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'As the year progresses, you'll adapt' A performance artist's letter to her pre-pandemic self

Áine Phillips reflects on how the pandemic has impacted the art world and the importance of taking time to slow down.

This has been a year like no other in living memory. As 2020 draws to a close, we are asking people from around Ireland to write a letter to the person they were 12 months ago. Today, we hear from performance artist Áine Phillips, who also teaches in the Burren College of Art.

Dear past me, 

This has been an extraordinary year.

In some ways, you will be glad to have lived through this time because of how interesting and unusual it has been. You will feel that you will be able to draw on it in your art, which you have always tried to relate to political and social issues the world faces. 

However, you will find the year very difficult at times. With no global pandemic precedent, you will be bewildered by it initially. You’ll wish you had known at the start of the year that adjusting to this unparalleled event would be so emotionally turbulent. 

On a practical level, bring your summer clothes down to Galway sooner, or you’ll be stranded in the west during a first unsettling lockdown for months with all your summer clothes stashed in Dublin.

There will be a total cancellation of live events. You’ll have students preparing performances and shows, and all of them will be cancelled. You will feel abjectly sorry for everyone across the world who had been working hard on critical projects that will be suddenly wiped out.

Your own performances and shows will be cancelled. For the first time in your professional life of 30+ years, there will be no theatre, music or art to be made or had anywhere. This will be very disconcerting.

On a personal level, you’ll initially panic at the imminence of loneliness – which passes. You’ll have a huge sense of loss – which passes. But you will miss your Dublin family and your mother with dementia in a nursing home who will feel she has been utterly abandoned by her family. She won’t understand the context and will suffer terribly as a result. This will be a bad time for elderly people like your mother. 

What will help you stay resilient? Writing, planning some future art projects, nesting and cooking. Daily walking, seeing your partner and one of your daughters regularly, and the other daughter only in rare, exquisite moments. 

You will have had a strong sense that the whole globe is in this together. We will all be experiencing the same thing simultaneously. We are one world, one herd. You had never thought of humans as a herd before and that makes you think of us as just another species, similar and connected to the earth we all share. 

Wearing a mask, you will realise that sometimes it is quite nice to be anonymous. In class, you will grapple with the muffling effects of the mask and shout louder to be heard, ending the day hoarse and frazzled. Usefully, the mask also hides an involuntary yawn or a “resting confused face”. You will learn that you love gazing into people’s eyes when you can’t see the whole face. It is bonding. 

As the year progresses, you will adapt. You will complete a co-edited volume on interdisciplinary performance in Ireland for UK publisher Intellect’s Scene Journal; a mammoth task that might not have come to fruition if the pandemic had not happened. It will be a strange serendipity. Working online with your co-editors Siobhan O’Gorman and Marie Kelly will be a joy.  

With a sense of relief that art had not disappeared forever, you will make a live performance in a Galway shop front window. It is for Home Truths, a timely exhibition that focuses on the testimonies of women who had endured domestic violence and the Irish Legal system. The pandemic will not be the only story to shake Ireland this year.  

Other highlights will be the rare days you have both of your daughters with you. Your infrequent meetings will be ecstatic and momentous, suffused with the aura of a final encounter. When you are allowed a brief bedside visit with your mother in August, you will be in full PPE, so she won’t have a clue who you are. You will have some reassuring words and hold hands through a latex glove.

You will realise that teaching is bodily: being present and physical in the same space and looking at each other in the eye.

Learning and teaching happens in a space that is real and we communicate through our body language, behaviour and visual expressions as well as the words we speak. Online teaching will be useful but is no substitute.

You will slow down. You will stop all your eternal travels to shows, conferences, festivals, screenings. You will like being at home in Galway where you live in a busy, diverse, urban neighbourhood. When restrictions ease, you will also have the use of your partner Ger Sweeney’s place in Westport on Clew Bay, which will be blissful.

You will see the most important parts of your life clearly: family and friends, including your Burren College of Art tribe, and the luck of living in the west of Ireland, one of the most beautiful places in the world. 

Going into 2021, you will be hopeful that we can find some new ways to help people with dementia in nursing homes to cope and endure this time with less suffering, and ways to support people in abusive relationships.  

You will be hopeful that artists and art events can prosper again. We all need art to create meaning out of our lives, to interpret life and transform it into new experiences about what it is to be human.

You have always seen art as helping to make sense of life, its struggles and complexities, and a pandemic cannot take that away. If anything, it has made it stronger.

Áine Phillips is a performance artist living in Galway who began her professional career in the late 80s. She teaches in the Burren College of Art, a small school in Ballyvaughan for international postgraduate art students.

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