'Memory Memorial' by Moira McIver was on show at the Gallery of Photography, Dublin, February, 1997
Review by Paul McNally
The parallels between a gallery and a mausoleum and their private and personal uses here turn into an unusual metaphor. The need for private contemplation and recollection in a public space, the time to imagine histories that are only yours in the abstract, the impossibility of truly comprehending another's personal experience: the reverence that the gallery imposes on all work regardless of quality.
The largest work in Moira McIver's show dominates the gallery main space, and being visible from outside it uses the interior and exterior space of the gallery as intended, showing work in two potential environments. One large colour photograph of a cluster of red poppies sits centrally without any other work to reference the viewer. The photograph does not allow the viewer the space of normal photographic cognisance (subject, tone, colour, etc.) Instead the viewer is confronted with scale ,an assumption of quality through expertise and the decision making process that says this work must be larger than any normal photograph, against the fact that their is no point of focus; a physical object denied its physicality and consequently its very objectivity, it looks like a discarded object, a found fragment: an accident from the beginning of the film that has no use to whomever created it and discarded it as worthless. A colour subject that is monochromatic in the lack of anything except a deep scarlet. We are obviously not dealing with representation here but the ability of an object to invoke a response that is beyond the automatic response of recognition.
The poppy is a good symbol of an object that has taken on another set of values that have nothing to do with it's own purpose. It is unusual for objects to lose their subjectivity to another, in this case a historical event. The work is hypnotic, in the sheer size and intensity of the colour in such a bare space, your vision is filled enough to disorientate you whilst the peripheral elements of the gallery bring you back to the present. The metaphor would seem to be well grounded enough to make this an excellent piece, however the contemplation does not seem to be on the nature of war but on the nature of physical art; the use of space, light and time to question our mental perceptions through our physical senses. At no time did the horrors of war really enter my head, I grew to like this work more as I looked at it but for all the wrong reasons. The poppy is the symbol of the Earl Haig fund, in Britain these flowers are sold to support the casualties of the British soldiers of conflicts since WWI, the greatest irony being that Earl Haig started the policy of mass attacks from trenches at the newly invented machine gun. The blood red fields of the Somme do not jump to mind because the work is more striking for other reasons.
The work is based on a serious of interviews with ageing men (ex-soldiers, presumably from WWII, judging by the red parachute regiment berets they wear in their portraits.) The involvement of the artist is to examine the role of those sometimes forgotten in what is called a millenarist hatred of the events of WWII (the holocaust), the events of history being the Versailles and Yalta conferences so Historians again propagate the great man theory at the expense of those who were on the front line. But also a woman's fascination with the ideas of mass-institutionalism as male bastions and inventions, the fascination of those who are excluded. The portraits of those interviewed make up the rest of the exhibition. The usual pitfall of portraiture is avoided (elderly man/woman inciting the vapid response "You can see the years of suffering etched in their face"). Physiognomy is the name for this kind of Pavlovian response. The sitter's face away from the camera wearing ancient army garbs revealing their age, yes, but there is an allusion to personality, or a personal life lived by someone subjected to an institutional life by showing their necks and ears from behind, these are quite personal areas that only people close to us usually see for any length of time, likewise the hands which could be those of any elderly person regardless of gender.
The artist is more interested in the institutional life these men have faced (and are facing?) rather than their experience. A problem appears to be that although interviews have been conducted there is no insight into their personal or collective experience, there is an interest in age, experience and institutions but very little insight developed by the work to tell me more than I already know about institutional life. The research is a valid method of examination but here the evidence of what was elucidated is a little vague and you feel the theme is more social history than contemporary art.