Words, Wood, Rope, Kings and History

by Mic Moroney
in : « Echo », Cork, 2002

Also in the West Gallery, amongst the profusion of Hubard's kindlings, there is more earnest intent to Stephan Weitzel's drawings which frame visual correlations between the unique High Cross of the early mediaeval Irish Christian church, and later echoes of the plainly male solar symbol of the cross within the circle.  In one drawing, Weitzel points up the identical logo of the far-right Portugese movement, M.A.N. -  Movimento de Accao Nacional (more anecdotal information here from Vale) - and even a decorative swastika which Weitzel found worked into the mosaic of the floor of Cobh's (Catholic) Cathedral.

This echoes Weitzel's probing, almost accusatory concerns in a number of installations he has mounted in Berlin.  One was a public piece at the Brandenburg Gate; while, more intimately nearby, he indulged in a far more chilling treatment of the abandoned house of his paternal great-grandfather, which had fallen under the East German jurisdiction before the Wall came down.  With the shadow of Nazism over his family history - like that of many Germans - Weitzel, in his early 30s, is returning to gingerly circle the multiple lost ideals of the disappeared Vaterland.

But by far the most uncomfortable piece in the Echo show at Sirius is Weitzel's kneeling bench, which he made in wood after examining various Catholic and Protestant/Church of Ireland cathedrals and churches in Cork.  A coolly metaphoric sculpture, it expresses his revulsion at the call to abject worship - even in the printed words of the red kneeling cushions: "Kneel to Pray".  He clandestinely removed one such cushion from St. Finbarre's Cathedral (Church of Ireland), and replaced it with a cushion which reads: "Stand to Think".  When he next visited the cathedral, the cushion had been moved up to the front row, as though quietly promoted within the cathedral furniture and ritual.

His own kneeler, polished up with beeswax to give it a sharply churchy smell, features the "Kneel to Pray" cushion liberated from St. Finbarre's - alongside which, another one reads "Kneel to", and a third simply exhorts: "Kneel".  He has carved decorative motifs on the two end-posts of this bench, one resembling a stylised female breast; the other a phallic handle arcing up from the post.  Close to the latter, there is a padded nick in the top of the structure, as though providing a restful respite for somebody's chin - or maybe for something unspeakable.  Meanwhile, another rubber padded hole in the base of the piece resembles the mouth of a bucket, with its dangling iron handle.

This glowering piece was first conceived before Weitzel discovered, with some horror, the Irish phenomenon of the Magdalen Laundaries - those "charitable" institutions in which, in the past, single mothers were incarcerated as domestic slaves whose central function was to wash the soiled linen and cassocks of the Catholic bishops.  Weitzel was also taken aback at the audible, physical response of the Cork Film Festival audience to The Magdalen Sisters, the recent Irish film on the subject - let alone the film's parting message that the last Magdalen institution only closed in 1996.  It is rather an uncomfortable issue to impose upon St. Finbarre's Cathedral, the great, gargoyle-encrusted, old Protestant cathedral of Cork - but it is part of the unflinching, intuitively searching nature of Weitzel's work.

Finally, another piece of Weitzel's gawps melancholically out the Sirius window: a decaying foot-high model of the Statue of Liberty, cast in rotting Smash - instant mashed-potato powder - a sarcastic spin on the now heavily mythologised Irish Famine experience.  Looking for all the world like a crumbling, plaster Child of Prague in its cylindrical specimen jar, it holds its blurred little torch aloft over the view of the former emigration harbour; surrounded by a limp laurel wreath, sewn together from sacking cloth, on a violently sundered green half-table.

Astonishingly enough, the night before Weitzel politely offered some phonetically pronounced words as Gaeilge (in Irish Gaelic) to the opening night crowd at Sirius, he unveiled an even more impressive little installation in Dublin, in the German cultural Goethe Institute.  Called George in Paradise, this was, once again, a response to the historical context of the site - specifically, the Georgian architecture of Dublin’s 18th century Merrion Square.

