The Regina Gouger Miller Gallery provided no explanatory text beyond artists' names and titles for Tides, an exhibition of work from Northern Ireland. So after walking all three floors, I knew there was only one thing to do: Find an Irishman.
Antoine Leyn, born in the Irish Republic in 1930, still has sisters there. He moved to Pittsburgh in 1960. I fetched him to become my walking text panel.
The show includes Aisling Beirn's "And Other Storeys." Miniature buildings scattered about the floor and perched on the wall are carefully crafted out of FedEx boxes and straight pins. On a wall-mounted screen, each is also rendered in line animation.
Antoine said, "Ah, the Marcello Towers. I know them. They're granite, about five feet thick. There's one where James Joyce lived in Sandy Cove. They aren't spacious; they were built to ward off pirates. I was looking to buy one once. There's a lot of them around the Irish coast." Bogside, Derry: "Derry. That's where the Irish insurgency started. Black Friday. Killed lots of Catholics. I don't know this tower, but the IRA blew up a tower in the center of Dublin: Nelson's Pillar. Bunch of assholes for blowing it up. They replaced it with a pointy steel thing. There's lots of jokes about it."
The Superdome, New Orleans; Isfahan, Iran's Tower of Silence; the Palestinian/Egyptian border airport tower in waiting. Antoine said, "It's about towers, isn't it? Maybe keeping some in and others out? Having different purposes: no more pirates in Ireland, bases without statues, that air tower without an airport ..."
In Michael Hogg's "Pivot," political posters stretched to jut from a stepladder read "Sinn Fein." They're cinched flat with plastic fasteners -- perhaps suggesting candidates bundled under one ideology. Antoine said, "Sinn Fein means 'us ourselves.' It was political with the IRA, a slogan of Irish Catholics."
In "Tessies," an installation by Seamus Harahan, we sat on kitchen chairs in a dark room with video images of working-class guys drinking and singing in a kitchen, projected on a screen. "Can you understand anything they're saying?" Antoine asked. I told him I couldn't, even though the singing booms moodily through the gallery. A handheld camera shudders in and out of focus on clasped hands, a belly, oily glasses of whiskey; pulls back to the Sacred Heart of Jesus above the doorway, a candle burning beneath. A handmade sign: Please use the ashtrays not the floor. "I can't tell when this is set, you know? But in the old days it was like this in Ireland," said Antoine. "Everyone would do his song -- even as kids. Now it's much different. Everyone is out to make money."
In Peter Richards' "Too Little Action," a sepia-toned negative image is broken into 3-by-8-foot photographs. An intriguing, disjointed scene that includes a rabbit-headed human, it's otherworldly but with a ceiling sprinkler-head visible. It's like an afterthought or a dream, we think. Antoine called the next day: "The older people tied together with rope? Maybe they're the people that have been pushed aside by the immigrants to Ireland? You know, they can't afford to move even though their house is now worth a lot of money. Maybe all they have is themselves? Maybe the black-looking lady walking away represents Irish prejudice? Maybe the priest is the church's influence, but it has become very secular now. The other people in the photo having a good time are the new generation."
"It seems to be coming back to the Irish troubles, doesn't it?" Antoine said as we left the gallery. "It was on the news every night there growing up. My mother was afraid I was going to meet the IRA and join up. But insurgents aren't that bright, you know. Always seemed kind of stupid to me."
I could tell Antoine felt he hadn't done his job. He said, "You sort of need the whole history of Ireland first, don't you?" Asked whether his insights would help City Paper readers understand the show, he said, "They're still not gonna be better off once you write about this, are they?"
Tides continues through March 30. Regina Gouger Miller Gallery, Carnegie Mellon campus, Oakland. 412-268-3618 or millergallery.cfa.cmu.edu