Ireland : Philip Napier


A persistent theme in Philip Napier's mixed-media installation work is the complexities, inadequacies and ambiguities of language which operate and linger within the colonial legacy of Ireland and in particular Northern Ireland. The colonized often seek refuge in language as a strategic way of getting at the colonizer. And since cultural identity is laid into language it is not surprising that language can become the cause of a violent interaction between the colonized and the colonizer.

In 1994 the artist represented Ireland, along with artist Alice Maher, at the Sào Paulo Biennale. In his work there, Apparatus II, vertical tubes with inserted Irish place names acted as amplifiers for voices that called out anglicized versions of original place names, the contrived stutter of the locator pointing up a cultural malfunction.

At the City Arts Centre, Dublin, in 1995 he continued to probe language and colonialism in Apparatus III. Napier often sets up correspondences and dislocation within his installations. There is also at times a kinetic element deployed to actuate the installed scenography. In Apparatus III it was the movement of a peacock, strutting in a framed-off section of the gallery space; the gallery as hortus conclusus. The aristocratic peacock - notably, originally from India (also colonized) - may be seen as a perambulating embellishment to "Big House" established culture. Here, then, notions of the urban and the rural, civilitas and barbarism, are set up by means of a territorial control, whether it is the gallery space or the British Empire.

Napier has also delved further into cultural memory where the present and past play into and off each other - the Irish Famine of 1845; the 1798 Rebellion; King Billy (of the battle of the Boyne) and the H-Block Hunger Strikes. As a "scholar" at the British school in Rome (a Neoclassical edifice designed by Edwin Lutyens in 1912), he installed an image of a smiling Bobby Sands with a functioning accordion attached to it. The power-assisted accordion wheezed sounds into a kind of death rattle. The endowed official building fabric held within it an iconic counter-figure (Sands), the building portico amplifying the sound as an echoing chamber. The work was titled Ballad I (1992) and embraced the mindset of folk heroism, the Famine, the 1981 hunger strike and its echoing relevance.

In 1997 Napier's project Gauge was relocated from its initial showing at the Orchard Gallery, Derry, N. Ireland to a derelict house in the Bogside area of the city. The work was conceived against a backdrop of sustained calls for an apology from the British Government for the events of Bloody Sunday on 30 January 1972, when the British army shot dead 14 unarmed civilians, some of them outside the house.

The project attempted to measure or gauge that apology. In essence the work consisted of 14 speakers and a large suspended public address system which relayed a continuous spoken apology. This apology was measured through the agitation of the needles on the face of the weighing scales. The work evolved as a proposition that language alone cannot be adequate; indeed, that no measure of language can be enough because it is always contextual and conditional.

The dialogue surrounding this apology echoes with the registers of colonial and post-colonial situations, and post-conflict situations, the world over. At the time this debate about apologizing stretched from Japan and its treatment of World War II POWs, to South Africa and its Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, to the War Crimes tribunal in the Hague dealing with Bosnia.

Napier's work, then, may be seen as an interrogation and detonation of language and memory extending out of the local into the global.


Liam Kelly
Belfast / Montréal, July 2000



L A   B I E N N A L E   D E   M O N T R É A L   2 0 0 0
Tél. : (514) 288-0811
Téléc. : (514) 288-5021