Weitzel occupied the small “return” room in the back mezzanine at the top of the first flight of stairs, in a little space formerly used as an office; now reconsecrated as perhaps the smallest art space in Dublin.  Self-consciously theatrical, and interpreting the neo-classical architecture as a pompous set - a fake utopia of masonry imposed by the British colonists onto the reality of the Irish city - Weitzel needled under the skin of this pomp with a rather indeterminate funereal/erotic puzzle.

Weitzel painted the walls a deep, vivid blue, as though to suggest a late 18th century bedroom - except at the back of the room where, between two pillars, he created his own "wallpaper" pattern.  This, under a faded, pre-existing heraldic crest which read "Cor et Manus Concordant" (the heart and the hand acting as one) under the emblem of a floating, severed hand.  This is reminiscent of the Bloody Hand of Ulster - originally the emblem of O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone - but as often with art, one never can tell with heraldry.

Between the pillars, Weitzel's "wallpaper" was made using purpose-carved stamps of repeated graphic motifs - most centrally, that of a four-poster bed, like an erotic gallows.  Two other stamps, used more flexibly, depicted a fashionable, chocolate-box man and woman figure of the time - little symbols he then used in various permutations around the four-poster: here, a man and a women; there two men; here three men and two women, etc - in a quietly decorous suggestion of Sadean, orgiastic abandon.

On the floor, laid out as though in death - or like some museum presentation of an archaeological excavation - a disembodied 18th century suit-coat lay flat and empty.  In contrast to its fine gilded fabric and needlework - not to mention its three buttons of blown eggshells (suggesting emptied-out fertility) - the inner lining was of rough, hessian cloth, as though to reflect the interior reality of the Irish colony.

Below the coat on the floor was a pair of bricks, onto which Weitzel had affixed some satin to suggest a pair of tiny oriental slippers - really, outlandish clogs of masonry.  Nearby, on the wall, hung a curtain tie-back like a white periwig; as much like a noose as a fashionable hairpiece - another perverse accoutrement, suggesting a kind of precious necromancy.

Outside, through the barred windows, an apparent deathmask was mounted on a whitewashed wall, suggesting ritual dismemberment as much as the evaporation of a soul.  In a little photocopied text,  Weitzel talked of an implied "thinking body" - as well as an attempt "to trace the physical outcome of a mental state which historic processes have generated".

These sacrificial leavings of a foppish king - this discarded husk like a preposterous relic - seems to have less to do with a fairytale prince than the idea of a king's corpse as espoused by the English playwright Howard Barker - as something invested with a symbolic, morbid, even diabolically erotic essence.  Reminiscent of the perverse, godless embalming of Lenin's corpse, it throws us back to the regular, ritual disembowelments of dead European royalty down the centuries - their various organs bottled and shared out between royal family vaults across the wider European continent.

With the two arms of Weitzel's floorbound jacket joined together like those of a straitjacket, the clear reference here is to the historic George III - another "mad" king whose dementia has now being posthumously diagnosed as porphyria; a haemoglobin-metabolism dysfunction which periodically produces "madness".

This obviously presented George III's courtiers with a dangerous problem - the symbolic dissolution of the monarchy - during a reign which had already provoked the violent loss of the North American colony. Despite George III's dementia, his long rule (1760-1811) also saw him preside over the Rebellion of 1798 in Ireland, and its awesomely brutal suppression.  In 1811, after George III famously addressed his court - in full robes, sceptre and ermine - rather beatifically as "My Lords and Peacocks", he was finally forced to yield the Regency to his son, George IV who, despite his early radicalism and effusive welcome to Ireland in 1821, had to be dragged screaming - through an immense political crisis - to accept the Catholic Relief Bill in Ireland in 1829.  Meanwhile his father, George III, died - aged 88 - blind, deaf and quite mad - at Windsor Castle in 1820.  He was survived by his wife, former Queen Sophie Charlotte, and their 15 children.

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