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The Use and Abuse of Monuments

Sean Lynch

In preparation for placing Me Jewel & Darlin’ on O’Connell Street, much conversation occurred with the commissioners on the reception of the project by the public. While a great excitement was shared by all involved about how the display case’s presence and exhibition programme would frame and disseminate a selection of moments and objects of Dublin’s history, many other contingencies arose. Would the case attract vandalism? Is the structure strong enough to survive any attempts to topple it over? Might it be a victim of graffiti? Will kids attach chewing gum to its surfaces?

All these issues are frequently brought up in the business of making public art, and to deal with them is considered integral to any project’s success. Yet, public space is not about consensus, but contestation: complete resolution is always challenged by everyday friction and usage. Despite the best efforts of local authorities, outdoor sculptures and monuments can often find themselves in various forms of degradation, with minor to major disrepair visible. On O’Connell Street, the statue of Theobald Matthew, the apostle of the Total Abstinence Pledge of the nineteenth century, has had all his stone fingers broken for several years. In an Irish context, many sited artworks also receive nicknames: The Spire of Dublin is often referred to in casual conversation as ‘The Stiletto in the Ghetto,’ ‘The Opinion Pole,’ ‘The Spike,’ and ‘The Stiffy by the Liffey.’(1) Both these objects are immediate examples, physically close to the location of Me Jewel & Darlin’.

It might be useful to consider that such incidental occurrences and gestures are part of a wider tradition, where the reception and afterlife of publicly-accessible objects is as much a genuine theme of their understanding as the intentions that brought each into being. Consider the purposes present in these objects: the traditional monument as a site of empowered remembrance or imagined collective expression, the modern sculpture as a signifier of the physicality of space and urbanity, and the contemporary installation as a shifting social and discursive entity often reactive to audience and context. Beyond the ‘pure’ experience often proposed in these scenarios and located beyond conventional spectatorship, what is determined by daily treatment and an active public participation?

An amount of research on this topic is collected here. Much of this material has been garnished from newspaper reports, considering an immediate response and reportage of each profiled monument or artwork. There is no attempt at a survey or inclusion of all acts of public artistry in Dublin; instead there is identification of a select few where attitudes existing between action and commentary, creation and decay, serenity and disruption might be apparent. In sequencing a collection of incidents into a comparative analysis, they become more than just awkward moments in the progressive framework of the city. Instead they might be viewed as a phenomenon recurring in different forms but sufficiently similar to shape a tradition with specific customs and allusions.