Advanced Search

UCD University Relations

Caidreamh Ollscoile UCD

Joyce in the City: Dubliners Art Exhibition
Dr Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes 

James Joyce – famously of increasingly limited eyesight – has been read and interpreted by many visual artists over nearly a century. He has enhanced artists' ambitions, enabled and disabled their work. In fact, I could conclude my Joyce in Art book, 2004, with the assertion that he was an artists' writer. Compared with other works by Joyce, however, Dubliners has yielded few direct and distinct responses. To show some of these, to link the early book with the later creations through which we now inevitably perceive the short stories and to include the city of Dublin as an active player was an easy decision. Bridging the "Dublin: One City, One Book" festival under the umbrella of the UNESCO City of Literature with the International Joyce Symposium in June is an enjoyable possibility: I will curate a small exhibition. Here, I wish to look forward to what visitors and locals alike can expect from April to June.

When Louis le Brocquy chose to create a simple landscapes of roofs for Dubliners, he accounted for some of the generically urban qualities of Dublin and its citizens. Conor McGarrigle also departs from his home-town, Dublin, more precisely from the paths around the city of Leopold Bloom (whose fictional life started as a character for Dubliners) and transfers the GPS co-ordinates of key points, such as O'Connell Bridge, to places throughout the world. One can re-trace Bloom's itinerary in unfamiliar surroundings, finding on the way more than enough points of contact, serendipitous convergences of Joyce's themes with the details of the locale. Joyce the emigrant, the city-walking Odysseus, guides our journeys, both with our feet and in our minds.

McGarrigle, moreover, ensures that his Joycean universe remains as up-to-date as Joyce's own literary means were. He anchors O'Connell Bridge not only in other cities, but also in and through virtual space by making his entire project accessible via a bar code that every internet-ready phone can access: a fitting use of the ubiquitous communication device for the polyglot communicator Joyce.

At the Gresham Hotel, the last venue of Dubliners – its famous final story, "The Dead" – a small work by Joseph Beuys will be displayed. Gabriel Conroy had had a life-changing moment in a room there, becoming aware of the intensity of feeling of which his wife's former boyfriend was capable. He muses about life and death, while looking at the snow that covers everything equally and seems to extend to all spaces and all times. Beuys had read Joyce during a depressive crisis following his service as a German solider in WWII. In the text of one of his last works, he pays tribute to Joyce as having "changed the universe" and having been important to him as "dynamic medicine". Joyce's initials become the runners of an upside down sleigh. This might seem peculiar, but since the Romans called Ireland Hibernia and hibernus means "wintry", it only makes sense to think that Joyce's snowfall didn't just dampen and calm Gabriel's trauma, but also Beuys'.

Beuys' installations are sometimes messy and cluttered affairs, but his Fluxus art-colleague Diter Rot (Dieter Roth) outdid him in this regard. It is no coincidence that artists with cumulative strategies refer to Joyce as an example for this approach, where the entire world – or at least chance findings of sections of it – has the capacity to fit into the oeuvre without compromising the depth of meaning. Francis Bacon was another artist who pursued cumulative strategies, nowhere more so than in his studio, which is serendipitously housed in Dublin's Hugh Lane Gallery. Diter Rot's little artist's book 246 Clouds, taking up "A Little Cloud" from Dubliners, is placed in the context of Bacon's studio – beside the copy of Dubliners that Bacon kept in his small living quarters beside the studio: a Dublin return that befits Joyce and can stand here as representative of many artists who left the Ireland of their birth and found between the covers of Joyce's books their home.

"A Little Cloud" is also the story that Mark Orange has chosen for his own, transplanted radio play / installation work. He set the meeting of the unequal former friends in Belfast's Europa Hotel in the 1970s, giving it added layers of meaning and calling it A Little Oracle. For the current exhibition, the piece will be returned to the original setting of the story: O'Neill's pub off College Green. Joyce's stories acquire their own international journeys and reception histories, artistic or otherwise. They live on with and through these. Similarly, Dublin is now a very different city. All this makes us cherish the few "authentic" spots that still exist. A Little Oracle gives the viewers and listeners the opportunity to behave like Joyce's characters and reflect on how Joyce's works may have become oracles of our own lives, transcending time and space.

A very special and lively Joycean spot in Dublin is Sweny's Pharmacy, where Leopold Bloom bought lemon soap for his wife. She was a more frequent customer. Amanda Coogan reinstates Molly Bloom's presence in this beautiful shop. She highlights – as only a performance artist can – her corporeal presence, her and Molly's lasting "aura". As a marker of the threshold (rites of passage were interesting to Joyce, who let his Portrait of the Artist be punctuated by so-called epiphanies) she invites the visitor to this strange and wonderful world. The reading groups that meet at Sweny's (parts of Dubliners are read by regulars and tourists at 1pm daily) are a sign of the twenty-first century also: far more diverse than was possible one hundred or even twenty years ago, the readers themselves deserve to be included in this projected exhibition. Reading groups are a very special part of Joyce's legacy: he constructed his works to require collaborative efforts at meaning-making; and they bear characteristics of visual artworks in the current "relational" or engaged mode. In order to make us feel (in) Dublin(ers) and empowered, the "artist, like the God of the creation [can] remain[.] within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails." (A Portrait) – likely with a nail file bought at Sweny's, cherishing the artists' and readers' attention.

Joyce in the City: Dubliners Art Exhibition - Dr Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes