TOWARDS AN EMPIRE OF DIRT
By JAMES MERRIGAN | APRIL 8, 2018
I hurt my self today
To see if I still feel
I focus on the pain
The only thing that's real
The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting
Try to kill it all away
But I remember everything
Nine Inch Nails, Hurt (1994)
BRIAN MAGUIRE'S ALEPPO 5 IS A BIG WARDROBE OF A PAINTING with its doors kicked wide open and somehow shuffled into a room at IMMA too small for its size or subject. It stands last and best in a series of large paintings that look out onto the war-torn Syrian city of Aleppo. But before we dare continue, let's erase our mediated experiences of Syria.
Let's erase the online optimism for the Syrian Arab Spring in 2011, and the images of rose-bearing public protests that would ultimately trigger the unmerciful violence on the ground for the next five years across Syria. Let's erase the words – “It's Your Turn, Doctor” – spray painted on a school wall in the remote southern city of Daraa by a group of school boys who were arrested and tortured and in some cases killed by the former physician, Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Let’s erase the images of protests following their torture and death. Let’s erase the images of the tortured boys returned dead to their families. Let’s erase the calm cluster-bomb drops caught on shaking cameras against dusty blue skies; or the barrel-bomb targets sprouting clouds like children's pop-up books. Let’s erase the image of two starving children eating weeds on the side of the road. Let's erase the scores of children’s bodies that lined limestone floors like prison calendars. Let’s erase what New Yorker war correspondents referred to time and again as the “pancaked roofs” of Aleppo as if the language of metaphor had failed them faced with the now totally flat and burnt country that was once called the “cradle of civilsation". Let's erase the lionization of the Volunteer Syria Civil Defence Forces when the hand-held documentary The White Helmets won an Academy Award in a country that “dithered” on the side of the rebels. Let’s erase the father’s testimony that claimed the heroic white helmets wouldn’t treat his little boy until they photographed him. Let’s erase that very image of that little boy “in the back of an ambulance, covered in dust with blood on his face and clothing”. Let’s erase the image of the 2-weeks old baby delivered from the rubble by the white helmets after a 16-hours search. Let’s erase the image of the boy’s dead body face down on the shore in the lapping waves after a boat upturned in his family’s efforts to find refuge from the siege. Let’s erase the regime’s use of the chemical agent, sarin, and the convulsing and dying mothers and children drowning and flapping on hard floors, and so on and so on and so on...
If we erase all these mediated experiences that continue to be covered (and uncovered) to this day by the likes of Robert Fisk and others during the continued bombardment of Syria by Russia and the Syrian Government, Brian Maguire’s paintings become an exercise in formalism. Nothing more. Detached from their subject, their emotional spur, they become paintings again. Syria fully erased, we begin to notice that we have seen paintings like this before by art students who were sent out on field trips by lecturers to document the urban landscape, returning with drawings and photographs of car parks or construction sites or dilapidated buildings which the lecturer consciously suggested as conceptually relevant by referencing some contemporary artist or theory. The word ‘brutalist’ and ‘liminal’ enter the student’s vocabulary. A conceptual hook is made to hang method, to validate the mere stuffness of paint. (Sculpture lecturers just don’t get painting.) The idea of abstraction emerges in the dark cavities and transitory nature of these fugitive architectures. When the student graduates, the terms ‘non-space’ or ‘non-place’ decorate his artist statement because artist Liam Gillick or philosopher Marc Augé wrote it somewhere. The student wrestles with the greys of the world in his expulsion of the explicit. He becomes an artist that tows the line in a series of abandoned beginnings.
The last time I experienced a painting that approached the terror of its subject by deliberately acknowledging painting’s inadequacy in expressing such terror was Luc Tuymans Still Life (2002) – for me one of the reasons I shelved my brushes. But whereas Tuymans’ giant still life (his singular response to 9/11 at Documenta 11) elicited that inappropriate giddiness one regretfully hickups when confronted by sublime beauty or danger, my feelings towards Maguire's regiment of paintings at IMMA was mixed until Aleppo 5. Of course Tuymans and Maguire are different animals when it comes to their paint orchestrated sociopolitical subjects. Tuymans confronts Evil via the banality of his chosen subject matter, whether giant still life or child’s empty bedroom; while Maguire’s are painted propaganda to Tuymans’ uncanny.
