THE VISIBLE SPECTRUM
BY FRANCIS MCKEE APRIL 2013
UNKNOWN SPEAKER: Can we clarify something here, please?
THE CHAIRPERSON: No.
(13th June 2006, day 226,Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse)
Willie Delaney was a 13-year-old inmate of the Letterfrack industrial school when he died in 1970. He had been knocked unconscious by a blow from a Christian Brother wielding a broomstick handle. The priest, aiming at another boy who ducked, found Willie instead, and the blow to his head knocked him off his chair to the floor. After a few days in the infirmary, Willie was sent home early for the summer holidays. He remained unsteady, complaining of unbearable headaches until he finally collapsed, dying two days later. There was no inquest – a local doctor stated that the cause of death was encephalitis.
In 2001 Willie Delaney was disinterred as part of a police investigation into his death and although the post-mortem found no conclusive proof of foul play, the ongoing investigation of the Letterfrack school did result in 19 arrests linked to allegations of sexual abuse in the institution. The inquiry unearthed stories of brutality and abuse that have been echoed across Ireland in the evidence given to the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, better known as the Ryan Report. One counsel in that report stated that he could see no ‘consideration by those who were running the institutions about providing the optimum care for the people entrusted in their care. It was more driven by the numbers game. They were certified for a particular number and they were driving to ensure that they would get as close as possible to the number for which they were certified?’
Letterfrack, like the other industrial schools, saw the children in their charge as a small labour force. The letterhead of the school advertised their commercial services
("Orders Received in Tailoring, Bootmaking, Carpentry, Bakery, Cartmaking, Smithwork. Also Wire Mattress, Hosiery, Hearth Rugs, Motors Repaired, Petrol & Oils Supplied.") while the Ryan Report catalogued the ‘endemic’ abuse, brutality and exploitation which accompanied the running of these operations. Published in five volumes in 2009, the Commission’s report was reviewed in terms of ‘Ireland’s holocaust’ and references to ‘child slavery’. Having exposed the extent of what the Irish Times described as a ‘map of an Irish hell’, the report failed to satisfy victims, their families and campaigners as it was not accompanied by any prosecutions.
The wounds remain open. Monuments, though, seem inadequate as a response to the issues. There is probably only one in recent history which has satisfactorily dealt with the problem of creating an architectural design that acknowledges trauma without neutralizing it at the same time. Maya Lin’s Vietnam memorial – a sunken black, reflective wall that chronicles the names of the war dead by year – has activated the grief of that conflict and focused the public’s attention on the loss of their troops in a way that no other monument has done. Controversial from its inception, the monument angered many sectors of the public because it was designed by a young Asian-American, because it was perceived as a ‘scar’ in the landscape, because it seemed an ambiguous response to the reasons for the war, and because it seemed to acknowledge shame and regret. After a bruising commission to review the whole project, the monument went ahead and immediately generated a deep, positive and emotional reaction from veterans and other visitors to the site. The monument works because it does not short-circuit the experiences of grief, loss and anger nor does it smother the individual soldiers with glorification and the greater political agendas of the state. Instead, it gives equal weight to every death and the black, reflective surface of the stone implicates every viewer and pulls them further into its structure. Commenting on it in retrospect, Lin remembered that
designing the piece I knew that I had to ask myself what is a memorial’s purpose, especially what is a memorial’s purpose in the twentieth century. And all I was saying in this piece was the cost of war is these individuals and we have to remember them first. So it’s really the people, not the politics, which is what this piece is about because it’s only when you accept the pain and only when you accept the death can you then come away from it, can you then overcome it….if you can’t accept death you’ll never get over it. So what the memorial is about is honesty…you have to accept and admit that this pain has occurred in order for it to be healed, in order for it to be cathartic…The memorial is composed not as an unchanging monument but as a moving composition…
Seamus Nolan’s proposal taps into a dynamism similar to that of Lin’s monument. He too has an understanding of the power of intimacy, an intimacy that may be experienced in a public arena. He also understands the need to acknowledge the shame and the failed responsibility that accompanies the findings of the Ryan Report. For both the state and the citizen it is not enough in this situation to sentimentalize the victims and to evoke only sensations of pity and sadness. A fitting monument demands a dynamic moment acknowledging the disturbing truths of the situation, the anger and pain, the abdication of responsibilities. This acknowledgement must also be accompanied by a sense of change, a transformation of the values that underpin our society. At the heart of the issue is the question of power and the duty to protect the most vulnerable in society. Seamus Nolan’s proposal highlights this by enabling the Irish President, who embodies the power of the state, to make a gesture that moves beyond the rhetoric of an apology to an active engagement with the children who were abused. The momentary transference of power to Willie Delaney would signal a recalibration of the state, a restatement of its core values and responsibilities.
