An intersection of art and activism: A student’s perspective on her time abroad in Dublin

Author: Margaret Burns

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Margaret Burns 21’, originally from San Antonio, Texas, is an art history major and is part of the Glynn Family Honors Program. She’s currently involved with the Snite Museum of Art, ND Votes, and a staff member at Pasquerilla East Hall on campus. In the fall of 2019, Burns studied abroad in Dublin at University College Dublin (UCD). She writes about her time abroad in Ireland after arriving early to begin research for her thesis topic and how the quarantine is impacting the art world.

There’s a scene in the TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People where Connell arrives in Dublin for the first time. He walks through the ornate front gates of Trinity College, as a Dublin bus and the Luas whiz by in the background. You can feel his anxiety and apprehension amidst the constant whir of the city streets, packed with tourists and students and business people and salesmen trying to sell you whiskey tours and “authentic” pages from the Book of Kells. My first day in Ireland was much the same. After checking in with the OCH staff, I headed to my hostel along the River Liffey and set off to explore the city on my own.

I traveled to Dublin a week before the term began to conduct research for a potential thesis topic in art history. Mark Dion, a New York-based installation artist and illustrator, had a retrospective at the Hugh Lane Gallery featuring seminal pieces, as well as work that he created during a residency in Ireland. Dion’s work is almost always site-specific – created in response to, and often using materials from, a particular location – and reflects his deep concerns about the worsening state of the environment. The show, called Mark Dion: Our Plundered Planet, also coincided with a UNESCO Conference (EuroMAB) on biospheres that convened in Dublin. The Dublin Bay Biosphere itself includes 300 square kilometers of protected wildlife area, plus transitional zones that mediate the interactions of Dubliners and the natural ecosystems. For my research, I wanted to see the Dion exhibition up-close-and-personal, talk to curators involved at the Hugh Lane, and then trek through important spaces in the Dublin Bay Biosphere to follow Dion’s footsteps. I decided that to understand a site-specific artist, I should become site-specific myself.

The Hugh Lane Gallery is housed in the austere Georgian Charlemont House at the top of Parnell Square in North Dublin. The interior is richly fabricated from marble and stone, with elaborate crown-molding and brightly-lit gallery spaces. I met with Michael Dempsey, curator and Head of Exhibitions at the Hugh Lane, to talk through the Dion exhibition and to understand what it was like to work with the artist. For a few hours, we discussed Dion’s interests in systems of knowledge (like language and taxonomy) that shows in his “cabinets of curiosity” and parodic Family Trees; in institutional critique, particularly of museums, art collectors, and academia; in the environment and how we as humans change the natural world. “The Salmon of Knowledge Returns,” is the exhibition’s showstopper: the viewer enters a room covered in dark, shimmering jellyfish wallpaper and is confronted with a larger-than-life salmon, its gaping maw of crooked teeth right at eye level, swimming upstream on a river of tar embedded with cast offs from the human world. Mark Dion created this piece during a residency at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in 2015, and drew inspiration from the Irish Salmon of Knowledge myth. As the story goes, young hero Fionn Mac Cumhail was apprenticed to a wise old man who was searching for a wily, ancient salmon that contained all knowledge of the world. One bite of the fish would convey this knowledge to the eater. Exhausted after catching the fish, the old man bade Fionn to cook it over the fire. A bubble burst on the fish’s skin and burned Fionn, and when he brought his hand to his mouth to sooth the burn, Fionn acquired all the knowledge in the world. In Dion’s iteration, the Salmon of Knowledge has come back in the 21st century, fully aware of pollution, overfishing, and human misbehavior. The fish faces you head-on, with the bodies of dead salmon hanging on a rack behind it, forcing you to take on the same knowledge that it carries.

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"The Salmon of Knowledge Returns" exhibit at the Huge Lane Gallery.

Exhibition fresh in my mind, I spent the next few days hiking through Howth and Bray, two prongs of the Dublin Bay Biosphere, and on the island of Ireland’s Eye to try and familiarize myself with the area as Dion had. I took voice recordings of the sounds in each location, recorded and photographed the kinds of plants and animals I saw, and spent time talking to the locals who worked with in the biosphere year-round. Likewise, the Dubliners always asked me about Notre Dame (“Go Irish!” they universally exclaimed) and our notorious “college red-cup parties.” Ultimately, my work on Mark Dion helped me to better understand research in contemporary art – seeing and recording exhibitions, working alongside curators and/or the artist themselves, etc. – to get to know Dublin on my own and be confident in my own abilities. It also helped me to understand that I want the purpose of my scholarship and career to be the intersection of art and activism. For this reason, I chose not to write my thesis on Dion (who refutes the activist impulse) and instead to focus on two artists – Theaster Gates and Rick Lowe – who have used their artistic practice to rebuild their communities physically, aesthetically, and emotionally.

From my position in quarantine, my memories of Dublin and of museums are sustaining and hopeful, especially in the face of an economic depression that is gutting the museum world. When thinking about this story, Margaret Arriola from the Dublin Global Gateway asked me if I would speak to how the art world is faring. In general, it’s not great. Beneficial and necessary changes have occurred: the protests against systemic racism and police brutality have led to waves of museum staffers demanding that museums really examine their existence as colonized/colonizing institutions and make strong commitments to diversity and inclusion in their hiring practices, their collecting, and their board membership.

The quarantine has also made some aspects of the art world more accessible to the public – museums like the Whitney and Crystal Bridges have moved their programming online and allowed their exhibitions to be seen virtually by anyone in the world. Even the Louvre has “Museum from Home” programming. But, by and large, COVID-19 has been incredibly harmful for museums. Without steady funding from larger government or humanities organizations, museum budgets have come to depend on admissions fees, visitor spending, and private/corporate donation. Without the public and with private donations much less certain, many museums have been forced to lay off or furlough large groups of employees, especially those “non-core” employees (security guards, education staff, administrative assistants, etc.) and those who are unprotected by museum unions. I have no idea what kind of job field or museum world will await me when I graduate next year. But, in the meantime, I’m a curatorial intern with the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, where I get to ask questions, do deep research, and work with a world class team to turn museums on their head from the inside out. And I sit at my desk, surrounded by a little shrine of Dublin postcards and Polaroids, remembering my adventures and eagerly awaiting the next ones.

Learn more about study abroad and research opportunities in Dublin.