by EL Putnam
In a darkened room, gestural drawn interpretations of knitting patterns and wool intermingle with images of archetypal Aran jumpers and a nude male torso through overlaying slide projections. Sitting on a small bench that can only accommodate two people, I listen to a deeply intimate narration by the artist Pauline Cummins, as she shifts from innuendo to explicit sexual reference. Bodies are presented as incomplete forms, fleshed out in the viewer’s imagination, where a performance is manifest with the guidance of Cummins’ narration. This is Inis t’Oirr: Aran Dance, a multimedia work originally created in 1985 and was recently exhibited as part of the GAZE exhibition at the Irish Museum of Modern Art. Through this work, Cummins draws parallels from the knitting of Aran jumpers in the West of Ireland to the sexualised, nude male body, where the manipulation of yarn and the resulting patterns in the jumpers are influenced by the knitter’s desire; a knitter who is presented as a mother, as she creates for herself, her children, and her husband. These jumpers, historically created on the Aran Islands just to the west of the Irish coast, have come to symbolise traditional Irish culture through the burgeoning tourist market throughout the island, evoking qualities of rural quaintness. Cummins subverts this seemingly innocuous garment through her drawing together of the male body and landscape through knitting pattern. She “radicalises rather than rejects” this traditional craft and allusions to traditional Irish domestic femininity (Nash 1996, 161) using an interplay of lens-based imagery and the body through gesture. As such, there is a strong tactile quality to the work, as indicated through the textures of the jumper patterns, the hairy nude torso overlaid with images, as well as the gestural qualities of the drawn lines. Cummins’ language also emphasises the sense of touch. At one point she lists verbs that evoke haptic sexual acts: spreading, glistening, slipping, sliding, pushing out, deseminating, tipping the navel. Other descriptions evoke kinesthetic empathy, drawing attention to my embodied state:
The hidden male body, buried, suppressed.
Touch the hip, into the waist. Squeeze, Rub up.
The back. The spine bending, extending, joining the shoulder, broad, wide, thick.
Arms, hairy, sinuous, strength.
Thighs, joining, apart. And the butterfly motif (Cummins quoted in Nash 1996, 164)
Through this process, Cummins transforms the domestic craft of knitting, traditionally performed by Irish women–wives and mothers–into a sublimation of sexual desire. Catherine Nash emphasises the political and cultural context of this work, which was “was made and exhibited in the mid-1980s in Southern Ireland when women’ s reproductive rights were being debated and women were attempting to negotiate personal identity with traditional Catholic and nationalist ideas of Irish femininity” (1996, 153). In contrast to Catholic ideology that emphasises how sexual acts must be reproductive rather than erotic, Cummins undermines traditional presumptions of the Irish maternal as “represent[ing] Irish women as sexually active and desiring both now and in the past” (Nash 1996, 166).
When first witnessing this piece at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, I noted how the audio played through two sets of headphones. While the use of headphones is a common installation practice for works that include audio in order to reduce sound cross-over, their use in this context added to the intimacy of the piece. Sitting alone on the bench, I listen to Cummins describe the “hidden male body” of Aran jumpers, unleashing the suppression of desire through the repetitious act of looping yarn over needles over and over again, creating thick, woolly garments that embrace the wearer. As her language becomes increasingly sexual, I become aware of my physical presence in the room, observant of other gallery attendees who enter the space, but do not listen to the provided headphones and so are unaware of Cummin’s narration, thereby increasing the intimate exchange that the work encompasses. I was grateful that for the most part that I witnessed this work in solitude and without the awkward acknowledgment of simultaneous private, intimate moments that the work affords, cultivating a complex eroticism that continues to be poignant, even decades after the work was first created in the 1980s.
Inis t’Oirr: Aran Dance was included in Gaze, curated by Johanne Mullan, at the IMMA Freud Centre as part of the Freud Project from 04 Oct 2018–19 May 2019. This text is an excerpt from Dr. EL Putnam’s lecture response, “Haptic Gaze: Inviting Touch”, which took place at IMMA on 1 May 2019.
Nash, Catherine. 1996. “Reclaiming Vision: Looking at Landscape and the Body.” Gender, Place & Culture 3 (2): 149–70. https://doi.org/10.1080/09663699650021864.