At precisely the point in my life when my parents’ generation had, in its era, begun to make long-term plans, settle down and stop horsing around, I find myself attending a lot of going away parties. Perhaps this is a familiar feeling for those in their twenties and early-thirties, almost as if anyone not nailed into the floorboards is now ready to forego a life in Ireland and try their luck somewhere else. This is a small enough country that emigration may well have affected everyone in it; the planned author of this essay, Rebecca O’Dwyer, now lives in Sydney. And as natural as it should seem for college graduates to head into the larger world looking for work, when it happens in such bulk the feeling is shocking. It’s hard to say goodbye.
In the past few years, that feeling has been manifest throughout the landscape of Irish newspapers, radio and television. So artworks that consider economic phenomena like emigration can potentially jolt the viewer out of seeing Irish society in a fatalistic way. Eilish Tuite is a 2011 graduate of Limerick School of Art and Design, and her exhibition Generation for Export was a going away party for the public’s general attendance.
Tuite outfitted the front area of the Joinery with two couches, a tape deck, TK Lemonade, and ham sandwiches made from quarter slices of bread; items that gave me a pang of nostalgia for christenings and communions in the 1980s. She also crocheted a set of couch covers for the occasion. These were made from patches of brightly coloured wool, and each patch was decorated with a phrase taken from interviews she conducted during the past year. Implicitly, she pointed out that these parties are now so regular that they can be aestheticised in a gallery, and recognised from experience. But more than that, the viewer must contend with the perverse arrangement of celebrating a going away party for someone they don’t know. That suggests that there is more at stake than the exportation of any one person. Tuite presents a way of accessing Generation for Export within the larger social legacy of the 2008 financial crisis. However, the fact that the exhibition’s source material comes from interviews removes it from the use of economic language. Emigration does not manifest as a statistical problem, instead it is a social problem. It cannot be described in formal economic code. Did the audience attend a going away party for an anonymous spectre, for the artist herself, or for the old localised world?
The artist’s interest lies in assessing public attitudes towards society rather than critiquing society itself. The blankets covering the couches were headed up with the words ‘proclamation’ and ‘budget’, and their mid-section included phrases like “the best thing to happen to the property sector”, “we are where we are”, and “what they have done is disgraceful”. These phrases were also knit into packed up bags and rucksacks behind the couch and in the corner. In as much as I imagined that Tuite conducted her interviews impartially, her choice of words highlights a particularly glib attitude on the part of the interviewees, and as such, the woollen bright colours carried a strong satirical overtone. Their language recalled the trite parochial attitudes that free newspapers carry on their letters page.
The juxtaposition of a party with these political platitudes reminded me of Jonathan Swift’s 1729 book A Modest Proposal. Swift described the shameful poverty that had gripped the miserable population of Ireland. He then claimed that the Irish could stifle their economic pain by selling their children to feed wealthy families in London. The author reported that “an infant is a most delicious, nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.”
Even though Generation for Export does handle political subject matter, it doesn’t deal with its politics in a conventional way. Attending the going away party, the viewer is in a situation rather than an exhibition, and the politics of the moment exist between those in attendance, rather than between the viewer and the exhibition’s political subject matter. This defers a set of problems, because migration is a divisive issue, and addressing it with a satirical edge removes much of the obligation for the artist to focus on political correctness.
The party’s buoyant tone was offset in the gallery’s back room, which Tuite suspended in a difficult moment: a weeklong live performance where a person sat restlessly across three airport terminal chairs.
These chairs are moulded from cheap metal and plastic, with curved armrests that prevent you from getting too comfortable. They await you at the gate, once you’ve cleared check-in, surrendered your belt and shoes, and surreptitiously tried out some expensive aftershave in the duty free. The chairs and their silent occupant bisected the gallery’s back room, and apart from some party leftovers, the place was empty. The performer kept to herself, she was tucked between a pillow and a MacBook, and probably had been for some time. She looked tired. The moment that this performance imitates occurs after everything has been prepared for your exportation. You end up in an airport: the earthly place that most closely resembles nowhere. For the first time, nobody from home can be with you.
This series of exhibitions, Selected Stories, is intended to be about the Real, and Generation for Export fits soundly into that idiom; it doesn’t get more real than talking to your loved ones through Skype. In her bags and blankets, Tuite indicates that the baby boomers ate their infants, and then forgave themselves with phrases like “we are where we are”. The enactment of emigration is presented to the viewer as an obvious and lonely fact. It deliberately juts into the partygoers’ fun; they could well be next. Brain drain is a grim process. We don’t recognise the manifestation of its damage as an abstract statistical shock; instead we are faced by a more awful situation of everything around us becoming invisibly hollow. We too are left waiting for an airplane at a party in honour of nothing.