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2003; Grant Watson; The Whole Nine Yards Catalogue Essay

THE WHOLE NINE YARDS was first exhibited in Project Arts Centre Dublin in November 2003, as part of an exhibition called ARTISTS/GROUPS curated by PROJECTS VISUAL ARTS CURATOR GRANT WATSON. The following was written by Grant Watson and is taken from the exhibition catalogue.

CONSTANCE SHORT

I first saw Short’s work at Project. The piece was a text-based print stating “EVERY BREATH I TAKE IS A POLITICAL GESTURE”. Initially I found this statement a little intense, perhaps a bit overblown. What intrigued me was the fact that it had been printed by hand using a linocut technique on a kitchen table in Dundalk – returning it to a sense of modesty and proportion. Normally you would associate this type of statement in art with new technology, dramatic graphics, the strategic use of scale and location. Later I got to know the artist and realized that this statement wasn’t overblown at all but in fact an accurate account.

The connection with breath and political gesture is most explicit in the way Short uses speech. Many of the breaths she refers to are taken up and used to utter the statements, which then become her works. They express this politics. Sometimes literally, in the party political sense (Short stood as a Labour Councillor), or directly towards a particular cause, protest against British Nuclear Fuels or government arts policy. Sometimes obliquely, in a stream of consciousness, a fast track delivery of opinions which are inherently political as they carry with them a demand for action. One of the texts states, “ I AM A VERB. I DO”. Actions speak louder than words but words as actions are the key ingredient of this artist’s practice. Her statements engage with different registers simultaneously. Art, domesticity, politics, personal dynamics, arts funding, the Troubles, gender and translation are all remarked upon. These statements appear in graphic black and white. But something about their multiplicity, their contrariness, their switch into different languages allows then to avoid becoming truth statements. Instead, they are thoughts and opinions so strong that they must be recorded. Together they constitute singular moments in the flow of speech that make up “The Whole Nine Yards”.

Short was one of the founders of Project. She helped to set up its first physical manifestation in 1967 over Tuck and Company’s premises on Abbey Street, acquired on loan from Colm O Briain’s father Peter who owned the company. For her, Project was a socialist alternative to the capitalist system. “It provided a situation where artists could control their own working conditions, exhibiting, promoting and selling their work”. Her belief was, and is, that artworks should be part of an economic system that directly supports that artist. Not fetishised and inflated commodities but something sold at a reasonable price, generally accessible to ordinary people and still reflecting the value of the artist’s labour. Her own labour is made clear through the printing process that she uses “Affordability achieves accessibility” runs one of her statements. She says of Project’s beginnings, “We wanted to earn our living at art. It was important that the artist be accepted in society on a par with every other worker but without comprising their vision. This is something yet to be achieved.

To this effect, Short is known to have run out into the street one afternoon in an attempt to persuade people waiting at the bus stop outside the Seaman’s Mission on Abbey Street to come inside and buy work. This pragmatism was the means by which the organisation survived and maintained its autonomy. Many of its members were from a generation of working class artists who considered themselves to be in opposition to the political and arts establishment of their day. One of them drew derision from the newspapers because he was also a painter and decorator. The headline ran “Housepainter has Exhibition”. Short’s membership of Project ran in parallel with her engagement with other political organisations. These included the Ireland USSR Society, The Free Ireland Organisation, The Anti Apartheid Movement and the Labour Party. The women’s movement took a little longer to arrive. Short recalls a lot of “generally helping out” at Project but not that many opportunities to show her work. It wasn’t until 1975 that an exhibition specifically put together by women and featuring only women artists took place. Its theme was the male nude. Socialism was the international movement that brought all of these concerns together under one roof. Worker’s movements and race politics abroad cathected with the conditions in which artists produced and distributed their work at home and for Short, amongst others, the desire to see the 32 counties united as a Socialist Republic.

This intricate and seemingly unproblematic interlinking of class struggle and cultural production seems an impossibility today. The past is a good yarn, disconnected from the present by the fragmentation of the solidarity and gradual erosion of the idealism (political and otherwise) which marked that era. Project’s history has become mythologised partly because its beginnings coincide so neatly with this radical moment. Though the result of this specific group’s work now stands in its new building as a consolidated entity, it has perhaps grown into something which might seem alien to some of its founding members. Arbitrated as it is by the current “overly professionalised” understanding of “the arts”, and held in trust for every community of artists that set it up, is it at all possible then to conceptualise a link running from the present moment back to that radical one? Today the internationalism which provided a motif for artists wishing to change their working conditions in the 1960’s has been transformed into something much more contradictory in the forms of globalised capitalism. The art world itself is exponentially larger and more complex. Though the field has changed radically in the intervening decades, the need for pragmatism, as characterised by the artists who set up Project, has not gone away. Neither has the need for artists to establish their own ground. One of the principal issues still facing artists currently leaving education, or in fact at any time in their career, is how to work as an artist and live their life when no real structures exist to make this possible. Short states that one of the reasons Project was established was because existing institutions did not concern themselves with artists working conditions or standards of living. It has to be said that this is largely still true, that while there are an ever increasing number of museums, art centres, commercial galleries, funding bodies, journals, residencies, television programmes and websites dealing in contemporary art, the situation for artists remains for the most part one of financial insecurity. The career path these structures offer is all too often vulnerable to dramatic swings of fate which seem beyond the artist’s control.

Turning then to the community of artists suggests an alternative in the form of support systems such as artists groups, collectives and co-operatively run studios. Unfortunately, these structures rarely solve the underlying economic difficulties that artists face. But they do propose a potentially non-hierarchical structure which provides a sense of control over the working environment and a more direct relationship with audiences. These audiences are frequently drawn from the artists own circles. Many such artists initiatives exist in Ireland, and indeed everywhere, their work enjoying a continued and increasing critical attention. As curatorial projects, their output is often creative and individual, issuing directly from practice and benefiting from the intimacy and dialogue of peers working in close proximity. Because of this fact institutions frequently invite such groups to participate in collaborations.

Artists/Groups which take place at Project is one such collaboration. At the centre of it is Short’s work “The Whole NineYards”. A wall of texts 27 feet long by three feet wide made up from 81 linocuts, each 12 inches square. Short’s status as a founding member of Project is at once central to this exhibition and at the same time incidental. Central because it creates a symbolic link with the past, to Project’s founding moment. Incidental in that it is important not to historicise Short prematurely. She is after all a contemporary artist, working in the present and is a politically motivated as ever. She is currently suing British Nuclear Fuels and is heavily involved in the peace process; although she now strongly believes that all traditions must be represented in a solution. As her work states, “For artists there are no absolutes”. “The Whole NineYards” represents this multiplicity as it scrambles the tone of a singular authoritative voice in a barrage of words. Taking on the form of collective annunciation.