Maguire makes his subject explicit in the titles Aleppo 1, 2, 3….. But by naming the geography isn’t the artist asking us to enter the tragic subject of Aleppo? Maguire hasn’t given us the choice to speculate on the whereabouts of this destruction, a choice that Mark O’Kelly gave us in 2014 in a painting strikingly similar in size and gesture to one or two of Maguire’s. But at IMMA we are not given room to imagine. Dresden? Warsaw? Tokyo? Hiroshima? Beirut? Mostar? No. "Aleppo". If naming the city is important to Maguire, is he asking for our engagement with the subject of his paintings to be in line with our appreciation of the stuffness of his painting? Is this a case of good object vs. bad subject? Can it be both? Just asking...
As laptop tourists dependent on our black and white mediated experiences of the good and bad world, how do we enter, how do we empathise beyond painting’s stuffness? I'm not saying we need to experience painting beyond its stuffness. As an ex-painter I experience and judge a painting as stuff before anything else because I know it intimately as stuff. But why name the paintings Aleppo 1 through 5? (I'm being difficult here so bear with me.) Is it all about bearing witness? ‘I bore witness, so now it’s your turn’ kind of thing. Bearing witness seems a masochistic ritual in a world where the scales of justice and power are always unbalanced. Perhaps Maguire believes the tragic elevates the mere stuffness of painting? That perhaps without the tragic painting is just stuff. That perhaps painting lacks a little something, a little more on its ownio. That perhaps painting needs a tragic subject to exist – something Piet Mondrian coldly dismissed in his glacial manifesto on painting’s "tragic plastic". Or does the tragic motivate Maguire to paint in the first place? If so, what trauma is the artist repeatedly returning to where painting’s lack has some personal gain? I enter painting as an ex-painter, where good or bad is not a moral or ethical measure or compass; good or bad is how paint is applied and placed, side-by-side. The stuffness of paint is always the message.
After enjoying the stuffness of Maguire’s Aleppo 5 I went home and didn’t enjoy watching The White Helmets on Netflix, something I had put off not enjoying for a long time. 40-minutes long, about the same time I spent before Maguire’s best painting at IMMA, I cried, actually sobbed when the Volunteer Syria Civil Defence Forces pulled the two-weeks-old baby from the rubble after a 16-hour search. I held my kids harder the next morning. It didn't take long before I tried to start a conversation about Syria with friends and family. I was cut short when I described the baby-pulled-from-the-rubble scene in The White Helmets. It was too much. If empathy is seeing the faces of your loved ones in someone else’s tragedy then empathy is what they did not want to feel.
But in what way do we experience or empathise with Syria through Facebook and Twitter, through words and film, through visiting 'ground zero' (as Maguire did), through painting? How deep is deep? I have spent the last week engaged with nothing but the subject of Syria. I have come across some brilliant and heartbreaking journalism in the New Yorker and New York Times. It’s easy to source Syria online but mentally hard to get through: I could only digest the documentary Cries From Syria piecemeal, and the film footage of the effects of the chemical weapon sarin on mothers side-by-side with their children cut my research short. Too much. Too much. Maguire doesn’t think we experience the socially tragic world at all in the flitter and gust of promiscuous and moody 24hr news media. We react. We take sides. We move on to the next hashtag. Primordial fear is for history to remember and others to experience. We have just become bored, insensate. We latch onto the tragic because we have become technologically numb.
Without our mediated experiences of social trauma we are free to bathe in Aleppo 5’s formalism. It's one hell of a painting. An art student might ask about the materials Maguire used and dream of the white whale canvas that his Aleppo 5 is mapped onto. An art historian or curator might reference Manet’s or Morisot’s or Goya’s paintings of women on balconies when they glimpse ringlets of metal curling from the upstairs ruins of the apartment block; or reflect on William Orpen’s licked-bone-clean war landscapes beneath summer blues shown last year at the National Gallery. A chef might comment on the buttery paint that’s spread thin on the building’s carcass; or what looks like grains of sugar gravitating in the paint as if the bomb dust hadn’t settled yet. It hasn’t. In front of Maguire’s Aleppo 5 I indulged in reference and metaphor with “The bomb-demolished building redacts the collapsed face of Aleppo like the juggernaut brushstroke that blindfolds her from us and us from her in Julian Schnabel’s Big Girl Paintings.” Just pretty words! We all have our stuff. Rarely does an artwork dethrone our narcissism to force us to perspective take on the stuff of others.
On exiting the gallery a group of students enter and I catch the gallery attendant’s first introductory words to the walking mass: “...keep an eye out for the sand that the artist uses in his paintings…” I walk on.