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Brian O'Doherty


by Ciarán Bennett
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Exile has been central to the story of Irish modernism, a touchstone for Joyce and Beckett and many others. Brian O'Doherty (b. 1928) came to New York in the 1950s as a medical doctor, but once he was caught up in the art world he became an influential critic, teacher, arts administrator and artist.

O'Doherty's 1976 essay, Inside the White Cube, was one of the first to articulate, in sparkling prose, the institutional parameters of contemporary art-making. His artwork from the 1960s -- rune-like mirror carvings, and a vectored division of space via tight white cords strung through it -- was exhibited alongside that of Sol LeWitt, Robert Smithson and other Conceptual and Minimalist artists.

In the '70s, his art took a political turn, as he adopted the persona of Patrick Ireland. As critic, artist, novelist and broadcaster, he already showed a penchant for multiple personalities, and this new persona reflected his repugnance at the shooting by British paratroopers of civilians claiming their civil rights in Northern Ireland.

A few years ago, following the declarations of the end of the troubles, he symbolically buried the said Mr. Ireland in a small grave in the grounds of the Irish Museum of Modern Art. It was a fine ceremony with a wake and ululations over the tomb, almost a state funeral for such a heroic citizen, which was of course choreographed by O'Doherty himself, now the resurrected impresario.

For the inaugural Dublin Contemporary, Sept. 6-Oct. 31, 2011, O'Doherty returned to put on a special event on Oct. 8, Hello Sam, a celebration of silence and thus Beckett too, as that was the original theme of Dublin Contemporary, before it collapsed and was relaunched as an homage to Yeats' terrible beauty. There is a story that when Beckett was 70, he was asked whether old age offered any advantages, and he replied "deafness."

It was odd then that as O'Doherty spoke at Trinity College, and signed copies of the monograph on his life and work (Between Categories by Brenda Moore McCann), that a manic Bollywood extravaganza of singing and dancing was being filmed outside in the front quad of the school, Ireland's oldest university and Beckett's alma mater.

O'Doherty was eloquent on the subject of making New York a suburb of Dublin, of carrying historical and genetic baggage though other zones, as Joyce and Beckett certainly appeared to do when they were in Paris. O'Doherty's Hello Sam is a memento mori, an installation and performance, where four telephone messages are left for the late Samuel Beckett by those who knew him in life. It is a place where a wrapped mummy is suspended between memories and recalled truth, or remembered humanity, in many ways a reflection of O'Doherty's own lost youth, taken from him by ignorance and religion, his journeys circumnavigating from Ireland to New York and somehow back here to Dublin with the whispered telephone calls for the writer of Godot.

The work itself is installed in the older British wing of the National Gallery of Ireland, now oddly empty, which usually houses the eloquent moments of Joshua Reynolds and other society portraits of that empire. This wing of the gallery was constructed in the last century, while the adjacent older building resonates with the grandeur of empire and aspirations of an emerging Irish middle class in the 19th century. It has some of the quaint charm of the Frick Collection in New York, without the imperial elegance of the National Gallery in London.

The performance of Hello Sam began in the open passage, a sort of atrium that connects the older wings and reaches two stories up a stairs to the newer drawing rooms, where the JMW Turner watercolours are annually exhibited. The connecting hallway from the most recent ultra-modernist concrete extension from of the last decade is lined with classical ornaments, carvings of marble figures performing some athletic activity in ancient Greece.

It was along this corridor that O'Doherty's brown-robed figures arrived, passing through the throng of invited guests, and through an elegant wooden doorway, into the older space towards the end of the formal galleries, where the installation was housed. This line of figures disappeared into a small dark oval room, and with the suspended mummy and its ropes traversing the space, the booths for the headphones to hear the four telephone messages and the chairs for the performers, it was impossible to actually observe what was happening inside.

The official documentation described it as "intermittent performances by robed figures that circulate in sequential patterns around the work, ‘binding’ the suspended figure in concentric motion. These ‘walkers’ are witnesses, celebrants and mourners.” The artist himself had to return to New York, and was unfortunately unable to attend this aspect of the installation, which took place on the opening night. When talking about this central sculptural figure in the crypt-like room, O'Doherty mentioned the 1978 suspense film Coma (based on the novel of the same name by Robin Cook), with its lines of suspended bodies, as a possible source for his work.

At the four monitors with headphones in each corner of the room, visitors could listen to the taped telephone messages left for Beckett, as if he were still alive. The four telephone conversations are very personal, sporadic and diverse. The message from Michael Colgan, the Gate Theatre director and impresario, who worked with Beckett over many years, is gossipy and gregarious, acknowledging the time, that has passed since they spoke and discussing the latest productions, and the current string of actors from Barry McGovern, and John Hurt, to Michael Gambon, who perform his work. Another caller is the cultural historian and his biographer Anthony Cronin.

Hello Sam suggests the game of chess in its structure, mapped by minimalist lines in space traced by markers, but here there is also the solid figure suspended between the votives on the phone, the telephone lines of another speech, as O'Doherty called it, a hearing dyslexia, a different rhythm, of four voices, leaking from the headphones to mingle with the scraping feet on the parquet. Yet this conceit, that Beckett is alive and on the other end of the phone, is somehow possible out there in the void, in the silence of some other absolute.

Brian O'Doherty, "Hello Sam," Oct. 18 & Oct. 22, 2011, at the National Gallery of Ireland, as part of Dublin Contemporary 2011.

CIARÁN BENNETT is a writer, curator and president of AICA Ireland.