In an ongoing series of articles, critic and broadcaster Cristín Leach selects 21 artworks for RTÉ Culture that define Modern Ireland.
Number Eleven: Amanda Coogan – I’ll Sing You a Song from Around the Town (full gallery occupation), 2015
Amanda Coogan’s exhibition at the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) in 2015 attracted 31,470 visitors. It was the highest number of recorded visits ever to a single show at the RHA.
This was all the more remarkable because I’ll Sing You a Song from Around the Town was a mid-career retrospective of performance art, a practice that even after decades is still finding its feet in terms of mainstream audience engagement in Ireland.
When Coogan took over the RHA she built, over a period of six weeks, what amounted to an occupation of the exhibition space, a show that could be counted in hindsight as a single artwork: a deliberately layered gesture in the form of a full-gallery installation. A troupe of fifteen women filled a daily roster, which, by the final week, featured six live performances running concurrently.
Here was a full-house of rigorous, mature, well-tested, exciting and profound performance art. The show included props from previous performances, videos of performances (shown on various screens), live performances and other documentation works.
Coogan was joined by Tara Carroll, Niamh Cooney, Laura Sarah Dowdall, Karen Gleeson, Alvean Jones, Lisa Freeman, Aine Ní Laoghaire, Justine McDonnell, Leah Smith, Sinead Corcoran, Laura O’Connor, Enya Fortuna, Ann Maria Healy, Celina Muldoon and Inma Pavon, who shared a schedule of five hour stints to perform The Passing (2011), Bubble Up in Blue (2012), You Told Me To Wash and Clean My Ears (2014), Spit Spit, Scrub Scrub (2011) and Yellow (2008). The final piece, Out In, Breathing My Mother, In Out was new and performed only by Coogan.
Coogan makes provocative, visceral work that leaves the viewer experiencing various levels of discomfort. She was born hearing to deaf parents and her first language was Sign. Her training with international performance art doyenne Marina Abramovic has left its mark. In recent years, Coogan has honed her instincts for what will work, along with her ability to hold a physical space and to train collaborators to do it with, and for her.
Ritual, duration and how we experience the passing of time are key elements of the work. This show was also a physical occupation of an institution that once only admitted male artists to its official ranks. In The Passing, a female performer in a dangerously long, diaphanous red dress, slowly and deliberately traversed the building’s main stairs, holding her ground, owning it. I’ll Sing You a Song from Around the Town left a mark that still echoes in the space.
The show also resulted in an unexpectedly gripping documentary, Amanda Coogan: Long Now, directed by Paddy Cahill.