Divining the Past - VISUAL

VISUAL Centre for Contemporary Art &
The George Bernard Shaw Theatre

Divining the Past

Could divination be a useful tool for looking at the past, as well as the future? Poet, writer and editor Jessica Traynor responds to VISUAL’s Remembering the Future programme by considering this question

Divining the Past

When we put things in the ground, we expect them to stay there. If they are seeds, we hope they germinate; but for our dead, it’s a final goodbye. Stay there, under our feet. Feed the soil. The underground and the underworld are the realms of the past; though we may mourn what we consign to it, we have undertaken a symbolic leave-taking. We walk on into the future, the dead lie down and stay put.

The week I begin writing this essay, two forgotten histories are unearthed – skeletons, some pre-dating Christian times, are discovered at the site of St Mary’s Abbey in Dublin, just off Capel Street. And a team of engineers at the Sean Ross Mother and Baby Home site in Co. Tipperary discover similar anomalies to those which heralded the discovery of septic tanks in which 796 babies were disposed of in Tuam, without proper burial. Burial is supposed to be final; we have put the past in the ground and it can’t emerge. When it does, it can become the stuff of horror.

While living in Ballybough in Dublin’s inner city, close to a historic suicide burial plot, I learned of the practice of burying those who died by suicide with a stake through the heart, to stop their spirit wandering; here I found seeds, the seeds of a fear that our certainties about what we bury might be misplaced. Bram Stoker, who had convalesced as a child in a beautiful sweep of Georgian houses a short stroll away, wrote of the living death that could only be halted with a stake through the heart. When he lived in this house, he would have been able to see the sea from the windows. Now, human intervention has pushed the sea back; revealed more land. For now. Things change, especially in an element as volatile as water. But the earth, we tend to trust.

Visiting VISUAL Carlow for the Remembering the Future exhibition, it’s the atmosphere of uncertainty and elegy in the work that strikes me. Pieces like Neva Elliott’s Between you and me, two large-scale photographic images of suits, a smaller one tailored from an original which belonged to her deceased partner, speak of loss; of the known thing become ephemeral. Between the two images, the offcuts from the adjustment process lie in a glass-topped box. Looking at them, I think of the ritual of re-finding one’s skin after the shape of the world has changed all around us. The remnants of the past are reshaped to contain potential futures; worlds open up within worlds; germination occurs. But something has to be cut away first.

Michelle Hall’s (R)OARS contains an exploration of futurity and uncertainty that’s both gentle, and gently insistent; the artist explores the symbolism of the tarot, discusses chakras and self-healing, and confronts the viewer with a series of striking blue-painted oars. Where can you go and how much control can you exercise over the tools that will move you into the future? I find myself mulling over the oar as an object and its relation to water, too, rather than earth – in this uncertain future, our home may be that mutable element.

I read the tarot for myself as a tool of mindfulness. I like to reassure the sceptical that I don’t believe these cards can tell the future; but I think they can help us to engage in a process of questioning that we often don’t articulate for ourselves. I’ve asked the cards a question; what do I want the answer to be? Why? When I perceive an answer, I like to ask myself why this is the answer I’ve chosen, when the symbolism of the cards and their various configurations can add up to almost anything. They don’t help me with my uncertainty, but they give me something to think on while I live there. There’s a process of sifting and questioning taking place here; I wonder if we can apply it to our questions about our past, as well as our future?

I am struck by the oars in Michelle Hall’s piece as artefacts too, and how they might be interpreted in whatever future awaits us. Nearby, Eva Lynch’s Past Future Tools showcases a number of implements created from ancient and modern materials. They are familiar, strange, and almost achingly tactile. On first glance, I don’t know what they are or what they’re meant to be used for, but something innate in them calls out to something innate to me. The most productive kind of uncertainty here; that charge that draws you to touch. Faced with my curiosity I’m reminded of a passage in Rob Macfarlane’s book Underland where he describes the process by which scientists are attempting to come up with a universal language of warning about buried nuclear waste whose half-life will outlast us, potentially by millennia. How might we suggest ‘Don’t touch’ to those who might inhabit our earth after the impending climate cataclysm? It’s a sobering thought. But viewing these tools which seem to create the opposite response – a familiarity that transcends my own knowledge and prompts me to touch. – I was given hope that danger warnings in a similar vein might be possible.

In the next gallery, while I’m thinking about how we might broadcast these warnings, a monument with a message inscribed on it grabs my attention. John Conway’s NEVER/AGAIN poses a challenge to the idea of monuments and their worth, their elegant gold leaf promise etched into shiny faux-marble worksurface. A response to the platitudes spoken in the wake the Mother and Baby Home scandal, the sculpture is tombstone-like but ultimately ersatz. The forward slash between the words ‘never’ and ‘again’ creates a fissure in meaning, a discordant and unsettling note – behind the bombast of statements like these there lurks an either/or – perhaps ‘never’, but perhaps ‘again’, too. Even without its rupturing forward slash, what does ‘Never Again’ actually mean, when no one can control the cycles of history? Even a brief glance at the horrors of twentieth century history undermines this statement. It’s a lie, pure and simple, of the paternalistic kind. It asks those who have been abused by those in power to put their faith in another lofty power; one that tells you they will stop future corruption without any information at all about how this is going to be achieved. Forget what happened, it exhorts, because it will never happen again. As a statement it erases experience, and shuts the door on a history that can’t be contained, because people are still living it. Again here, I’m viewing a past as occluded as any future; but this time by poor faith human endeavour and the tendency of societies who have suffered trauma to bury this trauma in shallow graves, horrified and astonished when those we have buried refuse to stay dead. Across from Conway’s piece, a bloom of tiny porcelain hearts float above a dark plinth; Bonnie Kavanagh’s delicate testament to the beginning of the process of excavation at Tuam. On the train home, I read about the paltry redress scheme offered to survivors. So many monuments, and so little material care.

There are times when I wish we allowed ourselves to inhabit similar uncertainties in our divination of the past to the ones we hold when we consider the future. When we dig up a burial ground in the inner city to make way for another hotel, what is this action teaching us? Not just about the bodies buried there and what they tell us about Dublin as a historic city, but about our city and the people who live in it today?

In my mind it all comes together; the skeletons off Capel Street gathered up, and concrete poured over the gravesite that was meant to be forever. Septic tanks in Tipperary, a torch-light shining off a sliver of eggshell skull. The suicide plot in Ballybough and a young Bram Stoker watching light dance on a vanished sea. Tools and bones and treasures, useless without touch to animate them, lying in hoards underground. These uncertain, piecemeal histories, and how we cast the bones to try and tell what might emerge to haunt us next.

Jessica Traynor is a writer, poet, editor and educator from Dublin. Her most recent collection, Pit Lullabies (Bloodaxe Books, 2022), is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation.

Remembering the Future is at VISUAL Carlow from 8 June – 27 August 2023.