a loaded historical moment. There
is perhaps some intended commentary here--I mean on Cullen's part--concerning
the apparent impossibility of gaining unmediated access to a specific historical
The utilisation of historically
very 'heavy' textual material in Fragmens sur les Institutions Republicaines
IV raises complex questions about politics, art, secrecy and censorship.
I will end with a remark from Jacques Derrida's book The Post Card (University
of Chicago Press, 1987, p. 194); it seems strangely pertinent to Cullen's
work. "What cannot be said", writes Derrida, "above all must not be silenced