Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

The Catalogues of the Orchard Gallery: A Contribution to Critical and Historical Discourses in Northern Ireland, 1978-2003

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

The Catalogues of the Orchard Gallery: A Contribution to Critical and Historical Discourses in Northern Ireland, 1978-2003

Article excerpt

The Orchard Gallery opened in Derry in 1978. It was set up by Derry City Council, which appointed a then young artist and art teacher, Declan McGonagle, as its first exhibition director. The second largest city of Northern Ireland did not have any artistic infrastructure at the time, and the Orchard was launched as an attempt to make up for this absence. From the outset, the artistic programme of the gallery aimed to exhibit a range of practitioners, both emerging and established, and coming from diverse geographical horizons, who were asked to produce works specifically for the gallery. The work had to respond to 'the gallery's ethos, which was about the place, and the interaction and the relationship between the artist who comes from outside and the place'.1 Derry, or Londonderry, is a city of circa 80 000 people located on the northern confines of the Irish and British isles, on the border between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Its history has long been rooted in a dual narrative. An early Celtic settlement brought the first naming of the site, Doire Calgach, or Calgach Oak Wood.2 With the expansion of the English rule in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the city was renamed Londonderry, an affirmation of the ties that now closely connected it to Britain. When the Orchard opened to the public, the city was at the heart of a conflict that since the 1960s had opposed in Northern Ireland with increasingly violent manifestations the Republican and Loyalist communities. In the midst of the Troubles, the Orchard Gallery aimed through its program to both address the specific urban context of Derry, and to reach beyond its peripheral location. One mode through which it furthered this engagement with the place and its outreach towards the world beyond was printed publication. In 1979-80, McGonagle convinced the council that the money it wanted to allocate to acquire works and establish a collection should be used to commission artists and art critics to produce artists' books and publications. This decision to invest in publications and commissioned essays to accompany the exhibitions held at the Orchard Gallery corresponded to a desire to collect artists' ideas:

Derry was on the age of Europe, and for us connecting with people was very important. This is pre-fax, pre-email, pre-electronic. Printed material was very important. What I felt was that instead of collecting objects or artefacts, we should collect artists' ideas. I proposed that the money - it was only 15,000 pounds - that would have been allocated to acquire work for a collection, should be used to commission artists to do artists publications. We started a process where we worked with an artist and did very good publications. And the Orchard became known for that, because we sent them out for free across the world.3

Until its closure in 2003, and under the direction in the 1990s successively of Noreen O Hare, Liam Kelly and Brendan McMenamin, the gallery maintained a high profile publishing policy, collecting through prints artists' ideas as well as critical discourses commissioned from a wide range of critics, artists and art historians.

This article focuses on the critical essays published by the Orchard Gallery, underlining both their role in explicating the aesthetic propositions they accompanied, and in providing a contribution to the critical assessment of the contemporary history of Northern Ireland marked by the socio-political and (para-) military context of the Troubles.4 The essays addressed a large range of issues, from technical considerations to specific individual artistic developments as well as socio-political reflections. Yet, through their common setting in Derry and their response to its past and present identity, their individualities can be subsumed into a coherent and prolific discursive formation. This study focuses on three layers of this formation: first, it considers the recurring questioning of language and the relations between texts and images; second, it dwells on a number of recurring iconographical themes identified and developed by observers over the course of the gallery's history; finally, it considers a set of overarching iconological themes, which stem from the artworks and are emphasized due to their capacity to extend beyond the specificities of Northern Irish histories and to articulate arguments of a more universal nature. …

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