‘Green Carnations’, a compelling and thought-provoking new exhibition by Castlebar-born artist Conor O’Grady opened in The Linenhall Arts Centre on Friday. A multi-media exhibition that includes video, photography and a floor installation, it focuses on themes of marginalisation, homophobia and oppressive societal norms.
O’Grady is thrilled that ‘Green Carnations’ – his first major solo exhibition – is running in his hometown. The 28-year-old artist, himself a gay man, grew up ‘just up the hill’ from the Welcome Inn. He attended St Gerald’s College in the town before heading to NCAD to study Education and DIT to study Fine Art and eventually to Brighton. He returned home this summer for a residency in GMIT, and he plans to return to Dublin this October to complete a Masters.
Speaking to The Mayo News, O’Grady explains that while the research for his exhibition began several years ago, the recent same-sex marriage referendum became a strong motivating influence.
“The exhibition began because I started to do these interviews with men who had been arrested and questioned for the murder of gay man Charles Self in 1982. The Gardaí questioned a lot of men, and they would come into their place of work, and try to get information about the gay scene as opposed to the murder.” O’Grady found the Gardaí’s investigative response interesting, and a useful point of reference for exploring the experience of marginalisation.
“Then the [same-sex marriage] referendum started to run along side my research, my investigation, and I decided that the two things were too closely bound together to be ignored. They were inextricably linked, I guess … Some of the things that were revealed or debated in the referendum weren’t very healthy for gay people.
“The work is really based around marginalised gay groups. Groups of men that may be married, men that were priests, men that come from different countries and are here in asylum… Men who exist within society but also in a minority within a minority. It’s important to give those people a voice as well.”
That said, the exhibition also reaches out to, and in a way articulates the experience of other minority groups. “I’m using this experience of marginalisation to talk about the general experience of marginalisation, because I think if you can portray something that’s specific to one person, yet is universal enough to be understood collectively, that’s the best way forward in terms of discussing something so controversial as homophobia or other societal prejudices.”
Did O’Grady’s own experience of growing up gay in the west of Ireland, often branded conservative, inform his work? To a point only, he says. “There was an element of that. I came out quite young though; I was about 17. That meant that people had a long time to get used to the idea of me being gay. So I never really had the same experiences as those that were revealed to me in the interviews. Never anything like that. But there is an underlying homophobia that exists in Irish society that you can’t ignore and that you do come up against every day … and that experience needs to be voiced.”
A large element of O’Grady’s ‘Green Carnations’ exhibition is tied to the public spaces frequented by marginalised groups of gay men and the use of specific images to evoke risk, isolation, fear and alienation.
“In the interviews that I did with those men that were questioned by the police, they would reveal areas, known as ‘cruising areas’, public spaces where gay men used to meet so that they could be intimate with each other, in whatever sense that means – it could be a conversation or something more.
“These areas were revealed to me over a couple of years – specific places in Dublin, specific places down the country, and I would go to these places just to see exactly what that felt like, to go into a mental space and a physical space like that. I started to notice cigarette boxes everywhere. There was other detritus, but the most important thing that stood out to me was the gold Benson & Hedges cigarette packets.”
The material intrigued him. He was drawn by the universality of the smoking experience (‘I guess at some time or other 90 percent of us would have smoked’), and the way in which the colour gold could reference the uncertainty of the gold market as well as the devaluation of something precious, as exemplified by the modern ‘cash for gold’ economy.
Gold features in both Russian Orthodox religious iconography and Catholic iconography too, a fact that also appealed to the artist. “I was researching the link between Russia and Ireland. Russia and Ireland decriminalised homosexuality in the same year, 1993, but in the time that’s passed, right-wing conservativism has taken over in Russia. The Russian government has just introduced laws to stop the spread of non-traditional relationships. But we [in Ireland] haven’t done that – we’ve done the exact opposite. I think there is a really interesting dichotomy between the two approaches.”
With these references in mind, O’Grady used the gold foil found inside the cigarette boxes to create the ornate triangular structures that populate his large floor installation. The shapes are deliberate too, alluding to the pink triangles that were used to identify homosexual people who were sent to concentration camps in Nazi Germany.
The use of cigarette-pack foil is also, O’Grady says, “an overt commentary on the language used to describe LGBT groups. The cigarette and its semantic colloquialism ‘Fag’ is a central reference point in terms of language and its dissemination.”
Similarly, the title of O’Grady’s exhibition, ‘Green Carnations’, resonates strongly within the gay community. The book ‘The Green Carnation’, by Robert Hichens, first published anonymously in 1894, explored the relationship between two male lead characters that were based on Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas (‘Bosie’). When Wilde stood trial for gross indecency, ‘The Green Carnation’ was one of the works used against him by the prosecution.
O’Grady explains that Wilde himself also embraced the symbol, which first emerged in French gay circles. “Oscar also used it as a signifier for ‘unnatural beauty’ as he would have worded it. He used to have people in his plays wear green carnations, and certain people would wear green carnations on the opening night of the plays.
“I thought it was a good link for the exhibition. There’s also the connection with Irish identity too, through the colour green, while the carnation itself suggests fragility but also resilience.”
While some espouse the ‘Art for art’s sake’ philosophy, arguing that art should be devoid of any didactic, moral or utilitarian function, O’Grady embraces its ability to capture, comment and challenge.
“For me the art has to be a catalyst for other things, and the work you make has to be a catalyst for debate or discussion, something further.
“My real drive when I’m making work is to deal with themes like sexism, homophobia, otherness, and being able to describe how otherness – anything but the norm – feels … It’s observational. To document a situation or a state of mind, or how that state of mind collectively changes. So, with something like the referendum, it was a huge change in the collective psyche of the Irish country … How do you describe that movement, that situation? That was a really big part of my work.”
Little wonder then that he is drawn to the controversial, provocative art of Santiago Sierra and the challenging, angst-ridden work of Francis Bacon (who Margaret Thatcher famously described as ‘that man who paints those dreadful pictures’), as well as the probing social theories of Michel Foucault.
Indeed, the title of O’Grady’s cigarette-foil installation, ‘Standing in The Way of Control (Intrinsically ordered)’ pays homage to Foucault, who explored the relationship between power and knowledge, and how the two are used as a form of social control.
One can’t help but wonder which of society’s shifting veins Conor O’Grady will mine next for his art. Here, he has chosen to explore and document a significant moment in Irish history and the struggle for equality. And he has surely struck gold.