‘The Hidden Mountain, the Fort and the Five Trees’ is an expansive survey show of artist Marie Brett’s practice. Brett is a serial collaborator, a conductor of various projects with a socially engaged mindset. This exhibition highlights just how interdisciplinary–and perhaps more strikingly–how interdependent her practice is. Impressive in scale and ambition, the show currently occupies the entirety of SIRIUS.
The first room I enter houses documentation of some of Brett’s previous works, supported by insightful text panels created by Dr Jenny Butler and SIRIUS staff members Miguel Amado and Georgia Perkins. A behind-the-scenes video of the creation of the work Day of The Straws (2020) is presented alongside an offering of interpretations of the words ‘mask’ and ‘control’. Day of The Straws is a website or ‘cyber vault’ that houses Brett’s collaborative research into the parallels between the cultural and social responses to the 1830’s Cholera epidemic and the Coronavirus pandemic. Over 75 community participants, from historians, artists, spiritualists, druids and storytellers, partook in this project. This supporting video includes Zoom calls between collaborators and emphasises just how important conversation and exchange was in the realisation of this work. Dr Andrea Kitta’s assertion that contamination, often considered as a negative, could be a positive condition is raised in one of these discussions concerning the societal response to the Coronavirus pandemic. The conversation suggests that there is ‘beauty in hybridity’–and it is this thought that I take with me throughout the exhibition.
As I look at each of Brett’s collaborators housed in their frames on a Zoom call, I consider the dissolution of the fantasy of public and private life. These windows into the homes and the lives of others, now so commonplace, are important visual reminders of how nebulous the parameters of our individual lives are. The project underscores the inescapability of our interdependence and the opportunity to be found in symbiosis. The framing of the historical event of the 1830’s Cholera epidemic with the current events further suggests how interconnected we are, with present society mirroring the actions and emotional responses of our ancestors. Past and present intersect, the domestic space is infused with the prestige of workspace, the home is infected with strangers, the lone figure of the artist is engaging in a dialogic production, facilitating the work of others. The lines are blurring.
The twentieth century has seen the inscription and re-inscription of borders.1
On tables in the middle of a room is a monitor displaying Linda Curtain’s film about Brett’s installation On the Edge of my Sky (2017-20) and a selection of GLOBUS research papers with the invitation to comment on and annotate. The study ‘Is the World Ready for Cooperative Multipolarity?’ has ironically been annotated with the comment ‘Patriarchy? Female voices in writing’–criticising the paper’s lack of female references. The installation, commissioned by the international research consortium GLOBUS, was exhibited at the European Parliament in Brussels in 2017 and UCD in 2019. It resembled an itinerant structure, shanty or shipping container. A lorry tarp that travelled across Europe was used in the creation of the roof. Inside the structure, the artist installed four videos in ruptures in the framework alluding to physical and symbolic thresholds. Visitors are invited to move through the work’s territory. I briefly look up from the screen and see the harbour and calm horizon line through the window. The film narrated by Prof. Ben Tonra (UCD Politics & International Relations) raises the idea of Europe as a ‘dream’. Unique in its aspirational future-orientated outlook, the European Union does not revel in a ‘glorious’ past like the United States and indeed the United Kingdom. For Europe, to look back at the twentieth century is to despair, and so we opt to focus on the present future instead of the present past. However, as I watch this film, I consider the infected nature of our concept of time, how we are haunted by our past and now by an idealistic future that never was for so many. Brett’s installation forces us to acknowledge that the ‘European dream’ creates an ‘other’, a world of migration and uncertainty. I think of Nuit Banai’s criticism of borders:
It brings into relief the mostly unspoken ideological structures organising the relations between the capitalist First World and the rest of the planet: their uprootedness affirms our security; their deprivation guarantees our benefits; their death ratifies our life. 2
Tonra describes the installation as encouraging the visitor to reflect on where one is coming from and where one is going to.
Large willow structures of animal heads from the performance Dragon’s Tail (2021-22) occupy the back of the room. Accompanied by explanations of the words ‘liminal’ and ‘otherworld’, these heads have an eldritch quality. The tight, criss-cross nature of designer Juliette Hamilton’s weaving creates a sense of energy or presence. The stag, hare and raven seem to hold the room. The performance was an exploration of the relationship between the everyday and the supernatural. There is a sense of hope and mysticism in these structures as they seek knowledge from ancient ideas of the land. Unconcerned with borders, the performance was intended to channel the electromagnetic energy of ‘ley lines’’–lines drawn to connect ancient sites and megalithic structures. I step out onto the balcony and see the calm sea and the wind turbines of the ‘European dream’. A trawler is heading out to sea and flags are flying on the promenade overlooking ‘Heartbreak pier’.
The film Yes, But Do You Care? (2018-21) occupies another room of the art centre and continues the themes of public and private life, community and care. The camera follows a man, the dancer Philip Connaughton, moving through the world and encountering enclosures. Responding to the Assisted Decision Making (Capacity) Act (2015) that replaced The Lunacy Act (1822), the film questions the impact of how decisions made in the public realm impact the lives of individuals and families. Public perception continues to shape and dictate how individuals are treated. Circus-like, carnivalesque music accompanies the frenzied action of Connaughton. In one scene, he is enclosed by concentric circles of salt. The young man spins and spins and spills out, treading onto these white lines. A powerful moment comes when the voiceover of a carer reveals ‘I sit in the kitchen and cry, hidden behind closed doors.’ Brett, again, is moving into this ‘other’ space and shining a light on it. There is an opening out, a moving between–a hybridity.
A new work, the installation Ritual of Stone and Water: Pilgrimage to the Ninth Wave Multiverse (2022) was commissioned by SIRIUS and occupies a separate and final room of the exhibition. The smell of the charcoal immediately greeted me. The otherworldly voiceover of musician Maija Sofia eerily resounds from the circular structure in the centre of the room. The metal structure resembles a grain silo of the Irish countryside, but it is painted a bright orange. Large chunks of charcoal create a circular path to its entrance–there are no hard lines or straight edges on this pilgrimage. When I enter the structure, I see a tree stump and again I am struck by the interplay between exterior and interior worlds. There is a tablet by the door that is displaying different profiles from the dating app Tinder. I am filled with a panic that I might see someone I know and think my private sphere shouldn’t exist here. It is jarring to see the tech and wires next to the bucolic-looking tree stump. The placement of the installation inside the art centre is interesting. I look out the window, to the right, where I can see out the main door and onto the street where traffic is passing by. I look out the structure’s door, to my left, and see the harbour through the room’s large windows. Water on one side, the road on the other. The narrator’s voice is talking about dreams–the place where we move between worlds–and drifts between recollections and almost keening noises. The strange manhole cover in the roof alternatively makes me feel like I am subterranean and sinking or fills me with the belief that I could climb up through to the celestial. There is a mysticism that infuses this installation and the entirety of this exhibition.
In Brett’s work, I find an acknowledgment of or desire for a greater plan, a deeper knowledge, that extends beyond the small confines we continually box ourselves into. This is a hopeful, celebratory exhibition that champions collaborators and community. Perhaps the deeper knowledge that Brett acknowledges is the strength to be found in committing to interdependence.
1. Nuit Banai, Being a Border edited by Francis Halsall and Declan Long (Paper Visual Art: Dublin, 2021) p. 6.
2. Idem, p. 24.
Sarah Long is an artist and writer based in Cork. This text was commissioned by SIRIUS. ‘The Hidden Mountain, the Fort and the Five Trees’ runs until Oct 15th 2022.