This act would stand as a more powerful monument in Irish history than any physical structure or any single speech. A monument today does not have to be a material object and few of those that continue to be built truly memorialize the events that brought them into existence. Most of these objects decline quickly into a state of transparency, mute street furniture to be negotiated by traffic and pedestrians. The traditional statue or garden of remembrance is really an artifact of the 19th century, when landscape of a city was based around the citizen and public space was defined by the classical virtues of congregation. A physical object or sentimental landscape cannot function in the same way in the twenty first century when public space has been lost either to corporate control or abandoned to the feral laws of street life.
In the electronic age, the monument is more frequently identified as an iconic media event. The American civil rights movement is more powerfully memorialized by Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a bus, John F. Kennedy’s legacy is memorialized
by the Zapruder film and Chinese protest is embodied by the photos of an anonymous man who stopped a line of tanks near Tiananmen Square, often now referred to as the Unknown Rebel (echoing the older physical monuments to the ‘unknown soldier’). Tellingly, even Maya Lin’s latest and last memorial (What Is Missing?) is based around a website. Many more examples could be cited but the point underlying each event is that we now memorialize in the electronic arena, a public space where the debate about democratic power is at its most powerful. The nature of this space also means we consider dialogue and exchange, the conversation or the active gesture as a potential monument as it can be preserved and accessed at will.
Art, of course, has been working with the dematerialisation of the object for some forty years. What has been learnt in that time is that while collectors continually pursued the material productions of art in a commodifying sweep, artists have constantly pushed their ideas beyond the grasp of money. More often than not, in the most urgent works, it is the quality of the exchange that is valuable to the artist today and not merely the financial transaction. In this context the material exchanged is frequently on the level of a token, marking the sharing of an idea or a point in the development of a situation.
Seamus Nolan’s proposal lies on this spectrum. His vision of a nation’s power surrendered to the vulnerable, even for a moment, acts as an acknowledgement of the underlying basis of that power, the responsibility to protect each person subject to it. His choice of Willie Delaney, deceased since 1970, takes his proposal into another realm. The drama of handing presidential power to a dead child evokes the spirit of that child and all of the other victims of abuse through the years. In a sense the spirit of Willie Delaney also represents here the spectre of unsettled grief and grievances. This haunting of the state is something discussed in recent works by the ethnographer Michael Taussig who argues powerfully that the modern state rests on the symbolic possession of the spirits of the dead. In an interview given in 2005 he describes this theory:
The dead are a great source of magical élan, grace, and power. This has been present in many cultures since the first burial. Indeed Georges Bataille … argued from archaeological evidence and physical
anthropology that the corpse is the origin of taboos, respect for the dead being what separates the human from the animal... Just imagine, then, the power that can accrue to the modern state, that great machine of death and war!
People today gain magical power not from the dead, but from the state's embellishment of them. And the state, authoritarian and spooky, is as much possessed by the dead as is any individual pilgrim. The current president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, is the embodiment of this. In a sense he was predestined by this mystical foundation of authority as writ into the post-colonial exploitation of colonial history. The success of the Patriot Act and of the current US administration owes a great deal to this, too, after 9/11.
However my argument is that such spirit possession is a dramatization not only of the Great Events but also of the more subtle imageric- and feeling-states present in the artwork of the state any and everywhere, from the traffic cop and tax clerk to the pomp and ceremony of national celebrations, from a Latin American pseudo-democracy to the US and Western European states as well. Hobbes's Leviathan is mythical yet also terribly real. This is where the rationalist analysis of the state loses ground….
The irrational state possessed by its spirits is naturally the very thing the state seeks to repress. Ideally, in mature democracies, power favours transparency. Laws are enacted and state policy is implemented through the banalities of everyday life. Power remains unseen.
It is only in times of crisis that the state is compelled to become visible. Riot police, for instance, appearing in the streets to quell popular unrest or the recent declaration of capital controls in Cyprus reveal the operation of power as it is deployed in its starkest forms. Then the irrational nature of the state also comes to the fore and the spectrum of pressures that motivate it can be perceived.
Seamus Nolan’s proposal, modest as it is, draws power out of the obscurity and challenges it to perform in public. Paradoxically, the power revealed would then be transferred to the neglected spirit of Willie Delaney, who in turn would achieve a new visibility.
Nolan’s proposal itself is haunted by the wraith of Jonathan Swift and his modest proposal to cure the economic woes of Ireland in 1729:
I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.
I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.
The cutting edge of Swift’s satire has remained unblunted after nearly 300 years. When the Gaiety Theatre reopened in 1984 with a charity gala, the actor Peter O’Toole read Swift’s proposal to an audience of Dublin’s finest citizens. There was an audible gasp of shock when the thrust of Swift’s argument became clear and dozens walked out of the event with cries of ‘disgusting’ and ‘offensive!’
Swift’s proposal works by exaggerating the economic rationale for eliminating poverty, essentially taking the case for state and market forces to its absurd limits. It is a proposal that bolsters the use of extreme power and the victims remain unknown and abused in his satirical scheme. By contrast, Seamus Nolan’s proposal requires the state to divest itself of power, to perform an intimate and sophisticated act of political theatre that would operate as a form of healing. It challenges the state to enact the highest ambitions of government.