VISUAL Centre for Contemporary Art &
The George Bernard Shaw Theatre

Sibyl Montague SELF SOOTHERS

Art critic Cristín Leach responds to Sibyl Montague’s exhibition SELF SOOTHERS, teasing out more information with a string of searching questions

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Sibyl Montague SELF SOOTHERS. Photo credit Ros Kavanagh
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Sibyl Montague SELF SOOTHERS. Photo credit Ros Kavanagh
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Sibyl Montague SELF SOOTHERS. Photo credit Ros Kavanagh
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Sibyl Montague SELF SOOTHERS. Photo credit Ros Kavanagh

During one of the looser levels of lockdown, Ireland 2020, I drove from Cork to Carlow to see Sibyl Montague’s SELF SOOTHERS exhibition. I’d been consuming art digitally for months, including occasional glimpses of Montague’s. Her latest work doesn’t look “nice”. In digital form, it doesn’t even look comforting, despite the show’s title.

In the middle of a global pandemic how, or what, do we want art to make us feel? Connected? Alone? Inspired? Understood? Challenged? Soothed? Is art a salve? For audience, or for maker? At the heart of Montague’s creative impulse is a process. It’s an unravelling and a re-connecting. And it’s probably not designed to make you feel “good”.

In the gallery, I look and I write: zips, spines, stitched lines; snakeskin pattern, disembodied. Bottles of liquid, nondescript, ordinary, suspicious, unidentified. Soft drinks? Poitín? Water?

It looks like Montague is trying to catalogue a mess by making, and containing, a bigger one. Her one-room installation at Visual includes snakeskin fabric-covered tubes reaching from ceiling to floor. On a mat, on the ground, there’s spilled, pale pink liquid. Yogurt? Calamine lotion? Blankets, sheepskin, chopped up clothes; fabric, cut, stitched and scarred; precarious bowls of sticky stuff, rubber teats, magazine clippings, stains. All this binding, undoing, repairing and mess-making feels instinctive and interconnected, driven by gut feeling over linear thought.

Sometimes we look to art for answers. Montague gives us unresolved exploration: no fixed destination, no end point, no solution to the conundrum of memory, progress or regress, and experience. Every texture, every colour, every item feels imbued with significance, and none of it is explicit. I’ve got some questions.

Whose blankets are they? Whose Aran jumper is that? Is the stuffed torso shape hanging on the wall some kind of impossible backpack? Who did you pickle the vegetables and fruit for? Who is the baby in the photo on top of the jar? What’s in the bowls? What’s in the jars? What’s in the bottles? Where did you find the animal skulls? Did you keep them for a long time? Did you ever wear these clothes? Are the coke cans filled with concrete? Are talismans important? How long have you been making this show? Are you sewing it all up to pack it away and contain it, or are you making it into art to expose and reveal it? Are there people in the room? Are you in the room? Where will it all go when the show is finished? Is any of it precious?

I phone her a week later. This is an extract from the phone conversation that took place:

The blankets are the typical Irish blankets of growing up. Lamb’s wool from a pre-central heating era.

The Aran jumper is my sister’s, which I inherited. At some point I had repaired it so many times it got to the point of not being wearable. For the past couple of years, I’ve been working with snake print so much. One day I suddenly saw the snakes in Aran. That was a piece of the puzzle for me.

Impossible backpacks? Ah yes, they are. I’ve been making work around the handheld for quite a while and now they’ve grown larger: they’re something you can embrace, hold or carry. Coincidentally, with the pandemic the intimacy of holding (or the burden of carrying) became more accented.

I didn’t pickle the vegetables. They’re purchased. Some of the liquids in the bottles are mixed by me. The one with the sock is a mix of urine, beer and water and it’s been in there for a while, but the pickles are bought. There’s a nice aspect of being able to get my materials from the supermarket.

I was focusing on the handheld. The “handheld” feels like a very new technology but actually it’s so old. Most objects are handheld.

