By Jim Smith
CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — A traveling exhibition of contemporary Irish art at Boston College, which features a display of a naked man wearing only a condom, is raising eyebrows at the Jesuit school. The exhibit "Irish Art Now: From the Poetic to the Political" is at B.C.’s McMullen Museum of Art in Devlin Hall, where it will run until Dec. 12.
The works in the exhibit are from the collection of the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin. An introductory descriptive brochure reads: "Visitors will witness individual visions that are redefining traditional concepts. . . . Perhaps no one has captured the essence of Ireland’s struggle between age-old conflicts and the seismic changes of the modern era than today’s modern Irish artists."
The displays of the 13 artists include paintings, sculpture, videos, installation, and photography. Subjects explored range from the personal and poetic to the political.
The controversial nude display is a photographic self-portrait of artist Billy Quinn, a Dublin native and AIDS activist who works and lives in London. His work is described as a series of "life-size prints mounted on gold leaf . . . in which the subjects are posed in the attitudes of saints and martyrs depicted in medieval art . . . [they] invite the veneration due the ancient sacred images they resemble . . . the subjects stand before us vulnerable and exposed, shameless and resolute."
Under the controversial photograph are Quinn’s words: "AIDS pushed me . . . it pushed all of us . . . into the realization of our own mortality." A sign at the entrance to the Quinn display warns that it "may be disturbing, especially for children."
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Some critics of the exhibit are expressing chagrin that B.C., one of 28 Jesuit colleges and universities in the U.S., is hosting an exhibit that they say flouts traditional Catholic dogma. The publication accompanying the exhibit, they claim, has an anti-Catholic tone and appears to celebrate the decline of the church’s influence in modern Ireland.
The publication does refer to the "excessive religiosity" of Ireland’s past, which it says has now given way to a "wild hedonism," and an era of freedom in which "Irish artists in particular are reveling."
Writing in Saturday’s Boston Herald, columnist Joe Fitzgerald condemned "the folks at B.C., who are now hosting an exhibit that thumbs its nose at the faith they claim to represent . . . a nude man mimicking saints, hoping to win acceptance . . . how does it find a home among the B.C. Jesuits?"
Nancy Netzer, professor of Art at B.C. and director of the McMullen Museum, told the Echo Monday that she had received only one complaint about the exhibit in the five weeks that it has been on display.
"Whenever one does any kind of exhibition, one can never predict how a particular work of art will be received," she said. "A lot of that depends upon what the viewer brings to the exhibit, and most of the people who have seen this exhibit have a much different reading of it than that of the Catholic Action League."
C.J. Doyle, a B.C. alumnus and executive director of the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts had issued a statement earlier Monday condemning the art exhibit for assaulting "Catholic standards of decency, modesty and purity" and celebrating "the repudiation of Catholic moral teaching. . . . Moreover, the tone of the exhibit smacks of anti-Catholicism and manifests an overt hostility to the traditional Christian faith. . . . Quinn’s work is, among other things, a mockery of Catholic devotion in the saints." Doyle told the Echo that he has received numerous complaints about the exhibit, including one from within the school hierarchy itself.
Jack Meehan, national treasurer of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, told the Echo Monday that he was disgusted by what he saw at the B.C. exhibit over the weekend. "It’s basically pornography masquerading as art," he said. "Whoever allowed this exhibition to go on should be disciplined by the university. It should have no place in a Jesuit institution."
"Not going to censor"
Netzer said that Boston College has tremendous respect for the curator of the exhibition, Declan McGonagle, who is the director of the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin. She said that the displays in the exhibit were chosen by him. "We were not involved in the selection process, and as a university we are not going to censor the exhibit," she said. "Out of concern for small children, we do have signage at the entrance and on the website about the content of the exhibit, and the Quinn exhibit is a clearly marked display in an area that could easily be avoided by those who wish to do so."
McGonagle previously served as the exhibitions director at London’s Institute for Contemporary Arts. In addition to Quinn, three of the other artists whose works are on display at B.C. live and work in London.
A sign posted on one of the walls at the exhibit states that "several artists here complicate the preconceived notions of what constitutes an Irish religious consciousness and Irish gender roles as they endeavor to express a diverse spirituality and sexual identity that will help to carry them into the new millennium. Vital and powerful, contemporary art by Irish artists is no longer only about religion, national identity and the verdant countryside. It is also about the dynamic transformation of all these cultural elements which is a necessary part of living in present-day Ireland, and indeed, in a post-modern world."
The exhibition is sponsored in part by the Cultural Relations Committee of the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin.
B.C. announced an ambitious fund-raising campaign over the weekend. It hopes to raise $400 million by 2003, a figure that would place it among the 35 wealthiest schools in the U.S.
But in his statement Monday, Doyle said that alumni should think twice before donating to the school. "Boston College ought to be ashamed of itself for this latest betrayal of the Catholic religion and the Irish heritage of its founders. Alumni who persist in contributing to this institution ought to examine their consciences and consider their culpability in sustaining B.C.’s scandalous apostasy."
Netzer, meanwhile, hopes that the controversy will not deter the general public from viewing the exhibit. "We’re encouraging people to come here and experience the exhibition for themselves," she said.
The exhibition is tentatively scheduled to be on display at the Art Gallery of Newfoundland and Labrador in St. John’s Newfoundland, Canada from Jan. 30 through April 9, 2000. It is scheduled for the Chicago Cultural Center in the summer of 2001.