“In 1991, Dublin is European City of Culture, yet the Irish government continues to break the European Convention of Human Rights as the Irish state upholds antiquated English laws that criminalise and oppress Irish gay men and lesbians.” So said artist Louise Walsh as her work Outlaws Inlaws appeared in exhibition at Kilmainham Gaol two years before decriminalisation.
Considering this issue of GCN takes as its theme ‘Past, Present and Future,’ it seems serendipitous to be speaking to Louise as she revisits and re-magnifies that vital artwork of almost three decades ago and transforms it into a new work for a new (?) Ireland - Hydra Inlaw The piece is showing as part of Elliptical Affinities - which will be ending its residency in Highlanes Gallery in Drogheda by the time we go to print before touring to Limerick City Gallery of Art where it will remain until March 22. Elliptical Affinities has as its subheading Irish Women Artists and the Politics of the Body, 1984 to Present. It focuses on the conjunction of art and feminism in Ireland and features artists across many disciplines as well as across generations.
Fittingly, Louise’s sculptural contribution also crosses a generation, originating in a piece created during a more turbulent time.
‘91 saw the Gaol host In a State, an Exhibition in Kilmainham Gaol on National Identity - the theme sparking a re in Louise. She shares, “Being female in Ireland in the ‘80s was very gendered, you didn’t have control over your own body, you weren’t allowed access to contraception or access to control your own fertility. grew up with this awareness of being bound by these structures didn’t understand so much. They didn’t get a hold of me, but they did oppress us all.
“And so when was asked to respond to the idea of national identity, what came up around being a citizen of Ireland was not being given my full citizenship, both as a woman and a lesbian and then as a person with a community of queer men who loved...
“I felt we were on the edges and marginalised and felt very disempowered.” This artwork, explains Louise, was a “way to protest and hold the mirror back up.”
In one of the cells, Louise installed tiles in a continuous pattern of writhing snakes, alongside photographs of samesex couples kissing. “The saints of Ireland standing on snakes was a motif for me.”
Snakes and serpents have continued to inspire, and appear in, Louise’s work. They are also a symbol of healing; even if the name doesn’t ring a bell, we are all familiar with the image of the Rod of Asclepius – the serpent coiled around the rod – an ancient Greek symbol associated with medicine. Louise created her own snake coiled around a column at the entrance of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast. The serpent, she describes, is “a symbol of healing, healing from the land and the earth. It’s a symbol of rejuvenation and regeneration.” The piece is interactive, a viewer can grasp the tail and move it around the column, taking control of the sculpture – adding a poignancy when you think that many entering the hospital don’t have control over their own bodies.
The body and sexuality came back to the fore once again when Louise was asked to be part of Elliptical Affi nities, and so too did Outlaws Inlaws. “I was thinking about law a lot in that piece of work. About how we function under the law, around the law and through the law as queer people, and how we are not given our citizenship in the same way. When they asked me to be part of a show [subtitled] Women and the Body, didn’t want to remake that older work exactly. I’d had two images of men kissing and women kissing but that felt too binary now. The law changed in 1993 and we became not criminalised, but then, also the law changed around Marriage Equality and the Gender Recognition Act and Repeal the Eighth, those senses of being within the law now were very powerful. Still, it was hard to figure out. spent a whole summer sweating about how to reconvene a piece of work for this time, because didn’t want to make a piece that was just two men/two women but also didn’t feel that was equipped to represent the whole queer world with all our complexities.” Louise continued, “I was really interested in the idea of what we do when we regenerate, when we’re open and we’re not fighting the law - that’s an interesting space.”
Charmingly, Louise added, “I was also thinking about magic and what wanted to do was create this big wild thing.” The snake, once again, would rear its head, or in this case, many heads. A hydra is a serpent from Greek myth with many heads – if you cut one off a host of others grow in its place. But it’s not just a creature of myth.
“I found out about this fresh water hydra that they think is immortal,” Louise elaborates. “It’s a polyp, a many snaked tentacled head on a stem, they are hermaphrodite, they can reproduce sexually by themselves.” She explained how a scientist discovered that if you chop it up it will join back together and become itself again. “I fell in love with the idea of this immortal being that is genderless in a way, although they are also a mother and they reproduce.”
And so the inspiration for this new iteration - Hydra Inlaw. Made of willow and paper, LEDs inside the structure suggest a pulsing light “so she could light up like a lantern”. And it is indeed a big wild thing, standing over three metres high.
In a circular turn of events, the Highlanes Gallery where Hydra stands was once the former Drogheda Franciscan Church, and Louise’s sculpture towers in the space.
As Louise describes, “She sits a little on the steps of the altar” providing her own kick against the system that sought to subjugate women and the queer community. Past, Present and Future - it’s a many-headed beast.