The bottle is something that I keep coming back to. It’s an early handheld. I started thinking about the bottle and the pub my grandfather [my father’s father] used to drink at: his brother’s pub and apparently a wild place. He wasn’t getting enough work to support the family; it was the Depression in New York. This story allowed me to think about the handheld – in this case, the bottle – as a shapeshifting object. Shifts that become generational. It’s also trying to approach alcohol, a liquid embedded in the Irish psyche. I never got to meet my grandad, but I can hold a bottle and I know he held a bottle.

I started researching at the National Folklore Collection at UCD, one of the largest oral archives in the world, to find new legibility around the material I’m working with. There’s drawer upon drawer of accounts of supernatural and other dimensional entities – faeries, shapeshifters, giants, banshees, changelings. I find it interesting how the discovery of Quarks (quantum physic particles that change when you observe them) offer a quantum model for shapeshifting – something habitual to our ancestors. The collection has a lot of material on plant medicines: the shamrock was a sacred plant, but as a national emblem it has been so endlessly reproduced it’s lost its alchemy. My research has become a practice of decolonising my own value system, and re-centering ancestral values around material and resources.

I was looking for the snake in the collection. It's such a large piece of the Irish narrative, but its history has been hard to piece together. St. Patrick drives them out; it’s visible in high crosses and under the foot of the Blessed Virgin, who is pictured crushing the snake: most grottos feature a snake underfoot. That’s likely an illustration of the suppression of Gaelic indigenous knowledge. Otherwise there’s very little mention of it. You might associate snake print with a skirt or a top, not serpents.

Originally, I focused on gathering all the snake print textiles I could find in Dublin. My intervention was simply in restoring them back into snake form, consciously re-working that connection. It became an extended process of collecting, taking apart and re-stitching items back together, creating dozens of snakes.

That baby photo? If you go to get your photographs developed, that’s on the envelope you get them back in. I kept the image at the time because it really struck me that those images are marketed towards women in a very specific way. I guess I’m kicking back at that. I’ve been pulping women’s magazines for a number of years now and interacting with all that shit that women get marketed towards them.

The bowls? They are dried grapefruits and oranges. Then the nipple oranges, the silicone works, are the inversion of those, they’re cast from oranges. So, it’s like a breast being a bowl or a container, or not.

There are pickled vegetables, cabbage, carrots, lemons and limes in the jars. The bottles are untampered with. There is water, tonic water, carbonated water, whiskey, coke and palm oil.

The animal bones are from walks, they’re mostly from sheep. I kept some of them for a long time, yes. I have an old cow's bone which the neighbour's dog buried in the front garden and forgot about.

Some of the clothes are used – the dish towels, the GAA top, the shearling. The snake prints were bought at end sales. So they are rescued, having almost passed through the whole cycle, the whole chain, without having been used.

The coke cans are filled with concrete and Wicklow quartz, because there might be gold in Wicklow I reckon.

There’s another word for talisman: amulets. In the work, they are the debris and things in the corner of my studio, things I pick up, or find on the street. I think when you press human energy onto objects, they absorb that energy. Talismans are important.

There is sewing in this work. There’s a labour of care: binding and sewing things together, giving attention to poor materials – and there’s taking things apart.

I’m not in the room. It seems personal, but I think what’s personal is the intimacy of the hand made and hand held.

The snakes are traveling to Galway for an exhibition called The Law is a White Dog at TULCA Festival of Visual Arts. The rest of the work will come back to the studio. Parts often get reassembled into new works. Things get destroyed or things get remade and it goes back into the current, into the stream of materials in the studio.

Is any of it precious? No! I mean, no, what does precious mean? Like it has a monetary value? No. But, somehow I feel like putting snakes back into snake form is important, so I’m going to continue doing that. The actions and gestures behind the works have more value than the actual outcomes. It’s the energy that’s been directed and focused in a certain way that’s important.

Now, how do you feel?

Cristín Leach

SELF SOOTHERS showed at Visual Carlow 23 March – 18 October 2020.

The Law is a White Dog Curated by Sarah Browne, Tulca Festival of Visual Arts ran from 6 – 22 November 2020.

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